Our collection of top women lawyers across Asia share their personal stories of success, strategy, struggle and loss, all towards a more inclusive legal profession. Putro Harnowo reports
The legal profession has long been subject to criticism for an entrenched “boys’ club” mentality, but recent moves from multinational firms such as Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in electing the first women lawyers in their ranks to lead their global operations is surely a sea change.
The question is, will any such progression globally signal the beginning of a broader leap forward within Asia’s complex legal and cultural ecosystems?
Many studies have found that gender and ethnic diversity are good for business and decision-making. McKinsey & Company, in a 2020 report titled Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, found that the top quarter of gender-diverse executive teams was 25% more likely to contribute above-average profitability than the least-diverse ones. Companies where more than 30% of their executives are women are more likely to outperform those with fewer women executives, or none at all. Many reports also note a slow improvement in the figures towards inclusivity.
Yet women remain underrepresented at the top of leadership. Although the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit a record of 37 last year, and that number continues to grow, it still only represents 7.4% of the businesses compiled annually by the magazine. In the Asian legal landscape, the gender disparity is no better.
“In Taiwan, women account for 45% of the population with postgraduate degrees,” says Jaclyn Tsai, co-founder of Lee Tsai & Partners in Taipei. “However, there is a difference between men and women in leadership and entrepreneurial positions. Managing partners and founders at law firms are still predominantly male, which is the same in other industries, where women account for just 8% of the CEOs in Taiwan.”
Still, as more women join the industry, Lorraine Lee, general counsel at health and security services firm International SOS in Singapore, believes gender equality is no longer a pipe dream. She started out without a female role model in her company, because there were none, and with male colleagues discouraging her career options. She succeeded and proved them wrong.
“We are definitely moving in the right direction towards gender parity, and having an equal number of male and female law graduates is a very good start, but it is just the beginning,” she says. “Achieving gender equality requires leadership in all parts of society and industry, from people like ourselves.”
Charmayne Ong, head of the intellectual property and technology, media and telecoms practices at Skrine in Kuala Lumpur, argues there will not be a quick fix for gender disparity, but the progress taking place cannot be ignored.
“In my view, attitudes towards women in the legal industry have evolved significantly and discrimination, whether gender-related or otherwise, is generally not acceptable, at least in my workplace.”
She also admits that socio-economic mores and norms in Asia still play a substantial role in creating even more expectations on women’s role as “superwomen”.