Senior women lawyers across Asia describe their journeys to success and share words of wisdom for aspiring juniors in the profession. Vandana Chatlani reports

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omen in the legal profession and beyond are often asked about work-life balance, family matters and inequalities when exploring their paths to success. While these are crucial factors in the quest for true equality, we sought to create profiles beyond these parameters, viewing women as leaders, mentors and multidimensional individuals with rich life experiences. The objective was to understand what has inspired and shaped these lawyers, rather than focusing solely on what is intrinsic to their womanhood.

The result is colourful and controversial. The stories include a lawyer who was drawn to the profession after watching an American law school drama from the 1980s, another who handled an M&A negotiation where the all-male counterparty refused a handshake because she was female, and another who worked for a manipulative boss and was the first woman to negotiate her salary at her company.

The observations of these women discuss concrete policies that have helped destabilise unequal practices, offer advice to fledgling lawyers, and reflect on role models and mentors within and outside of the profession. They also share life advice and notes on the books, podcasts and films that have made an impression on them.

Unsurprisingly, there is a return to the problems of balancing career and home, preserving individual identity, and challenging cultural norms. The lawyers call for greater flexibility in working hours to minimise attrition. “This would reduce the pressure on female lawyers, at least in the first few years of motherhood, and help facilitate their transition to a full-time schedule,” says Hoang Nguyen Ha Quyen, a co-founder of and managing partner at LNT & Partners in Ho Chi Minh City. “It would also improve productivity and performance at work.”

Santhi Latha, dean of Rajah & Tann Asia Academy in Kuala Lumpur, shares a similar view. “It would be empowering to legal professionals, mothers and fathers, if there was an entrenched system of flexible work arrangements for those who need it,” she says. “This would allow a parent to negotiate their terms of engagement and not be limited to the ‘all or nothing’ perspectives that currently dominate.”

It is perhaps difficult to accept that these conversations are still necessary and relevant. The 2022 World Bank Women, Business and the Law Report, which examines the laws and regulations that affect women’s participation in the economy across 190 countries, highlights why.

The report assesses eight parameters: mobility, the workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets, and pension. It reveals that 178 countries still have laws that prevent women from participating fully in the economy. It also showed that only 31 out of 190 countries met all five parenthood criteria to obtain a score of 100. Part of the parenthood criteria includes paid leave for fathers. Countries in Asia that do not legally require such pay include Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

In most parts of Asia, women who work are still often expected to juggle the lion’s share, if not the entirety of responsibility for domestic, childcare and other familial duties. This is where legal, governmental and organisational restructuring could be valuable.

Only half of the countries surveyed in the World Bank report required equal pay for equal work. In Asia, the countries that do not mandate equal pay include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan and Singapore. The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam do have such laws in place.

Such statistics force critics to argue that little has changed beyond the surface-level pretence, rhetoric and tokenism around equality. Many organisations pride themselves on their inclusive policies, but when poor behaviour is not called out, and treatment is unfair and unequal in practice, then even the best policies become meaningless. Institutional change is fundamental to ensuring a level playing field for all professionals but this requires consistent top-down messaging, management engagement and introspection.

Rika Nakajima, associate general counsel and representative corporate executive officer at Oracle Japan, observes why diversity should be taken seriously. “I notice that in the boardroom, I can provide a perspective that others may not even consider,” she says. “They can pass racist and sexist remarks unconsciously, and I can pull them up on that. Diversity may lead to a clash of opinions, but we need that to ensure we have no blind spots. Minority voices should have the audacity to speak.”

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