Senior women lawyers from China and the wider Asia region share personal stories of challenges and successes. Frankie Wang and Vandana Chatlani report

The Chinese saying goes, “women hold up half the sky”. But female lawyers in China and other countries in Asia have perhaps even broader shoulders. Although the concept of gender parity is now a common aspiration, female professionals still routinely need to achieve more than their male counterparts for the same career advancements, not to mention the well-worn Asian tradition that females should shoulder more of the family responsibilities at home. In this article, we compile life stories from 10 Asian female legal elites, warriors in their way – women who hold up more than half the sky.


Don’t box yourself in

The evolution from media editor to infrastructure and energy specialist proves this lawyer’s philosophy

“Generally speaking, the law business is a male-dominated industry. In the infrastructure construction and energy fields in which I am involved, female lawyers are even scarcer. In competition, female lawyers are at a natural disadvantage, particularly when you still haven’t made your name in the industry.

Wang Jihong
Zhong Lun Law Firm

To my mind, however, there is a new trend in China, and that is that the number of female lawyers who can make partner is increasing. There are quite a few women in my team. Notwithstanding the fact that when recruiting we may be looking for a man – because it is more convenient for them to travel on business, among other reasons – we nevertheless often find that after the interview, the women are superior. It should be said that the quality of Chinese women is getting higher and higher, and our room for growth is also expanding more and more.

After graduating from the China University of Political Science and Law in 1990, fate took me to the Legal Daily, where I served as editor for 10 years. Although technically I fell within the circle of Chinese lawyers at the time, I always felt that I was at the outer edge. Having studied law for four years, I was not really practising law, leaving me with a strong feeling of regret.

When I was 32, I met Tao Jingzhou, who was then chief representative in the Beijing office of Coudert Brothers, at an annual lawyers’ conference. My media background piqued his interest, and with his persuasion I became the first person to resign from the Legal Daily. But on my first day at work, I was taken aback: Looking around, I saw that, aside from Mr Tao, his secretary and a few senior lawyers, I was the oldest one there, immediately stressing me out.

At the time, I was responsible for the firm’s marketing and media co-ordination, a different start from most people who begin as paralegals. In fact, this role gave me the opportunity to see from different perspectives how a foreign law firm goes about promoting its business, and how it develops and retains clients. The reverence and devotion of a foreign law firm for, and to, its clients and business, and its team spirit, have had a huge influence on my subsequent professional life.

In 2002, City Development Law Firm was opening an office in Beijing, and I left Coudert Brothers to take charge of the planning and preparation. At the time, City Development was the first professional law firm in China specializing in construction projects and real estate, and when I first joined I didn’t even know who Party A and Party B to a project contract were – I was a complete outsider.

During the first two or three years after joining the Chinese law firm, I hardly ever had a chance to rest on weekends, spending all of that time taking various classes. But it didn’t feel hard, rather I felt very fulfilled. Subsequently, I was fortunate to be selected for such projects as the National Museum of China’s renovation and expansion project, CCTV’s new site construction project, etc., thus establishing an unbreakable bond with the construction field. And I have been doing this now for close to 20 years. As the market has changed, my work has also gradually migrated from the Party Bs to construction projects to the Party As, and with this as a starting point, I gradually entered into such fields as real estate, infrastructure, energy, environmental protection and the Belt and Road.

In terms of work and life balance, I have to thank my family. Both my husband and daughter have been very supportive. My husband also studied law and has always supported my work all these long years. I followed the typical ‘early marriage, early childbirth’ path, which means that when I had to put in all that effort at 30, 40, my daughter was already quite grown up. This is perhaps one of the ways in which I have been quite lucky.

One client once told me that, ‘When you work, we don’t see you as a woman.’ Some male friends have also said that seeing the amount of work that I do every day, they feel that they couldn’t take it. However, after all of these years, I seem to have got used to it, and don’t really feel it as being difficult. Perhaps it’s because I still really love this job. I am convinced that in this legal profession, women can do as well as men. If you work hard and are sufficiently diligent, there is no reason why you can’t do even better than the men.

Eighty-five percent of my clients come from state-owned enterprises and enterprises under the central government. Except when I’m on a plane, my phone is on, waiting for client requests essentially 24 hours per day. In such a high-pressure working situation, I am also trying to take it a little easier. For example, there is a female partner dance troupe at Zhong Lun Law Firm, and a teacher was hired from a dance school to give lessons. Now, almost every week, we get together to dance, letting the music waft over us to relax. After all, humans are not machines, and even machines have some downtime. Work is important, but it is not the be all and end all of life.

My advice to young female lawyers: As China is currently undergoing a period of rapid growth, continuous study is a must; furthermore, at the start, a young lawyer shouldn’t box herself into a specialty, but should instead lay a good foundation in all aspects, and eventually she will find that she is comfortable and adept in many fields. The legal knowledge island of a mature, outstanding lawyer is extensive and well stocked.”


Be a visionary

Set goals and endeavour to reach them

Susan Ning joined King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) in 1995 and is now head of the compliance division I was assigned to a team in charge of finance business at Global Law Office after graduating from university in 1988. At that time, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with Gao Sunlai, a prestigious lawyer practising financial law, from whom I got a lot of insights and valuable advice.”

Susan Ning
King & Wood Mallesons

Even though she left the field of financial law a long time ago, Ning says her work experience enabled her to develop a rigorous and even harsh attitude towards business.

After returning from studying abroad in 1995, Ning engaged in international trade and investment law business. In 2002, she became the chief Chinese legal counsel for the Beijing Organizing Committee of Olympic Games (BOCOG). This experience left a deep impression on her because the project lasted for seven years, generated nearly 20,000 paid hours and involved more than 10,000 contracts.

The BOCOG issued a public announcement to recruit an institution to provide legal counselling, and 53 law firms submitted project proposals. But Ning was confident that her team would stand out among the candidates.

“We were selected because I earned it. The moment I made clear the need of the BOCOG, I started to think about what I should do. To be honest, I was not familiar with that field. After doing some research, I told them: ‘I don’t know much about this field, but I’ve done lots of relevant study that may come in handy. Let me see how I can help.’ In fact, I had volunteered to offer free advice for the BOCOG for eight months, even before they released the open recruitment announcement. Eight months later, I had a deep understanding of the project and the BOCOG had already adopted some of my advice. How could other firms compete with us?

“I didn’t feel very tired because I was the first to do the job. It’s like running a race. When I see the chance, I run first. You won’t get tired when you are the first runner and everybody else is still waiting to start.”

When it comes to climbing the career ladder, Ning never fears being surpassed by younger generations. As she puts it: “I’ve trained many lawyers who later became partners at KWM. I’ve always encouraged them to outperform me in their specialized fields.”

After the implementation of the Anti-Monopoly Law in 2008, Ning put all her effort towards business relating to anti-monopoly investigations and litigation. When the Cybersecurity Law took effect in 2016, she dedicated herself to business relating to data, privacy protection and cybersecurity. She adhered to the forerunner spirit demonstrated in the Olympics project when conducting new businesses, and thus became the first lawyer at KWM, and also one of the first in China legal circles, to engage in these new businesses.

“Always be curious, always pursue freedom. Be free to think and do, and make it. This process is so enjoyable.”

Ning says women tend to be more meticulous in their work, and are more patient in communications. In her view, these qualities give women a unique advantage as a lawyer. She says KWM has always welcomed and encouraged women to be lawyers. In 2019, the firm published a list of its 28 new partners and more than half were females.

When it comes to balancing work and family, Ning agrees that traditional family values, prevailing law practices and the social security system impose some restrictions for a woman wanting to become a lawyer.

“For instance, the legal pregnancy leave, maternity leave and marriage leave of women should be better protected. So should women’s property rights under the Marriage Law as well as their rights to receive support. In these aspects, only after we have relevant legislation can we cultivate people’s minds through continued re-enforcement, which later becomes a habit and something that people do out of respect.”

Ning encourages female lawyers to pursue their own careers, make full use of available resources, adjust flexibly, and ask for help when appropriate. “Just like all problems in life, the paradox between limited time and energy and the unlimited pursuit of a good career and a happy family will always be there. So why not be a visionary? Just set a goal and endeavour to reach it.

“If you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know how strong you really are.”


Ask yourself: Am I on track?

Advance bravely without fear of being wrong

Five years ago, Xiao Jingyi founded Shenzhen Benchmark Chambers International (BCI) and acts as executive president on its council. BCI is China’s first foreign law ascertainment institution, and cross-border legal thinktank. Xiao’s career path is closely connectedly with Shenzhen, a city at the forefront of reform and the opening-up of China.

Xiao Jingyi
Executive President
Council of Benchmark Chambers International

Xiao studied law to follow in the footsteps of her father, a former Supreme People’s Court judge. After graduating from Renmin University of China in 1995, Xiao chose a journey different from her classmates, and outside of her parents’ expectations, leaving Beijing for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone to learn and experience something different.

“I remember the day I was leaving Beijing to go to Shenzhen. I left in a hurry without even looking back, leaving my parents behind me waving at me to say goodbye. My parents have joked about this a lot, saying that I do things abruptly and that I often lack emotional intelligence.”

After graduation, Xiao was assigned to the second economic court of Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court, the first foreign-related economic trial court in China. Since 2001, Shenzhen Intermediate Court has co-started a course with the University of Hong Kong (HKU), called Master of Common Law, to train judges with international visions. Through the selection examinations at HKU, Xiao became one of the first students to study the course. She says that this experience was closely related to the later development of BCI.

“Because of the experience I gained at the court involving foreign-related adjudication, I can understand the difficulties in discerning foreign laws, and I deeply feel there is a need for a special platform of ascertainment of law. Among the five founders of BCI, three of us were classmates at the HKU.”

BCI, as a non-profit, non-enterprise organization governed by Shenzhen Municipal Justice Bureau, was not widely understood when it was first founded. “At the time the platform was just founded, when I mentioned ‘law discerning’ to people, there were usually two reactions. One was: ‘What? Law discerning?’ They looked very confused, with no idea what I was talking about. The other one was: ‘Wow, that sounds fancy’, then they reacted as if it was a fairy tale.”

With the publicity and efforts of Xiao and her team, BCI has made many new accomplishments, including the forthcoming database of collated and translated legal information of 64 countries located along the “Belt and Road”.

Xiao says her father was a great influence on her legal career. “My father always jokes that he is an old man obsessed with law. My father has influenced me profoundly in terms of how to handle things, and how to be a person. He can always give me wisdom and courage.”

Apart from her family, Xiao says that her friend, Li Zhuoying, also influenced her deeply. “Zhuoying and I started working in the court in the same year. We went to HKU for further studies together and founded BCI together later on. The most fortunate thing in life is no more than building a favoured career with someone you like.”

For young females in the legal field, Xiao says they should not define themselves with the profession, or gender, and should not fear being wrong. “Our traditional education makes us fear to be wrong, causing us to be unconfident when facing new things. In BCI what we often do is a conducting review to see how the business or activity was accomplished, and what was not done well, so as to achieve continuous improvement.

“As a general direction, we need to do things in the same way. We need to often ask ourselves what we want to pursue, and whether we are on track to achieve that goal. We need to see if we are tracking positively or negatively. The ability to reflect critically is especially important for entrepreneurs.”


Rise to the challenges

Strike a work-life balance to succeed

Before joining Jingtian & Gongcheng, Elaine Lo was the first female senior partner of Mayer Brown JSM (now known as Mayer Brown), and remains the only woman to attain that level.

Elaine Lo
Founding & Senior Partner
Jingtian & Gongcheng‘s Hong Kong office

“I am lucky to have a very supportive family,” says Lo. “My husband believed in my abilities and always encouraged me to take on leadership positions. He was thrilled when I was elected the first woman senior partner of Johnson Stokes & Master (JSM) in 2007.

“My father did not initially appreciate the amount of responsibility that came with assuming the position of senior partner, and was subsequently surprised that there was only one senior partner in a Western-style Hong Kong law firm.”

Lo’s career started in the shipping and finance departments of JSM, in the early 1980s. “As a young lawyer, I was willing to challenge myself, take on assignments outside my comfort zone, and always eager to seize opportunities to improve my legal skills.”

Negotiating the merger between JSM and Mayer Brown was one of the most complex assignments Lo had handled in her career. She managed to conclude the terms of the combination within three months, transforming JSM into an international law firm in 2008.

Despite her own success and the progress of gender diversity in Hong Kong, Lo says a conservative male dominance prevails in this world city.

“The nomination committees of many Hong Kong-listed companies do not look outside their existing networks – the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality is quite prevalent in Hong Kong’s corporate culture,” she says. “There is a relatively high proportion of family-controlled, listed companies in Hong Kong, and family-controlled organizations tend to appoint directors from family networks and friends.”

According to the Hong Kong Law Society, as of 31 August 2019 about 49% of Hong Kong’s 10,370 practising solicitors were women, but women constitute just 28.8% of the total partner headcount at Hong Kong law firms.

“One significant challenge is … many law firm leaders are not even aware that they have an unconscious bias in favour of allocating more challenging work to male lawyers, giving male lawyers a higher performance rating in appraisals, and favouring male lawyers for partnership promotions; educating them on their unconscious bias is the very first step.

“Another big challenge is the demanding nature of a legal career that requires lawyers to be available for client work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These obstacles have proved formidable for many female lawyers, who are still expected to shoulder a bigger proportion of the obligations towards family care than their male counterparts.”

In her previous law firm, Lo led initiatives to create a working environment that is more conducive to retaining female talents.

“I was one of the first partners to permit female lawyers in my team to work part time, in the early 1990s. Family-friendly arrangements that were initiated by Mayer Brown included allowing women lawyers to take long periods of unpaid leave, and to work from home. Breastfeeding facilities were also provided in the office premises of Mayer Brown.”

Lo believes that it is critically important for a busy professional to spend time with her family whenever she can, and when she is not on business trips.

“When my children were in school, our favourite activity was to take long walks in the country parks during which we would discuss their favourite activities in school, any challenging class assignments they were undertaking at that time, and any other topics of interest to them. I find that close interaction with my husband and children provides significant relief from the pressures of a busy career.”


Be Brave Be Yourself

Persistence will lead you to your own path

“I‘m a typical Libra, good at dealing with people and co-ordinating work. As I gain more life experience, the responsibilities on my shoulders also grow heavier. Being efficient at work and ensuring its quality and timeliness once the plan is made is my personal motto, and that also applies to our team. I am not much bothered by gender issues. In my view, childbearing is the only thing that distinguishes a woman from a man. Except from that, both men and women are facing heavy pressure.

Any Liang
Legal Director
KEEP, Beijing

Admittedly, society often imposes certain prejudices on women. People tend to think that women are emotional, vulnerable, not good at handling pressure, cannot make good leaders, etc. As a result, it takes 150% to 200% of a man’s efforts for a woman to get the same opportunity.

My personality and my looks tend to break some traditional stereotypes, which did affect my work at an initial stage. When you try to find a job as a workplace newbie, it is difficult for an employer to evaluate your ability. Therefore, most people tend to judge a book by its cover. Particularly in the legal industry, where the majority of lawyers are conservative males, it is hard for them to accept difference. However, as you accumulate more work experience and become more professional in this industry, people start to pay less attention to how you look. Society will turn into a more inclusive one when you become more confident. What companies care about most is your competence and value, and this is especially true for internet technology companies.

My parents were strict with me since I was a little girl. When I was at the age of entering middle school, they sent me to a teenage military school to nurture my ability to be independent and get through hardship. Apart from the regular academic classes in ordinary middle schools, I had to take military training and even receive training in the army during winter and summer vacations. The teachers were so stringent that they would ask us to squat for a long time or run around a 400-metre playground at least 25 times in a row if we got a wrong answer to a problem, or failed to perform well in examinations.

In retrospect, on one hand, they cultivated the persistence in me, which is an important quality that helped me a lot in my overseas student and work life. On the other hand, however, this type of strict control made many of us too harsh on ourselves, which can lead to a lack of confidence.

Like many young people, I love to try different things. I once started an internet of things business with friends, operated a wedding dress shop in my spare time, and even tried to run a group purchase website. My experience in these businesses not only gave me a deeper understanding about the rules of the commercial world, but also made me realize who I really am and what I’m good at, which is legal work.

On the whole, emerging internet technology companies are filled with young people. Compared with these young employees, a 37-year-old like me may seem a bit old, especially at a point when I failed in starting my own business at the age of 30, and had to start over under heavy debt. I think what I need to do is to expend more effort and be practical to catch up with my peers.

KEEP is a company that I truly appreciate. With the corporate values being ‘integrity and gratefulness, efficiency and high quality, innovation and openness’, the company is filled with positive energy. Almost half of KEEP employees are women, and members of our legal team are all females. Maybe it is because few males major in law nowadays, and you may find even fewer males working as in-house counsel. Of course we tried to recruit more male employees to strike a gender balance, but I found that in most cases female professionals, especially those working moms, outperformed their male peers and were more hardworking.

The workplace doesn’t give working moms more tolerance or more time to recover. Working moms are real fighters! I really admire them and always give them as much support as I can, such as allowing them to work at home when their children get sick, reducing unnecessary work arrangements, and helping them enhance their professional skills so that they can stay competitive.

Looking back, I find all the work that I have done comes in handy. As an ad slogan goes, ‘There is no wasted step. Every step counts.’ If you find yourself ‘different’, then be brave enough to be the real you and make every effort to become a better version of yourself. Your persistence will lead you to find your own path.”


Applying best practice

How a supportive workplace makes partnership possible for new mothers

Fay Zhou worked at China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) for eight years and completed a stint at O’Melveny & Myers before moving to Linklaters in Beijing as a partner and head of its China competition practice.

Fay Zhou
Partner & head of China competition practice
Linklaters, Beijing

In Zhou’s view, women in China’s legal profession enjoy a fair degree of equal opportunities. “I wouldn’t say there’s no discrimination, but there isn’t much compared with what was said about Japan and Korea, for example, where there could be a glass ceiling and it’s still unusual to see women become managers or hold senior positions,” she says. “At least that’s the view among older generations in those countries. In China, there’s a general understanding that women should work and can move into senior positions.”

In all her roles, Zhou has faced little or no discrimination. “A lot of my clients are quite senior female lawyers in their organizations. Even in government, the relatively senior officials I dealt with were also female. At MOFCOM we had a lot of female colleagues and the deputy minister back then was also a woman supervising the enforcement of anti-monopoly and fair trade policies. Of course, it was still rare to see female managers; there were more men. But I was lucky to have the deputy minister as a role model.”

Linklaters offered Zhou a position with a partnership track on two occasions; once when she was pregnant, and the second time after the birth of her child. While the offer was tempting, Zhou toyed with the idea of going in-house with the knowledge that partnership would mean added responsibilities. Encouragement from Teresa Ma, a senior Chinese partner at the time, and reassurance that Zhou’s family could benefit from childcare, convinced Zhou to accept the position. “I wanted to show my baby girl how women could pursue successful careers, instead of having to give up on opportunities because of motherhood.”

Her own experience and Linklaters’ agile working policy has also benefited other new mothers who wish to return to work. “When I joined Linklaters, there were already two female partners, one of whom just had a daughter. I then had pregnant women in my own team, and I knew when they might need more time with family. I gave them recommendations about working from home and managing their time because I understood their predicament. More women in senior positions would definitely improve the situation.”

While attitudes at international law firms are changing, the experience of women at local law firms can be very different. “If we look at local firms, issues of flexible work arrangements and unequal pay may still exist in some of them,” says Zhou.

China’s cultural norms also still dictate that women must shoulder the burden of domestic responsibility in addition to work, admits Zhou. “The cultural perception of women and the view that they should assume more, or even full, family responsibility compared with men, is the biggest challenge in China.”

Sharing best practices could change this. “There was an initiative led by the British Embassy to promote the working status of women in China,” says Zhou. “Companies shared their experience of childcare support … so these initiatives really help. It’s not just about promoting equality but changing practice.”


Moulded by Matriarchy

How upbringing and environment can shift perceptions of gender norms

“I was recently invited at an Asia-Pacific lawyers’ network meeting to lead two sessions on diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias in our legal profession. The next day, I was asked to lead a discussion about equality for women in law firms.

Arfidea Saraswati
Founding partner
Akset Law, Jakarta

It took me a few days to accept those offers because, I wondered, why are we talking about this? Don’t we naturally do this? I’m here and we have so many female legal professionals in Indonesia. Women have built some of the country’s biggest corporate law firms and they’re still very influential today. I was confused. What would I say at these sessions?

I grew up in West Sumatra, with a different background and upbringing to women from other parts of Indonesia. Somehow women there are more outspoken and expressive; we’re so different from Java, where women can be self-restrained, very quiet and submissive. Only three hours from our hometown in Jakarta, there are still places where girls are unable to study, and forced to get married at 13.

I come from a matriarchal family, where the women rock in our society. Since I was little, in April each year, we would celebrate Raden Adjeng Kartini, the emancipation figure in Indonesia for feminists from the 1900s. Again, I used to think, what’s the big deal? I was very lucky to have been raised in this way.

Most of my best friends are very strong, forthright women. Like them, I never felt disadvantaged in my career. I’ve always worked in traditionally male-dominated sectors, handling energy, resources, mining and infrastructure transactions. It was common for me to be the only female in the room, surrounded by men who were my father’s age.

At times I felt a lack of confidence, more because of my age, but never because of my gender. It doesn’t help to look young. Sometimes I felt the need to casually say, ‘In the last 23 years of my practice …’ just to remind them of my credibility and qualifications.

It’s not that there have never been any problems. When I was much younger, I did experience attempts of sexual harassment when a client, counterparty, or even a government officer would ask for my mobile number, inquire whether I was busy on Saturday night, invite me to have dinner alone, or to meet at their hotel.

When you’re in the first year of your practice and someone asks you such questions, you don’t immediately recognize what is happening. You wonder if this is part of client-building and maintenance. Of course, after talking to your seniors, you realize this is inappropriate and learn how to manage such situations.

I realized early on that the sense of empowerment I enjoyed was not necessarily the norm. During meetings, I wondered why women held back. If given an opportunity to speak, why weren’t the women speaking? I saw the same thing over and over again for years. My friends and I always seemed loud and opinionated in comparison.

I don’t think ours was the only brand of leadership. Some of my friends with a quieter character have also become successful seniors. However, at our firm, we encourage everyone to be expressive, share their thoughts and compete in a positive way. If you’re subdued, you may lose out on opportunities for growth and success. But if you’re ambitious and want to go the extra mile, you’ll reach your goals.”


One region, different realities

Tackling unconscious bias should be a major priority to improve gender equality and diversity across Asia

Hanim Hamzah has worked for 22 years across Asia in Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore.

“I think Asia is very lucky to have a high participation of female lawyers in the legal profession,” says Hamzah. “If you consider the 10 ASEAN countries, the more developed economies – Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore – are ahead in terms of combating gender imbalances, while in the five emerging economies – Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei – there’s still a big gap in the participation of women in business, professional and legal services. A lot more work needs to be done.”

Hanim Hamzah
Regional managing partner
Zico Law, Singapore (ASEAN)

As a result of these differences, Zico’s diversity initiative has several prongs, “because you can’t apply one strategy across offices,” says Hamzah. “Some will need more talks, training and capacity-building than others.”

Among Zico’s legal staff, 57% of partners are female, and the legal network has also launched a “She Advocates” campaign.

“Some of the partners were reluctant to embrace it at first, asking why we need such an initiative, because we already have a lot of female representation,” says Hamzah. “We even have legislation. For example, in Indonesia, women must make up 20% of publicly listed boards, and in Singapore 30% representation is mandated.

“But in my view, if it was about merit, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation. There is a patriarchal society of men sponsoring men to get ahead, and we need to address this.”

In Hamzah’s experience, male dominance still exists even in more advanced economies, particularly in countries such as Japan and Indonesia. “Indonesia is very patriarchal, and there are still a lot of issues. Men are often key decision makers because of traditions associated with Islamic practice.”

Hamzah provides an example of how partners handle a due diligence to be conducted on the outskirts of Jakarta, or on another island. “Immediately, they will discount all female lawyers and assign the job to a man because of safety issues, or assumptions about travelling alone,” she says. “Women need to be given the opportunity to accept or reject a task. You can’t just assume it fits a particular gender. She Advocates creates awareness about these issues, discussing unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, work-life integration, and how to share best practices.”

Such biases are also prevalent in Japan. “Definitely Japan has a long way to go,” says Hamzah.

“As a woman, you are not always invited to meetings, you are expected to pour the tea … all of that is unconscious, or maybe even conscious, bias.” She says everyone should take an unconscious bias test. “We always think we’re fine, we’re not biased at all, but then you’d be surprised. Taking the test gives you a chance to reflect and do better.”

Realization of these biases is crucial for managers at law firms. During an annual appraisal process, Hamzah noticed marked differences in behaviour between male and female partners. “The woman partner would come in and say, ‘Thanks, it’s been a great year’, etc. The male partner would come in with an Excel sheet stating, ‘This is how much I billed, this is how much of a bonus I’m entitled to get’. They really fight for their own.

“It’s essential to educate partners on appraising junior lawyers so they award fair compensation, rather than being swayed by a very aggressive male lawyer who insists on a 20% increase, versus a female lawyer who is equally deserving, but may not push for appropriate recognition. We coach both the appraiser and the appraisee, so everyone knows the KPIs are not based just on financial billings and collections, but also on holistic performance measures.”


Stepping out of your comfort zone

Women must take a leap of faith to seize leadership opportunities and rally against traditional cultural codes

“Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve found it difficult to watch women being treated in an inferior or unequal manner. From then on, I have been passionate about fighting against gender discrimination.

When I became a lawyer 20 years ago, I was one among only 12% of women. Today in Japan, 20% of lawyers are women and in-house, women make up 40% of lawyers.

Miki Sakakibara
Japan In-House Lawyers Association

In the US, I’ve heard that clients are demanding law firm diversity, not just in terms of more women, but more representation from other minorities such as the LGBT community. It would be ideal if clients in Japan demanded the same, but they themselves have not diversified yet, so they can’t expect others to do so. First, we have to change our companies from the inside.

Fortunately, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ campaign is geared towards seeing women fill 30% of leadership positions by 2020. As a result, you find many high-ranking women in government these days. Private entities, however, continue to lag behind.

Things are slowly changing because of corporate governance pressure. Many companies have decided to appoint outside directors and they tend to choose woman lawyers. That is progress, but one woman out of 15-20 board members is not enough.

Across Japanese companies and law firms, the situation is more or less the same. There are not enough women. Foreign companies and law firms are much further ahead.

Gender diversity is my first priority, but I believe you have to hold a position of power to make a bigger impact. Before I became president of JILA [Japan In-house Lawyers Association], women comprised only 10% of board members. Now, we have a total of 40% – an accomplishment of which I’m very proud. Each time I have a chance to visit the Bar Association, I remind them of JILA’s statistics so they feel pressured to follow our example.

There are other related issues such as the pay gap, but I think redressing the imbalance of men and women is of prime concern. If women make up at least 30%, it will strengthen our voices and give us real decision-making power.

Most women have domestic and childcare responsibilities, so they cannot commit the same amount of time to work as their male counterparts. They often have to leave the office earlier and this impacts the results they can deliver. As long as law firms continue to use billable hours, women will struggle and are unlikely to become partners. This challenge is not confined to the legal profession.

Our cultural values also create barriers for women. Girls are generally raised to be quiet, step down and have fewer experiences with regard to leadership and speaking up, even within the family. So it starts from a really early age. We are trained that way. Men and boys have been raised differently. Even at kindergarten and in elementary schools, teachers expect boys to assume leadership roles, or be head of the class. As a woman, you don’t get that practice.

Recently, I was elected as an independent director of a company, and that was good news, but I felt I hadn’t been trained for that role. I accepted the position because I knew it was a good opportunity. I advise young JILA members, especially young women lawyers, to speak up and seize opportunities, even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to be assertive and confident.

If you’re a young woman lawyer at a company, you could feel isolated in an environment dominated by men. However, at JILA, women can participate in our diversity group, giving them a chance to interact with and emulate different role models.

Women lawyers sitting on JILA’s board can become high-level decision makers even if they don’t yet hold those positions at their companies. They can use JILA as a platform to advance and get training. It’s only one organization, but it can help many.”


A greater purpose

Women continue to be present in higher ranks of the legal profession across the Philippines

“I have been asked many times how I broke the glass ceiling in the legal profession to get to where I am today. My answer was, ‘There was no glass ceiling to break. And if there was, I would have broken it fiercely so that other women behind me could rise up easily.’

Thinking about it now, maybe there was a ceiling, but I was working too hard to even notice it. And perhaps, unconsciously, I did break a big hole in it.

Benedicta Du-Baladad
Founding partner and CEO
BDB Law, Manila

Men used to dominate the legal profession in the Philippines. But this is no longer the case thanks to the men who themselves opened the door to welcome, nurture and encourage women to become equal partners in the profession.

Today, women are on par with men. Women lawyers continue to win important roles including top posts in government, such as the speakership in congress and the chief justice of the highest court. Men applaud these achievements and willingly acknowledge the potential of their female counterparts.

In my case I had fears, too, when I started practising. But I saw an opportunity, a door that men hate to enter, a practice of law that requires an appreciation of detail and good analytical skills in numbers. The practice of tax law.

I used my expertise as an accountant, auditor and a former official of the tax authority as a springboard. I concentrated on mastering this field and participated in thought leadership on controversial and important issues that could have a bearing on the resolution of a tax issue, shape the tax practice, or lead to the adoption of changes in tax policies.

I did this consistently and passionately. Admittedly, it took a lot of hard work, determination, strength, smartness and focus until I was eventually noticed.

I speak, teach and write about taxation. Taxation is what kept me awake at night and alive by day. I burned the midnight oil most nights and was grateful to earn accolades such as ‘tax expert’ and ‘tax guru’.

I then realized I had a bigger role to play in society. While it is true that tax law is my bread and butter, I knew that I had to elevate it to a higher plane where money became secondary to a bigger undertaking; something that was nationalistic, something patriotic: inclusive taxation.

I pray for a tax system that serves as a catalyst for inclusive growth, one that reduces, rather than widens the gap between rich and poor; one that propels rather than stifles the growth of the economy; one that is simple, equitable and fair.

This is what I have been pushing for over the past five years. It is something I will continue to do with greater intensity as I feel the urgency and hear the call of the times.”