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OPINION, Dec 13 — In 2014, the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) conducted a survey in collaboration with Human Rights Commission, Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) : “51 per cent! Is it a Level Playing Field?”
Fifty-one per cent of the Malaysian Bar are women. Wonderful. But like the international corporate environment, women tend to languish at the bottom. Sixty-eight per cent of legal assistants, i.e. the bottom rung of the Bar are women. How many stay on long enough to become partners? Forty-two per cent. Only 25 per cent of consultants (experienced lawyers or judges) are women.
Is there a glass ceiling in the profession which has sworn to uphold equality and fairness?
The French Bar lost out when IMF head Christine Lagarde was told by the French firm she worked for she would never make partner because she was a woman. So she left and ultimately became Chairperson of one of the largest law firms, Baker McKenzie. You know what happened next.
Could we be losing our stars as well?
From 2003 to 2013, only 17 per cent of the Bar Council Exco were women. Nineteen per cent of the KL Bar Committee were women for the same period (I served on the committee just before leaving practice in 2003) while the Selangor Bar Exco fared slightly better at 35 per cent. Neither state Bars have had a woman as president, while only two out of 27 the Bar Council chairmen were women, the latest, of course, being Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Lower pay than men
Why are women not rising in the profession? Could it be the fact that at entry level 80 per cent of women earn under RM35,000 a year compared to 60 per cent of men? At the higher salary levels, the genders balance out but it is not clear whether both genders took the same amount of time to hit, say RM200,000.
Few women mentors
Perhaps because there are not as many senior women lawyers, there are fewer women mentors available – 65 per cent mentors for both genders are solely men. My primary mentors have been men. Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In stressed the importance of mentors and sponsors in getting ahead. If the women merely work hard but have no one to highlight how well they are doing to the decision makers, they will stay hidden behind their piles of documents.
Two years back, my department brought in two secondees from law firms for a six month stint. We were quite overworked. They were both from typical good, solid firms where they were confined to do certain work only and exposed to clients gradually. We exposed them from day one. I felt proud watching their confidence grow as they realised my colleagues, mainly men much older than them, took their advice seriously. Both firms were pleasantly surprised when these two women returned, more confident and assertive.
Many firms do not stimulate their intelligent young lawyers enough. Some time back, I spoke to one of my lawyer coachees. She was happy at last that her partner was giving her trust with more independent work. “I have waited so long,” she said. “Did you ask him earlier?” I asked.
She was stumped. That had never crossed her mind. I reminded her – bosses rarely have time to think about how to develop their people. If you tell him what you want, he will remember the next time and give it to you.
Practice and family
Women lawyers have confessed in the AWL survey that having children had a high impact on their careers (41 per cent) compared to 23 per cent of men. Interestingly, a third of the married male lawyers in the survey were married to homemakers compared to 93 per cent of the married women respondents whose spouses worked full time. A number of the well-known men lawyers were also married to homemakers. A simple question such as, “when your child is sick, who takes time off?” invariably led to, “their mother”.
So, for a profession that stresses equality, such equality stops short of the house front gate.
It is hardly surprising then that six out of 11 respondents who felt they were bypassed for promotion, felt that it was due to their need to attend to their families.
Of course sexual harassment exists
Now let’s come to the “sexiest” part of this survey. Thirty-one per cent of the respondents indicated that they had been sexually propositioned, faced gender issues or gender discrimination at the workplace. This included suggestive remarks (verbal harassment) such as comments on physical body parts, being called “darling” or “baby” in a professional setting, dirty jokes and offensive language such as “screw” in their presence.
Some shared incidents of clients trying to physically take advantage, inappropriate touching such as holding of hands, sitting on their lap and attempted kissing. Then there was the suggestive invitations when clients would ask them out on the pretext of discussing work, they were asked to stay late by senior colleagues, offered to go on a fully paid holiday with a client, and so on.
I have experienced all three while in practice and either got my senior male partner to intervene or confided in a female colleague. I did not know that I could really do anything about it. At the time there was no mechanism for sexual harassment.
Now both the Malaysian Bar and KL Bar Committees have policies on sexual harassment and reporting mechanisms. The KL Bar has adopted the Ministry of Human Resource’s Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (“the Code”) and has conducted awareness. However, law firms are merely “urged to take the initiative” rather than being compelled to. This is interesting given that the Employment Act now requires action against sexual harassment in the workplace. But only employees are covered and partners and clients are not employees. Lawyers who have experienced sexual harassment can report straight to the Bar Committees.
Gender bias in a profession of fairness?
The survey found that bias behaviour in favour of males in the legal profession exists. Examples are more work opportunities, bigger cases and more files given by bosses to men. Reasons given were “clients prefer male lawyers”, “male lawyers are more confident and aggressive”, “female lawyers are incapable and carry lower levels of trust” and male lawyers can network better as they can “drink and socialise more freely”. There was some bias seen against men as women were regarded by bosses as more meticulous and had more flexibility at work.
If you were to read any literature on gender bias at work, this is not unique to the Malaysian legal profession. These comments are found worldwide and in a number of industries. What it demonstrates is that Malaysian women lawyers face the same bias that women do the world over. Similar reasons are given as to why only 7 per cent women are on Malaysian PLC Boards. One PLC Chairman was quoted as saying, “where to find women? They don’t play golf or sing karaoke.”
Slowly but surely we need to change the old boys club domination on all professions.
The survey quotes a woman lawyer: “Female lawyers who took a few months of maternity leave did not obtain the same remuneration as their male counterparts, such as not getting a bonus or increment, even though they had worked productively throughout the months when they were not on leave”.
The long hours and being on call for clients can drive a woman with young kids insane. Trying to balance both to perfection is impossible and the women feel inadequate. Like me, many women leave practice upon starting a family.
The survey is enlightening for lawyers and is a good start for statistics on gender in the profession. It was launched in July 2014 and should be available on the Malaysian Bar website. It makes some suggestions to address the situation, particularly in regard to sexual harassment, child care support and flexi hours.
What the survey does most of all is give voice to the majority of women lawyers who will speak up for their clients but not themselves. It is time women lawyers joined the rest of the working women to reduce sexism and gender inequality.
* Animah Kosai is a member of HAKAM and founder of Surya Women
HAKAM-MMO Human Rights Day 2015 project
Since 1950, the world marks December 10 as Human Rights Day. It is a day to create awareness to fundamental human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.
This year, the National Human Rights Society, in collaboration with Malay Mail Online, is publishing seven articles over seven days to bring attention to seven specific interest areas concerning human rights in Malaysia.