I was an advocate and solicitor for the Malaysian Bar for nearly 10 years. People used to ask me, “do you feel it’s harder as a woman?” Being the tenacious character I was, I always denied this. No, never. I could hold my ground as well as any male lawyer. And the firm, the partners treated me well. We were family.

I learnt to ignore sexist remarks by my male brethren and clients. I would not allow words to hurt me. I would comfort female colleagues who were young mothers and cry in their cubicles late at night meeting deadlines for the male partners who had gone home. I worked round the clock and weekends. The best lawyer of my batch had bloodshot eyes because he never slept. He would proudly show us his timesheet every week. Sometimes he worked 14 hours a day. This put a pressure on everyone else.

I capitalised on the fact that I was a woman and had advantages over men. Some of my clients proudly showed me off. I had to dress the part. It was our culture. It was my generation of female lawyers that made us glamorous – in court and the corporate world. (Ironically the moment I joined the Oil & Gas industry which was mainly men, I could dress down and just be myself.)

So no, it wasn’t harder being a woman.

I had lived wilfully blind because that was the way to survive. To fan the flames and point out discrimination and sexism would have only upset me. Any time I was upset by some sexist remark or harassment I would go to my closest female colleagues who would sympathise. But we left it there.

I left it there. It was a life from 10 years ago. Now I meet women lawyers and know what they are going through. I talk to them, try and get them to speak up. But I know how scary it can be and how important it is not to rock the boat.

The feistiest female lawyer goes silent when it is about herself. I have asked women lawyers, how can you advocate for others when you cannot do so yourself?

The answer? Because they are women.

The beautiful thing about women is that we always put others first. Peace for the family, the firm, friends. But incredible turmoil within.

A month ago I met Meera Samanther of the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) at a dialogue on sexual harassment (organised by IWRAW – International Women’s Rights Action Watch).

She shared with me a survey AWL conducted in collaboration with SUHAKAM (Human Rights Commission, Malaysia) and WAO (Women’s Aid Organisation): “51%! Is it a Level Playing Field?”

51% of the Malaysian Bar are women. Wonderful. But like the international corporate environment, women tend to languish at the bottom. 68% of legal assistants, i.e. the bottom rung of the Bar are women. How many stay on long enough to become partners? 42%. Only 25% 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% of the Bar Council Exco were women. 19% 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 faired slightly better at 35%. Neither state bars have had a woman as president, While only 2 out of 27 the Bar Council presidents were women, the latest of course being Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan.

Lower Pay than Men

Why are women not rising in the profession? Could it be the fact that at entry level 80% of women earn under RM35,000 a year (below the poverty line) compared to 60% 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 less women mentors available – 65% 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. (I have literally seen lawyers hidden behind documents – what a sad life we lead).

2 years back we brought in two secondees from law firms for a 6 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.

I ensured that one of the young ladies had to give a talk to our loud and loyarburok (lawyer wanna be) engineers on a new law that would impact them. Her partner was an expert in this area and offered to do the talk. I politely turned him down. I asked that he be in attendance on the premise that he could answer the difficult questions, but I really wanted him to see how his young protege was fairing. She had been on edge for 24 hours, but when she spoke, she shone.

And this is a fact. Many firms do not stimulate their intelligent young lawyers enough. A few weeks 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.

As a young lawyer I was told, the first two years of practice was pivotal. The big test of whether you could hack it. Many women would start thinking about families around this age of 25 or so. Sheryl Sandberg also addresses this as common for American women who “leave before they leave”. They are no longer thinking about making partner but instead look at the senior women lawyers who have no time for their family, or worse get divorced and decide, that’s not for me. They bide their time, waiting for an attractive in house package.

Practice and Family

Women lawyers have confessed in the AWL survey that having children had a high impact on their careers (41%) compared to 23% of men. Interestingly a third of the married male lawyers in the survey were married to homemakers compared to 93% of the married women respondents whose spouses worked full time. Meera told me that a number of the well know men lawyers she spoke to were 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 which stresses equality, such equality stops short of the house front gate.

It is hardly surprising then that 6 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. 31% 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 (physical harassment).

Then there was the suggestive invitations where 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. Yes those were hard and yet I told myself that’s what legal practice was all about. 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 KL Bar Committee.

Gender Bias in an 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% 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. Malaysian PLCs have till 2016 to increase women Board representation to 30%.

Working Mothers

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 and should be available on the Malaysian Bar website soon. 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.

If you are a woman who lacks mentors and would like to join a support group of working women pushing themselves through a male dominated working world, then join Surya Women’s free “Lean In” two  hour session at Pusat Rakyat Loyarburok on Sept 13th 2014 from 11am to 1pm (Women Only to ensure a safe space for women’s issues).  Further details are on Surya Women’s website and face book page.

Animah Kosai is a legal counsel in the Oil & Gas Industry and served briefly on the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee. The only other woman on the committee at the time was Ambiga.






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