Gender equality is not alive and well in the legal profession

  • People
  • Friday, 27 Jun 2014

Eye-opening: Association of Women Lawyers president Meera Samanther revealed that a recent baseline study shows that gender equality is not alive and well in the legal profession in Malaysia.

Lawyers fight for justice for others but women lawyers seem no better equipped to fend off discriminatory employment practices and sexual harassment.

"She just jiggles and the files will come running. No need to do anything. For women lawyers it comes easy, just sleep your way up.

“Why you are very good, what have you done to all the people (to) pass cases to you, they ‘keep’ you?”

Many Malaysians would nod in agreement hearing those comments or laugh. Fewer would froth at the mouth because these are sexist remarks.

These comments were uttered by some of the respondents in Malaysia’s first ever Baseline Study on the Working Conditions of Male and Female Lawyers in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.

The research project titled “51%! Is it a Level Playing Field?” was commissioned by the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), in collaboration with the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), and was funded by the United Nations Population Fund in Malaysia.

The project report was prepared by Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Dr Lai Suat Yan (chief consultant), Dr Kuppusamy Singaravelloo (statistician), Dr Nurjaanah Chew Li Hua and Dr Sarina Mohamed (researchers).

The research findings were made public yesterday at the Kuala Lumpur Bar Auditorium.

(Left) Acting director of Universiti Malaya’s Centre for Continuing Education Dr Kuppusamy Singaravelloo and senior lecturer at UM’s Law Faculty Dr Nurjaanah Chew Li Hua.

In an exclusive interview, AWL president and project coordinator Meera Samanther says one could be lulled into thinking statistically that the hiring of women lawyers is fair since women lawyers represent 51% of the Malaysian Bar.

However, gender equality is not alive and well in the legal profession.

The survey shows it is not a level playing field in regard to women’s position in the law firm, promotions and salaries, especially if they are also mothers.

And it is not just about balancing work and home life but can involve bending/breaking one’s values and principles.

A female partner who was surveyed noted this: “Male lawyers were not restricted in this regard and could indulge in the nightlife which included going out for drinks and massages as part of networking to entertain clients.”

She cited this as the reason why she would not get corporate work.

We’ve all heard anecdotal evidence like this before, says Meera, but for the first time we have a statistically based study to cite now.

She says that Dr Lai, who was overseas during this interview, played a critical role in providing a feminist perspective to the study.

For one, the study covered both female and male lawyers for a more balanced picture of the existence and perceptions around gender discrimination and bias in the legal profession.

According to the report, researchers used both quantitative and qualitative methods to obtain data; the quantitative survey complemented by the qualitative interviews provided in-depth details of the discrimination faced by working mothers which included lesser remuneration and chances of promotion and advancement.

Dr Kuppusamy, who is also acting director of UM’s Centre for Continuing Education, says they used a stratified random sampling procedure to select the respondents from the list of registered lawyers as at December 2012.

This gave a sample of 9,631 lawyers, comprising 51% female lawyers and 49% male lawyers.

Dr Kuppusamy says there were 198 responses to the quantitative survey but three consultants were omitted due to the small figure not being statistically significant in analysing the data.

“However, they were included in the qualitative part as it adds more in-depth understanding of the issue at hand.”

Meera says they planned to survey 450 respondents but could not because of the lawyers’ busy schedules and the project timeline. The quantitative aspect of the study looked at status in firm, attrition rate, leadership role in the Bar Council’s executive committee or the KL and Selangor state Bars and working conditions.

Based on three time frames (March 2011, December 2011 and December 2012), the statistics show:

> Women make up over 60% of legal assistants while men comprise about 75% of consultants;

> Sole proprietors – 35% female lawyers to 65% male lawyers;

> Female partners increased from 41% in March 2011 to 42% in December 2012, but males still dominated;

> While higher percentages of female lawyers join a law firm or move to another, a greater number quit practice compared to male lawyers;

> There are few women in leadership roles within the profession – only 7% have held such positions in the KL, Selangor or council committees. (N.B. In the 67-year-old history of the Bar, there have only been two women presidents!)

Meera says the male lawyers surveyed dominated in the high profile areas of practice in litigation (civil, banking and criminal).

“In comparison the female lawyers surveyed dominated in conveyancing.

“If litigators are considered the more prestigious of legal practitioners, if corporate lawyers are better paid and have more prospects for upward mobility within the profession, this begs the question – are female lawyers losing out?”

One interesting finding was that while their (79% females, 60% males) annual gross income was RM35,000 and below when starting practice, women’s income exceeded that of men in the second and third highest categories, RM120,001-RM200,000 and RM90,001-RM120,000 respectively, over time.

However, the men were 5% higher than women in the highest category of RM200,001-RM300,000.

As expected, the findings show that women juggling career with their role as family caregiver had adverse impacts on their career advancement/development.

Unsurprisingly, since “almost one third of male respondents’ wives were housewives while 93% of the female respondents’ husbands were working full-time with none as househusbands”.

On being sexually propositioned, 10% (mainly female) had experienced it in the course of work.

It’s bizarre but Meera says a majority of respondents were either unaware or unsure of the existence of the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace adopted by the Bar Council in 2007.

It’s not so bizarre then that the qualitative data shows a high tendency to not report such incidents.

She adds the offenders were not just colleagues, clients or bosses but included a judge and other figures of authority such as police officers and prison guards.

Dr Nurjannah, who is also a senior lecturer at UM’s Law Faculty, says the lack of reporting could be attributed to the lack of awareness of the council’s relevant mechanisms and their perception that they were ineffective.

“Some fear they would jeopardise their career if they speak out, think the incidents are one-off and they can handle it, and show a level of acceptance.”

What do the three partners – AWL, WAO and Suhakam – want to see happen with this report?

Meera, WAO executive director Ivy Josiah and Suhakam vice-chair Datuk Dr Khaw Lake Tee all agree – there must be stronger commitment from the Bar Council to implementing its Code.

The research shows there’s a perception among a few that “the Code has no legal effect and that there was no one to oversee the its implementation within the Bar.”

The council must take this seriously – 51% of the Bar are women and they have the right to a safe working environment.

The leadership should take note that male lawyers are not safe either:

> Physical harassment was experienced by four female and three male respondents:

i. Clients trying to physically take advantage of them.

ii. Inappropriate touching - holding of hands, sitting on their lap and trying to kiss them;

> Suggestive invitations (10 female and two male respondents):

i. Invitations to seemingly innocent activities such as lunch, drinks or after-work social functions.

ii. Clients asking them out on the pretext of discussing work.

iii. Asked out by a colleague or to stay late by a senior colleague; and

iv. Offered to go on a fully paid holiday by a client, spend a weekend on a yacht.

Meera and Josiah want the council to introduce a gender sensitisation component for all pupils-in-chambers and to recognise that women lawyers face unique challenges.

Meera says AWL will send the report to the Professional Standards and Development and Continuing Legal Education committees so that they can formulate programmes to address the issues identified.

She also wants sexist remarks to be taken as seriously as racist remarks or hate speech.

Josiah says, too often, such remarks are brushed off as “cute and funny and women are told to get a sense of humour”.

“It’s got nothing to do with humour – they are just plain disrespectful to women.”

Meera acknowledges that women lawyers are also in need of gender sensitisation so they do not quietly accept sexual harassment or sexist remarks.

You can hold the council accountable for not showing greater commitment but not for the complaints mechanism being ineffective if no one has availed of it.

If funding is available, Dr Khaw says this study could lead to others studying the working conditions of women doctors, accountants and engineers.

It would appear women lawyers are no better equipped to fend off sexual harassment and discrimination but more questions need to be asked. Who are the women studying law these days and why are so few in litigation? Is it the system that makes it difficult for women lawyers to get far?

The system is guilty but there is also anecdotal evidence that female law graduates prefer a non-litigation practice or being in-house counsel to taking on a legal adversary. There are also anecdotes of law teachers encouraging female law students to just “get a degree, cukup lah, can get married!”

Has having a law degree become the new teaching profession for wife hunters?

More questions could have been asked but, as Meera points out, the baseline study is a good starting place for follow-up research.

Related stories
Gender bias still prevails in the legal profession, says study

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