The Bar Council elections are on, but are women lawyers present and ready to be counted in new Malaysia?
AFTER the 14th General Election was done and dusted on May 9, Malaysia saw the appointment of its first woman deputy prime minister. However, the Pakatan Harapan government did not keep its manifesto promise of ensuring “at least 30% of policymakers appointed at all levels are women” – drawing the ire of women’s groups.
They have a right to be annoyed. The government and its institutions have a big role to play in levelling the playing field and bringing about change, for example TalentCorp Malaysia’s Career Comeback Programme and Securities Commission Malaysia’s monitoring of corporate governance practices, which prioritises gender diversity.
It’s still early days to judge the Pakatan government but often times there’s no clear explanation for why women don’t offer themselves for leadership positions in professional bodies like the Malaysian Bar.
The Bar was established in 1947. As at December 2017, it has a membership of around 18,200 of which 53% (9,646) are women lawyers.
And yet, the Bar has only elected two women presidents. Hendon Mohamed was the first (1995-1997). It was another 10 years before Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan (2007-2009) was elected the second woman president. Following that pattern, maybe it is time for the council to elect a woman for the 2019-2021 term.
But insisting the government or even public listed companies adopt/meet a 30% quota for women in decision- making positions might be easier than getting such a representation in the Bar Council, the governing body of the Malaysian Bar.
The council comprises 38 members – 12 are elected through the national elections taking place now. Another 24 are made up of the state Bar chairpersons and state Bar representatives from all the 12 states. The current president and vice president are automatic members for the next council year. The elections for the state Bar committees and state representatives only take place next February/March so we don’t know as yet how many women will come in then or whether they will make up 30% of the council.
For now, only six women are standing in the national elections. They are: Hendon, Karen Cheah Yee Lynn, Khaizan Sharizad Ab Razak, Norliza Rasool Khan, Siti Zabedah Kasim and Honey Tan Lay Ean. All the women are from the Kuala Lumpur Bar, with the exception of Hendon who holds membership in the Selangor Bar as well. Postal ballots were sent out from Nov 8 and voting closes on Friday, Nov 30.
There are a few potential presidents there already. But why only six? Have women’s mindsets and self-confidence not changed in new Malaysia?
They seem happy to serve as committee members or even to chair or co-chair subcommittees. But women lawyers generally stop there. Most of those who were elected to the council or as state Bar chairperson say they received support across the board.
If men’s attitudes are not an obstacle, what is?
Hendon says that women generally bear more responsibility and so they think that running for top leadership positions will be a burden.
“No president has had an easy time,” says Hendon, who often garners the highest number of votes in the council elections since her presidency.
“I had misgivings but the support was overwhelming,” says Hendon, adding that the Bar was a more united body when she stood for election, in the aftermath of the 1988 judicial crisis, unlike today.
Senior lawyer Meera Samanther actively pushes for the rights of women in general and women lawyers in particular but has declined to stand.
“I was always dealing with substantive issues like wanting to improve the lives and human rights of women and I felt I was of better use in the committees and NGOs,” adds the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) member.
Can women lawyers expect discriminatory employment practices and sexual harassment to be addressed if they are not present to push, for example, for greater commitment in implementing the council’s code against harassment; or introduce a gender sensitisation programme for chambering pupils?
These were two of the recommendations to the council following a 2014 baseline study of the working conditions of male and female lawyers in KL and Selangor.
Fellow AWL member Foo Yet Ngo says that taking the post of a principal office bearer like president requires women to perform a balancing act between their professional and personal lives.
“I am always ready to give my time to the council, it is our body and we need to contribute. But to go to the front, I need to know I can give 100% commitment. Maybe, it’s our own makeup that we MUST give a 100% commitment.”
Senior lawyer Ira Biswas says women are more self-critical and hence may not offer themselves “although they know that they can do a prefect job”.
“Women also have a slightly different attitude to service. They don’t feel the need to be in the top job.”
The state Bars have had a better record in electing women chiefs and state representatives. Among them are Penang, Perak, Melaka, Kuala Lumpur, Perlis, Kedah and Pahang. State Bars may be the key to the 30% policy as 24 council members come from them.
Petra Oon was the first woman to chair a state Bar. Penang Bar is somewhat a ‘model’ Bar because its members went on to elect Lalitha Menon and Shyama Nair as their chairperson.
“Women are as able and men and can do the long haul,” says Oon, after her stints on the council as state chairperson and state representative.
“We push to work, not to be the leader,” she replies when asked why more women don’t stand for Bar president.
Lalitha agrees that the council makes important policies and it is important for women to be present: “I stood because I thought I could do the job and I did.”
But she too prefers serving on committees.
Datuk Shamsuriah Sulaiman, the first woman chair of the Perak Bar didn’t even think of running for Bar president.
“Holding a high position was not important to me as I was always in one committee or the other quietly serving the needs of members and helping to bring improvements in the syariah courts.”
KL Bar president Goh Siu Lin leaves two important legacies.
She introduced a ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ module for chambering pupils to complete before they can be called to the KL Bar. The seminar-cum-action-oriented initiative is well worth copying by the other states. Goh also got the KL Courts in Jalan Duta to reserve carparks for pregnant lawyers.
She decided to stand after hearing the stories of women lawyers/activists in the region who faced dangers to their personal safety:
“My life was a breeze in comparison. I had to challenge myself and I’ve been able to do this because of the support of my husband, family and current partners. I would tell other women to go for it. It’s difficult and challenging but it’s a wonderful growth process.”
Ambiga agrees that the composition of the council must reflect the Bar’s membership.
“We have recently had some very impressive women on council and as office holders but I would personally like to see more.
“The glass ceiling was cracked when Hendon became the first president. Maybe it has still not been broken.”
Ambiga adds it is equally important to have women reach the highest position in the Bar as well as serving on the committees and subcommittees.
She says that women’s perspectives in key decision making positions within the council help to counter indirect discrimination against women whether in practice or through policies, which could also be a factor in discouraging women from standing for election.
“Having a woman as president sends the message to women lawyers that the Bar Council is not reserved only for men; women equally belong there. This will hopefully encourage more women to put themselves forward for election.”
Despite the flak the Bar gets for only having had two women presidents it has done one better than the medical profession.
A 30% policy is not about ignoring merit but recognising that women of merit get overlooked because of gender. Women lawyers need to be present and counted.
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