Happy International Women’s Day to our female members!
At the start of this year, the Law Society, under the leadership of President Gregory Vijayendran, set up the Women In Practice (#wip) Taskforce to examine issues faced by women in private practice and see how we can address the inequalities still present in the legal industry. The WIP Taskforce is co-chaired by two Council Members Felicia Tan (Director, Incisive Law LLC) and Simran Toor (Partner, WongPartnership LLP). Other members are Debby Lim (Partner, Shook Lin & Bok LLP), Shobna Chandran (Partner, Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP), Dierdre Grace Morgan (Senior Associate, Drew & Napier LLC) and myself.
Between 1 April 2017 and 28 February 2018, we issued 2,513 practising certificates to female practitioners compared to 3,254 to male practitioners. In the junior category, 52.5% of practising certificates were issued to female practitioners, although the percentages dropped to 47.7% in the middle category and further to 33% in the senior category. While the legal profession has made huge strides over the years in terms of gender diversity and retention of female practitioners in private practice, we recognise that there is still room for improvements.
We launched the Taskforce at a CPD event, “Women In Practice (#wip): A Work In Progress”, on 7 March 2018 in conjunction with International Women’s Day. To our delight, there were a few men who signed up for the event! Our guest-of-honour for the occasion, Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance, Indranee Rajah SC unreservedly shared tips with the participants on how to level the playing field for oneself as a female lawyer. Marina Chin, Joint Managing Partner, Tan Kok Quan Partnership, also spoke about working to one’s strengths and interests. Last but not least, we held a panel discussion moderated by Kuah Boon Theng SC (Director, Legal Clinic LLC) where Thio Shen Yi SC (Joint Managing Partner, TSMP Law Corporation), Rachel Eng (Deputy Chairman, WongPartnership LLP), Christine Low (Director, Peter Low & Choo LLC) and myself shared our views and experiences with the participants.
I was honoured to be asked to speak on the panel as the sole representative of the WIP Taskforce even though I was the least qualified member with the least practice experience. It was a humbling experience for me to be able to share my personal journey as a working mother. I first became a mother at 25 while serving my bond with the organisation which awarded me a scholarship for my university studies so I was not able to take any extended maternity leave. It was a difficult period of adjustment and I was disgruntled that I could not spend more time with my firstborn.
Fortunately with my subsequent kids, I was able to take more time off. In between the second and third child, I left private practice for various part-time roles as in-house legal counsel. Well-intentioned friends advised me that such jobs sounded the death knell for my career. However, these jobs gave me the opportunity to keep in touch with legal work while juggling my family’s needs. After I had my third child, I stopped working altogether and spent an entire year as a homemaker. When the job opportunity at the Law Society came up, I was already itching to go back to work. The icing on the cake was that I could work part-time with flexi arrangements which gave me the opportunity to be a 50% passing grade employee and a 50% passing grade mum. And because I took time off earlier to be with the kids, I did not feel guilty about going back to work. I put my head down and worked really hard, grateful for the opportunity to try out a flexi-work arrangement.
After two and a half years as the HOD of Representation and Law Reform Department in the Law Society, I was asked informally if I would consider putting myself forward as a candidate for the CEO position when the vacancy came up. As Thio Shen Yi SC puts it, there seems to be a “confidence gap” in most cases between men and women. Women will not say yes to a job unless they are almost certain that they can do it, whereas men will accept the job even if they are less than 50% sure! It took lots of encouragement from my previous boss Su-Yin who was the CEO when I first joined the Law Society, as well as some female Council members, before I dared broach the topic with then-President Thio Shen Yi SC. His reply to me was unexpected and extremely generous – “Delphine, there is no question about whether you can do this job or not; it’s whether you want to or not.” That was a great confidence booster for me and sealed the deal, so I ended up persuading him that I wanted it (not being so sure of it myself earlier)!
Each of us needs to figure out what it is that we really want to achieve and not compare ourselves with others or conform to society’s expectations of ourselves. We may mistakenly think that we want to achieve equality but later buckle under the expectations that we can never stop working or the fear of falling behind if we have taken some time off work. There may be seasons of our lives, men and women alike, when we need to prioritise other matters over work and as bosses, colleagues or friends, we should extend others the support they need to make such choices. On the other hand, everyone should be fairly remunerated and recognised for the work that he or she puts in and has the right to be protected from discrimination and workplace bullying.
The Law Society recently established a “Relational Mentorship” scheme and we already have eight senior female practitioners who have signed up as mentors. You can step forward as mentor or mentee by e-mailing [email protected] or called our “Members’ Assistance & Care Helpline” (MACH) at 6530 0213. All requests for mentorship will be kept confidential. We are also exploring further events under the “Women In Practice” series to focus on matters for female practitioners such as use of technology for flexi work, mental health and stress management, business development and possibly a refresher course on getting back into practice for female practitioners who have taken time off work. If you have any ideas to share, let us know at [email protected]. Thank you for partnering us on this journey!