President’s Message – International Women’s Day
This was the welcome speech made by the President at the Law Society’s inaugural celebration of International Women’s Day on 7 March 2018.
Guest of Honour, SMS for Law and Finance, Indranee Rajah SC.
Special guests, Ong Lee Wha, President of SAWL; Corinna Lim, ED of AWARE and friends from the media,
Women In Practice (WIP) Taskforce spearheaded by Law Society Council Members Felicia Tan and Simran Toor and WIP Taskforce Members, Debby Lim, Shobna Chandran, Diedre Grace Morgan, Delphine Loo,
Friends, Ladies and (the few) gentlemen,
A number of you (especially Corinna) would be aware about the last time I spoke to a predominantly ladies crowd.
Today marks an extraordinary moment to be speaking to a similar demographic. It is a historic first time in the Law Society that we celebrate International Women’s Day.
The genesis? I was blessed to discern the unique struggles of women lawyers after mentoring two juniors. One became a mother. Due to her baby’s needs, it proved a challenge to manage motherhood and work. I was saddened that I could not structure something meaningful (even part time or flexitime) in litigation for her. Another associate switched to part time. She found out that practically speaking, given work exigencies, she wound up working full time for part time pay!
Last year, I shared with Kuah Boon Theng SC (then VP of Law Society) and Simran Toor over lunch about celebrating International Women’s Day this year. To showcase different women lawyers who have overcome challenges in legal practice (including managing motherhood and careers) and listen to their coaching tips on resilience. Our junior ladies especially need to hear this to prepare for the journey ahead.
One month ago, the idea was re-seeded over breakfast with the dynamic ladies in WIP. They ran with the vision and outdid themselves.
The buzz and energy of WIP since then has been phenomenal. The momentum built over this one month was simply amazing. Today would not have been possible also without the powerhouses at our Law Society Secretariat. Delphine Loo and Jean Wong who pulled out all stops to make this event happen. The idea became a living reality. Credit goes to the WIP team and Secretariat. Kudos, ladies!
The WIP taskforce aims to advance and protect the interests of Singapore women lawyers. It will undertake initiatives to enhance women’s retention and advancement in the legal profession, prevent gender-based harassment, and promote women’s welfare and wellness. I am pleased that we are launching this taskforce today.
To clarify, WIP is not man-bashing, misandry or “WHIP”ping men into shape. Instead, we want to harness the superpowers of our wonder women in law to promote goals of equality and restore dignity for women lawyers in the workplace.
In the Singapore legal sector, here are seven fast facts on firsts:
- District Judge Jenny Lau – the first woman to be appointed District Judge in 1966.
- Justice Lai Siu Chiu – the first woman to be appointed Supreme Court Judge in 1994.
- Molly Lim SC, Engelin Teh SC and then Belinda Ang SC (now Justice Belinda Ang) – the first three women lawyers to be appointed silks in 1998.
- Justice Hoo Sheau Peng – who as Judicial Commissioner in 2015, became the first woman to hear criminal cases in the Supreme Court.
- Indranee Rajah SC appointed as Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law in 2015.
- Justice Judith Prakash who is the first woman to be appointed as a permanent member of the Court of Appeal in 2016.
- Halimah Yaakob serving as President of Singapore from last year.
I am impressed by the strides that our women lawyers continue to make. We celebrate those milestone achievements of women lawyers on a day like this.
Today is a small step for the Law Society but marks a giant leap for woman lawyers in Singapore.
But today is also about a realistic appraisal that there is still some way to go in the journey. WIP is still a Work In Progress as you will hear from our stellar line up of speakers. We will be kickstarted shortly by SMS Indranee Rajah SC. SMS Indranee Rajah took time out just to be with us despite her extraordinarily busy schedule in this season. You will also hear a practitioner’s perspective from Marina Chin, Joint Managing Partner of Tan Kok Quan Partnership on “Women in Legal Practice – A Practitioner’s Perspective”. The Panel session that follows will feature speakers sharing from diverse perspectives and has the token male representation!
I have no illusions about the journey that still lies ahead despite the milestone achievements. As an illustration, although there are more women than men in the junior category, at the senior category levels, there are two male lawyers for every female lawyer in the senior category.1Statistics from the Law Society of Singapore. If we do not nurture, develop and manage the talent of 43% of our population in the Society, we are courting disaster. (*see note below)
For the men present, International Women’s Day gives you an opportunity to cherish the ladies in your family and lives. It is also a great occasion to resolve to be agents of change in your own way in restoring the dignity and redressing the injustices experienced by our womenfolk.
Let me end with a blast from the past. One of the most acclaimed television programmes in US television history is multi-award winning sitcom, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, broadcast in the early 1970s. Its central character was a single, independent career woman. That was a rarity in American television. This is the Youtube link to the theme song (Love is All Around) from Season 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfZBZBVlFcY
Women lawyers in practice gathered here, although the lyrics of that theme song went : “This world is awfully big”, the big difference this time is “girl, this time you’re NOT alone” There is WIP. There are role models. And most of all, there are friends.
To every junior wondering whether there is light at the end of the tunnel, “you’re gonna make it after all”. To every mother juggling and struggling to make ends meet in career and cope with demands of parenting, “you’re gonna make it after all”. And finally, to every women lawyer present with career aspirations to be the best that you can be at work despite the ups and downs, inequalities (actual or perceived) and glass ceilings: “you’re gonna make it after all.”
Happy International Women’s Day!
Here is a table of statistics over the last few years since we restructured the middle category from 7-12 years to 5-15 years:
Three numerical observations on the data above:
- there are more women than men in the junior category (about 52.4%);
- the gender ratio starts to shift from the middle category level onwards; and
- at the senior category level, the population is two-thirds men and one-third women.
Analyzing the above:
- we need to start the process of talent management of women lawyers while they are still juniors; and
- we cannot meaningfully address the question of exodus of lawyers in the middle category without incising into the challenges women lawyers have and the reasons why they leave.
To read more about the Women in Practice event and the speech by Marina Chin, click here.