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The Singapore Law Gazette

Gender Diversity: A View from the Other Side

  1. Some of us may remember an episode from “Yes Minister” which dealt with the issue of female representation in Government. In that episode, the Minister for Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker, desired to impose quotas to ensure female representation at the top levels of the British Government. His proposal, however, faced opposition largely orchestrated by his permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Appleby managed to convince his fellow permanent secretaries to persuade their respective Ministers to agree to the principle of equal representation in the top levels of Government, but stopped short of taking any concrete steps to realise such principle.
  2. Today, gender diversity, which often refers to the proportion of female representation at the top echelons of Government and business, is an issue which is increasingly debated in many countries. Singapore is no exception. While great strides have been made in female education and work opportunities, there remains a significant gap in female representation at the top levels of Government and commerce. An article in The Straits Times dated 17 March 2020 found that the largest 100 primary-listed companies on the Singapore Exchange had achieved 16.2 per cent of female board participation as at 31 December 2019, which was a slight improvement on the 15.2 per cent recorded at the end of 2018.1 To cite another, there continues to exist an adjusted gender pay gap of 6% as of 10 January 2020.2
  3. Workplace safety for females also seems to be an issue within the legal profession. In an article entitled “Yes, Us Too, in the Singapore Legal Profession”, it was highlighted that the International Bar Association found, in relation to the Singapore legal profession, that bullying and sexual harassment incidents were under-reported.3 A concrete example of an egregious incident of sexual harassment was in fact the case of Mr Ismail Atan, who in 2013 “lured his assistant to a hotel room, where he made an indecent proposal, suggesting that they “have an affair”” and then “hugged and kissed the 28-year-old married woman against her will and physically restrained her from leaving.4 If it is indeed true that cases are under-reported, there could indeed be other instances of equally egregious, if not more egregious, conduct that have yet to be reported and the perpetrators yet to be held to account for their actions.
  4. The Women in Practice Taskforce was established by the Law Society in March 2018. The Taskforce undertook a survey of female members of the Singapore legal profession to obtain a better understanding of the needs and experiences of female lawyers in active practice today (the Survey). Its findings were as follows:
  5. There is a pervasive lack of understanding of the business case for gender diversity initiatives.
  6. Senior and junior female lawyers do not see eye to eye.
  7. There is a misperception by male lawyers that workplace gender parity initiatives exist at the expense of meritocracy.
  8. There is a lack of diversity or inclusion-related policies and training in Singapore law firms.
  9. Sexual harassment or bullying are not an entrenched culture within Singapore law firms, although anecdotal incidents attract sufficient attention for increased training and awareness efforts in this area.
  10. If the findings are true, then the current state of affairs and the findings of the Survey gives us reason for reflection as a profession, especially since females now regularly outnumber males for law school admissions. Was it something that the profession had taken a wrong step in and is this something that we as a profession can remedy today so that our female counterparts are able to thrive and flourish as professionals? It seems only natural that we as professionals committed to the ideals of achieving justice and fairness must as a profession look at these issues and take concrete steps to further these ideals in the day to day practice of our profession.
  11. My belief is that the modern-day issues faced by female lawyers have their roots in historical systemic injustices where the position of males was a far more privileged one than women, and it is perhaps fitting to begin by examining the history of the legal profession from the United Kingdom, where women were not permitted to qualify as a barrister or solicitor in England until 1919 with the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 (SDA).5
  12. The SDA, which came into operation on 23 December 1919, provided that a person should not be disqualified “by sex or marriage from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation”. Despite the enactment of the SDA, societal attitudes remained prejudiced against female barristers. To illustrate the point, Hilary Heilbron QC writes in an article entitled “Women at the Bar: an historical perspective” that “In the 1940s social etiquette had not caught up with women barristers. Women were precluded from entering a courtroom without a hat or being present when cases with a sexual content were being heard. Pronouncements from the bench in open court excused my mother, as a female barrister, leading to headlines in the local paper.
  13. To further stack the odds against females practicing as barristers, Heilbron QC further explained that there was no maternity leave, no flexible working, no compliance officers, and no Bar nursery. Consequently, by 1972, only 7 per cent of the English Bar were females and only a handful practiced commercial law.6
  14. It would not be unfair to suggest that similar attitudes prevailed in Singapore during the period. In 1976, Aline K Wong argued in her article “Women in Singapore: A Report” that “Despite past improvements in their legal and socioeconomic position, women still clearly occup[ied] a subordinate status in Singapore in regard to both professional opportunities and treatment in the home, school, and labor market. … It is argued that, since women in Singapore suffer no legal or political disadvantages and since they are given equal educational and economic opportunities, their failure to rise to the top is entirely their own fault. Such arguments ignore the fact that women internalise society’s attitudes toward them and therefore scale down their aspirations.7(1976) 2(1) University of Chicago 213
  15. To further illustrate the point, a senior female lawyer once shared an anecdote with me which took place in the 1990s – as a young pupil in the disputes department of a law firm, she was lined up along with her fellow female pupils by a senior male lawyer in the disputes department and told that she would not succeed in disputes practice because she would get married and have a family.
  16. Few would disagree that such practices would attract the ire of many lawyers today, both male and female, which is testament to the fact that while there has been historical prejudices against female lawyers and while the historical baggage may not have been discarded or ameliorated in full, progress has been made. A sign of the progress made can be seen by how a significant number of middle category lawyers voted for two female candidates to be elected to the Law Society Council in the Law Society elections held in 2020.8 Across the Causeway, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan is a female advocate who served as the 24th President of the Malaysian Bar Council. Clearly, the competence of female lawyers, and their ability to assume leadership positions in the legal profession is no longer in question today.
  17. Despite such progress made, the findings of the Survey suggest that there remains the following key critical areas in which continued effort will still be required to reduce any remaining manifestations of gender inequality within the profession: (a) female representation at the senior echelons of law firms; (b) support from female and male practitioners alike for gender parity initiatives; and (c) education on workplace safety in law firms.
  18. The first issue reflects perhaps a more fundamental issue of unconscious bias among top law firm directors and partners. Dr Pragya Argarwal in her article “Here Is Why Organisations Need to be Conscious of Unconscious Bias” remarks that implicit bias happens when our brains make incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising, and this can be influenced by our context and worldview.
  19. The second issue could be a reflection of psychological projection, which is a defense mechanism that occurs when a conflict arises between one’s unconscious feelings and one’s conscious beliefs such that ownership of such feelings is transferred to an external source. Take the example of senior female lawyers feeling that they had been through much tougher times and had succeeded in their careers despite having little support from others – the implicit message may sound like this: “its not me who’s not supporting you enough; you’re being too whiny and complaining too quickly”.9 Such attitudes continue to be held today.
  20. The third issue perhaps relates to a deeper issue of power disparity between women lawyers who have been victims in a workplace harassment or bullying situation. As commented by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her Op-Ed on the Financial Times, “Harassment continues not because men do not know sexual harassment is wrong, but because they do not believe they will be caught or punished. … The situation is he said-she said, and he is much more able to insist on his version. At best, she might end up with a settlement and a non-disclosure agreement, but at the cost of her job.10
  21. More significantly, the Survey remarked that it was a “unanimous sentiment” that the victim would suffer career repercussions for reporting the wrongdoing concerned, and the perpetrator would be believed over them. For a profession committed to justice, such sentiment should cause us significant concern given that members do not even have the confidence in corrective mechanisms that would bring perpetrators to justice.
  22. It may be observed that the roots of these three issues lie in human behaviour that responds to organisational structures. Unconscious bias exists because there exists no corrective mechanism to ensure that unconscious bias is checked. Psychological projection exists because there is no effort to listen meaningfully to others with different challenges and perspectives. Power disparity exists because structures that are established may not sufficiently account for the interests of the victim. As a profession, we would do well to acknowledge the root cause of these issues and then to take steps to hold ourselves accountable and guard against unconscious bias, psychological projection, and disparities in power within the profession.
  23. There are no easy fix all solutions, but one possible step to take is for firms to look into establishing structures to overcome unconscious biases and hold lawyers to standards that should be aspired towards.
  24. For instance, the United Kingdom Bar has led the way with a Bar Standards Board. Rules C110 to C112 makes it obligatory to take reasonable steps to ensure that there is a written statement of policy on equality and diversity and a written plan to implement that policy. Chambers and firms are required to have at least one Equality and Diversity Officer.
  25. As a result of this endeavour, as of December 2020, women constituted 38.2 per cent of the UK Bar, with 16.8 per cent of QCs being female. While there remains a large disparity between the proportion of the Bar who are female and the proportion who are QCs, the formal structures put in place in the United Kingdom should hopefully see the disparity ameliorated in time to come.
  26. The trend in support of increased gender diversity has also found its way into law firm rankings. Leading legal ranking firms today have as part of their writeup a section requiring firms to elaborate on the steps and policies they have taken in support of a more diverse profession. The message is clear – a firm which has a committed diversity agenda is a firm that will be well-regarded by legal ranking firms.
  27. Finally, the commercial sense for diversity has long been articulated and is becoming increasingly clear. Clients increasingly seek legal teams which are diverse in representation as part of their commitment to the diversity agenda, and firms which are poorly represented in terms of diversity, whether gender or otherwise, will be commercially the poorer for it.
  28. As for the third issue, one hopes that confidence in reporting mechanisms will improve with visible manifestations of perpetrators taken to task for their indiscretions. Most recently, in Australia, a prominent legal luminary was taken to task for certain acts committed against junior female staff, showing that with strong political will and a commitment to justice, reporting mechanisms can serve their intended purpose of holding individuals (prominent or otherwise) accountable for indiscretions committed against their female colleagues.
  29. On a more personal note, I have benefitted from the mentorship of female lawyers in the places I have worked at, and I believe I speak for many other lawyers who have been the beneficiaries of such mentorship. Without taking away anything from excellent male mentors in my life, female lawyers have kept me accountable to high standards, guided me in my work, corrected me when I have gone wrong, and provided me with invaluable advice and perspective. As a father to a newborn, many of them have extended advice freely both professionally and personally. I am immensely grateful. Had society held on to outdated ideas of gender norms and neglected the development of female lawyers to their fullest potential, I daresay the Bar would have lost the benefit of excellent female mentors. Consequently, the development of the Singapore Bar would have been stunted in some way. For a country which prides herself on human capital, this would have been most regrettable.
  30. For the above reasons, I believe that the time has come for lawyers (whether male or female) to commit ourselves as a profession to accountable and measurable diversity goals. It would not only be a step in the right direction (especially since Singapore is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), but it would also be timely, in light of the country’s commitment to the issuance of a White Paper on gender equality by next year.


7 (1976) 2(1) University of Chicago 213

Of Counsel
LVM Law Chambers
E-mail: [email protected]

Jonathan graduated in 2013 from the Singapore Management University Bachelor of Laws (Summa cum Laude) and Bachelor of Business Management (Finance) (Summa cum Laude). Upon graduation, he served as Deputy Public Prosecutor for a short period of time before being posted to the Supreme Court of Singapore as a Justices Law Clerk for two years where he assisted the Singapore High Court and Court of Appeal on a variety of matters involving different fields of law.

Since 2016, Jonathan has worked with senior local and international practitioners in private practice. His practice area is mainly in high-value commercial litigation, arbitration, and mediation. Jonathan is also an accredited mediator with the Singapore Mediation Centre and part of the FIDReC-SMC Co-Mediation Pilot Scheme.