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The Singapore Law Gazette

Embracing Equity: The Need for Allyship

Quite apart from the beginnings of a global pandemic that would come to re-define the way we lived, the year 2020 will go down in the annals of history as an eventful year.

  • This was the year when the phrase “I can’t breathe” stirred our consciousness and ignited global soul-searching and the reckoning with the ugliness of the human condition as manifested in inequality and injustice.
  • This was the year we mourned the passing of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
  • This was the year that, closer to home and on a more positive note, the Law Society of Singapore released “Levelling the Playing Field”, its inaugural report on the state of gender diversity and inclusion within the Singapore legal profession.1

So where do we go from here?

As a call to action, each one of us can start to actively support and embrace the need for equity by taking small steps. The path to achieving gender equity cannot be confined solely to women fighting the good fight. If we are to make any progress, male allies are incredibly important for the social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women.

Allyship is intersectional. Being an ally myself to others, I do not profess to completely understand what it feels like to be a member of the underrepresented group. Instead, being an ally means that you are willing to adopt their struggles as your own. It also entails the long process of unlearning and confronting our own biases.

Performative Allyship

Performative allyship,2 in contrast with true allyship, is where those with privilege purport to profess solidarity with a cause, but do not genuinely feel that way. This outward display of solidarity is disingenuous and detrimental to underrepresented groups. It is based on the idea of self-gratification and encompasses a feel-good factor; however, it does not look at the performative ally’s responsibility within a community and backfires by doing the underrepresented group a disservice. Often, the performative ally demonstrates an outward outpouring of support for the cause to deflect potential scrutiny. In the fight for gender equity, the pejorative term for such actions is “diversity-washing”3 An example of diversity-washing was narrated to me by a friend, who once told me about how a “male champion” that spoke on a gender diversity panel privately espoused a sexist view towards women.

In many cases, leaders in an organisation use performance-driven activities in a way that they believe will shield the company brand from any negative scrutiny. This may be by way of “diversity hires” and even holding superficial International Women’s Day celebrations. You may talk the talk, but do you walk the walk? In other words, do you actually do what you say should be done?

Performative allyship can be extremely damaging, as it can leave employees from the underrepresented group feeling that the carpet has been pulled from under their feet, not to mention undermined and patronised. It also engenders distrust and ultimately leads to a sense of frustration, disenfranchisement, lack of psychological safety and belonging. It does far more damage than any good. For every one step forward, performative allyship causes the movement to take two steps back.

What we need in the fight for gender equity is genuine allyship: standing up for things despite knowing that the result may not benefit you.

How Men Can Be Allies in the Legal Profession:4

Yes, there are actionable steps that male allies can take.

  1. Do not interrupt when a woman is speaking. Instead, listen with empathy and acknowledge women’s viewpoints.
  2. Volunteer for office “housework5 These are usually less promotable, but important; tasks such as organising office parties, note-taking and other administrative matters.
  3. Create opportunities for women and dismantle the “boys’ club” mentality by introducing female lawyers to key clients of the firm.
  4. Give women the chance to assume a leadership position by arguing hearings as lead counsel or leading a transaction.
  5. Pay attention to whom you are hiring and mentoring.
  6. Be a mentor to women in your organisation by providing them with more visibility, connections and opportunities.
  7. Be an agent for change by treating woman lawyers as equals and calling out sexist behaviour.
  8. Ensure that women are represented on panels to showcase their expertise.
  9. List women as references. This demonstrates that women’s views matter in the legal profession.
  10. Seek out women as mentors. This reflects the leadership ability of women.6

Remember that no act of allyship is too small to make an impact!

Sometimes, however, this may entail giving up some of your own opportunities for the greater good. A case in point is that of Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Breyer chose to retire from the US Supreme Court even though he could continue to serve on the bench. By retiring, Justice Breyer paved the way for the first black female Supreme Court Justice to be appointed.7

In contrast, there is nothing more demoralising than being told that as a female I am expected to step aside. Some time back, an opportunity to speak on a panel came to me and somehow that was taken away from me and given to a male colleague.

There is a lot more work to be done, as the arc of the moral universe is long, sometimes, infuriatingly so. But it does bend towards justice, even more so with men as our allies, our collective power demanding that women have a seat at the table.

Looking Beyond Gender

There will be supportive men. Inversely, it is not necessarily the case that women will be supportive of other women. Once, I referred a matter to a female acquaintance whom I thought would value having the deal experience on her resume. I thought that I was helping a fellow female practitioner’s career. As it turned out, even though there were subsequent opportunities to, the acquaintance never returned the referral. To this day, I still give her the benefit of the doubt that there must have been reasons why she chose not to do so.

In contrast, there have been some male lawyers (one of whom was a Senior Counsel) as well as lay clients, who have referred matters to me. Three of these matters ended up before the Court of Appeal. I thought that I had two things counting against me: the fact that I was young and female. However, none of these mattered to them, as they knew that I would defend the client’s interests to the best of my ability.

My conclusion is that all of us must see beyond gender. There will be people of the same gender that you cannot identify with. There will be supportive people of the opposite gender. At the end of the day, what matters is empathy and finding commonality, no matter the gender of the person. You will never understand a person until you walk a mile in his or her shoes.

It is the acts of allyship, more so than any instances of unfair bias, that are seared into my hippocampus. I am even more grateful for the unseen acts of allyship that I may never come to know about. They mean more to me than you can ever imagine. Happy International Women’s Day!



Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP
E-mail: [email protected]

Debby Lim is a partner of Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP and is a member of the Dentons Global Inclusion Advisory Council. She is also a founding member of the Law Society of Singapore’s Women in Practice Task Force which aims to advance and protect the interests of Singapore women lawyers. This culminated in the 2020 Report on Gender Diversity in the Legal Profession which Debby contributed to. She is concurrently the Co-Chairperson of the Publications Committee and the Vice-Chairperson of the Insolvency Practice Committee.