Exclusion and lack of recognition powerful drivers of gender inequality in Hong Kong legal profession, report finds

Research by Mayer Brown and Women in Law in Hong Kong finds 'boys' club' culture and bias of colleagues and clients affects women at every stage of their careers

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A combination of bias, exclusion and lack of recognition of their contributions is affecting women in Hong Kong’s legal sector at every stage of their careers and could explain why leadership in the profession is still male dominated, according to a new report. 

The report – Understanding Everyday Behaviour and Gender Equality Issues in Hong Kong’s Legal Sector – is published by Mayer Brown and Women in Law Hong Kong (WILHK) and cited a 2019 study by the Law Society that showed women represented 65% of trainees in Hong Kong but only 30% of partners. 

The new report found that women were coming up against a range of obstacles that together could hinder their career progression or make them want to leave the profession altogether. Among them was a ‘boys' club’ culture, a view that they were less committed or capable than their male counterparts, particularly when acting as caregivers outside of work, and a tendency for their additional contributions at work to go unrecognised.

It also highlighted the undermining effect of microaggressions – seemingly small everyday slights or snubs, that, whether intentional, communicate a hostile message to their target – and noted a lack of research into the issue in Hong Kong’s legal sector. 

Half of the survey’s female respondents felt they had been treated differently because of their gender at work, to their disadvantage. 

Five times more women than men (23.7% compared to 5.1%) reported being advised to change their specialty in law or career path according to gender norms, with one junior lawyer saying that a partner had suggested she go into academia as it would be easier to work in that industry when she had a family. Another said she was advised not to be an investigations lawyer because as a woman she would have no authority when interviewing witnesses. 

Moreover, the survey found that women consistently came up against the belief that they were no longer committed to their job or able to take up new challenges if they became caregivers. They reported being often overlooked for opportunities and some even said they had been demoted, given lower quality assignments or paid less. 

The findings also suggested a prevalent ‘boys’ club’ culture, which involves men forming groups excluding women in a way that led to men being favoured for promotions and professional development opportunities. One respondent said she had worked at a firm where ‘male associates would go to golf and dinners while the women would do the actual work’; another said she had not been invited on ‘lads’ nights out’ and that there also seemed to be a preference at her firm to introduce male colleagues to clients. 

Some female respondents said that they were often ignored, interrupted or undermined in workplace settings. Additionally, many women lawyers expressed their struggle to call attention to this behaviour without being seen as being difficult or not ‘part of the team’. 

Women continue to receive unsolicited comments about their appearance or behaviour, with 26.1% of female respondents reporting negative experiences with receiving advice about the clothes they wear at work compared to 14.1% of men. Apart from comments on their appearance, many female lawyers received remarks about how they should behave, in case of being viewed as too aggressive and assertive. 

Alarmingly, women who do advance up the career path have found they are subject to more, rather than fewer, incidents of micro-aggressive behaviour, with 23% of female respondents in senior roles experiencing clients directing questions or queries to a more junior male colleague instead of them. One mid-level lawyer cited incidents of clients ‘completely bypassing’ her to give their business cards to her junior male colleagues. 

Some female lawyers reported that despite their seniority, they were still being relegated to performing what they viewed as non-career-enhancing ‘office housework’, while their male counterparts were given high-profile assignments perceived as being more challenging or interesting. Women were also found to spend more time on DEI work or promoting colleagues’ well-being. 

‘The tendency to not give DEI and wellbeing-related work sufficient credit potentially reduces the amount of billable time that lawyers can report, which can also impact their compensation and career progression,’ the report noted. 

Alison Tsai, chairlady of WILHK, said: “Research suggests that a lot of men and women have similar levels of ambition at the beginning of their careers. Negative experiences can do great damage to their ambitions and push them away from the workplace. However, positive experiences would encourage them to pursue leadership roles. If systemic changes are made in the legal industry, they can create such positive experiences and support the rise of female talent in Hong Kong’s legal sector.”

The survey suggested that law firms, barristers’ chambers and in-house legal functions could benefit from having a gender equality policy in place as a minimum. They must also make the effort to ensure that the policy is actually practiced, it said, as such actions can be tokenistic if a culture to support these policies is not nurtured. Fostering a culture where employees at all levels feel safe to give and receive feedback, raise concerns, admit mistakes and ask for help is crucial, it said. 

Other meaningful changes could include improving current HR systems and talent management practices with a D&I lens by remaining educated on unconscious biases at every stage of employment, including talent acquisition, performance management and succession planning. Firms may also offer dedicated coaching and training sessions on inclusivity to employees in leadership roles. A key performance indicator of the workplace environment should be established, it suggested, measured by regular feedback and internal colleague engagement surveys. 

The report drew on responses from 360 men and women who work or have worked in the Hong Kong’s legal profession. 

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