Gender disparity exists at all levels of Hong Kong's legal sector: Mayer Brown survey

Half of female respondents feel they have been treated differently, to their disadvantage

Gender disparity exists at all levels of Hong Kong's legal sector: Mayer Brown survey

Women in Hong Kong’s legal sector are facing systemic gender biases that exist at all levels – from the most senior levels to those starting out in the profession – according to a new survey.

Mayer Brown and Women In Law Hong Kong have announced the results of a joint survey aimed at exploring gender biases in Hong Kong's legal industry. The objective of the project is to examine the behaviours that women encounter at the workplace, including gender biases and micro-aggressions: the everyday, subtle, and often unintentional comments and interactions that may accumulate and contribute to gender disparity.

Half of female survey respondents feel they have been treated differently to their disadvantage as a result of their gender in the Hong Kong legal sector. Almost a quarter (23.7%) of female respondents had been told to change their specialty in law or career path, five times more than male respondents. Moreover, 38.2% of female have felt left out of career-building opportunities because of their gender or care responsibilities. In several cases, female respondents reported their commitment or competence was questioned because of being a caregiver. Hence, many women are choosing to leave the legal profession, resulting in a gender imbalance at senior levels of private practice and in-house teams.

Findings of the survey, which drew responses from more than 360 women and men who are currently working or have worked in the Hong Kong legal sector, also suggests that the legal sector needs to address its prevalent “boys’ club” culture, which involves men forming groups excluding women, therefore favouring men over women when it comes to promotions and professional development opportunities.

Some female respondents also reported that they are too often ignored, interrupted or undermined in many workplace settings. Additionally, many women lawyers expressed their struggle to call out 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 about the clothes they wear at work. Apart from comments on their appearance, many female lawyers received patronising 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 23.0% of female respondents in senior roles experiencing clients directing questions or queries to a more junior male colleague instead of them.

“If industry representatives make a collaborative effort and take these biases seriously, these issues can be addressed with real impact,” said Amita Haylock, partner of Mayer Brown's IP & TMT group and co-chair of the Asia Women's Network. “Senior leadership need to walk the talk, and leaders need to take the initiative to respectfully challenge each other on gender bias issues. It is only through intentional and consistent action that an inclusive culture can be nurtured, and microaggressions will stop.”

Alison Tsai, chair of WILHK added, “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.”

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