Survey reveals gender bias in Hong Kong’s legal sector
31 March 2023
A survey conducted by law firm Mayer Brown and Women in Law Hong Kong (WILHK), a legal network with over 1,500 members, has found that women in Hong Kong’s legal sector have experienced gender bias in the workplace – from those in upper senior positions to upstarts in the profession.
Mayer Brown and WILHK conducted the survey, dubbed the Everyday Behaviour Project, in 2022. The study generated responses from more than 360 women and men who are either working in or have worked at some point in Hong Kong’s legal community.
The survey aimed to look into workplace behaviours that women have been subjected to, including those that reflect gender bias and lean toward microaggression. The latter refers to everyday comments and interactions among people in an environment that mirror negative or disparaging attitudes, whether intentional or unintentional, toward certain persons. In this case, the survey sought to explore microaggression among women in the legal sector, which may contribute to gender disparity in the organization.
Here are the findings of the survey:
23.7 percent of the female respondents said they are often “advised” to choose a different specialty or change their career paths altogether because of their gender. For example, women are often advised to go into family law, which is “softer” rather than criminal or commercial law which perceivably requires practitioners to be more aggressive.
In contrast, 5.1 percent of the male respondents have been advised to do the same based on their gender.
38.2 percent of the women felt they have been left out of career-building opportunities because of their gender or caregiving duties. Only 18 percent of the male respondents felt likewise.
The research revealed that in the workplace, women with caregiving responsibilities are thought of as people who are no longer committed to their jobs or cannot take up new challenges just because they are caregivers.
Many respondents also mentioned the existence of a “Boys’ Club” culture in their organization. A “Boys’ Club” culture is characterized by males from all seniority levels bonding together in an organization, leading to the exclusion of women, whether intentional or unintentional. Such behaviour becomes discouraging to women, who would have otherwise sought support for their promotion and/or sought to be a member of the “club” together with their male colleagues.
Women suffer from biases and face low awareness of their presence in key settings. The female respondents said they are often ignored, interrupted or undermined in workplace settings because of those biases. According to the survey, 20.5 percent of the female participants revealed they’ve had experiences where a client directed a question to a more junior colleague of a different gender. Only 9 percent of the male participants reported having the same experience.
26.1 percent of the women reported having received offensive or uncalled-for comments and/or advice about their choice of attire, appearance or behaviour in the workplace. In contrast, only 14.1 percent of the male respondents said they’ve been subjected to the same comments and/or advice.
Microaggressive behaviour against women increases as they climb to more senior positions. Some of these respondents reported having been given menial administrative tasks and assignments of a lesser status as compared to those given to their male colleagues. Of the senior female respondents to the survey, 57 percent said they felt left out on business-related opportunities because they were women. Of the senior male respondents, only 15 percent felt left out on such opportunities because they were men.
“Such differential treatment becomes more pronounced as female lawyers rise through the ranks and together with the compound effect of all the other microaggressions identified above is, we believe, a key reason why leadership across the legal profession remains male-dominated,” read Mayer Brown’s and WILHK’s report on the Everyday Behaviour Project.
“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,” said Alison Tsai, chairlady of WILHK.
To help address the problem of gender disparity within organizations, the report included these recommendations:
Hold senior leadership accountable for workplace experience.
Address toxic leaders’ behaviour. Don’t reward them.
Adopt a holistic approach with both meaningful gender targets and enablers to better attract, retain and promote females.
Improve HR systems and talent management practices with a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lens.
Implement impactful DEI trainings instead of tick-the-box exercises.
Set up a billable system of including work on DEI to be recognized and rewarded.
Have systems in place to intervene when non-inclusive behaviours happen.
Research have shown that law firms, barristers’ chambers and in-house legal functions will benefit if there is gender equality within their organizations.
- Espie Angelica A. de Leon