12 ASIAN LEGAL BUSINESS – JULY 2023 WWW.LEGALBUSINESSONLINE.COM Almost six decades since the passage of the Women’s Charter in parliament, like many other Asian countries, Singapore is still grappling with one of its most entrenched socioeconomic challenges – gender inequality. More than half of Singapore’s companies have less than 20 percent of women in leadership positions as of 2020. And even today, women held fewer than 30 percent of seats in parliament. It’s then of little doubt that the traditionally male-dominated legal industry has had a fraught relationship with female practitioners. The situation is even more dire when it comes to the practice area of litigation. Only a handful of the 98 senior counsel listed in the Singapore Academy of Law directory are female. Marina Chin, one of the few notable female senior counsels on the list, believes the reasons behind the lack of female representation in the private litigation practice could vary. “Most women lawyers practice in non-contentious fields. Only a minority choose to do battle in court, and so only they have a shot at being appointed senior counsel,” says Chin, who is also joint managing partner of local firm Tan Kok Quan Partnership. “There is also attrition over the years. The reasons could range from losing interest to challenges faced in practice and pressures on the family front,” she adds. Another senior counsel, WongPartnership partner Koh Swee Yen, is amongst those who had to deal with the challenges of juggling family life and a dedicated work presence. “As a young mother, you would want to spend much time with your child, yet work is equally demanding. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day, it is critical to work efficiently, multi-task and compartmentalise,” says Koh, who considers herself fortunate for having the support system she needs from home and at work. But disparities resulting from gender stereotypes proved a sticking point of contention. “Clients, opposing counsel, adjudicators, counterparties may have a subconscious perception that a female litigator is not as effective, as she has less of a presence in the courtroom, and her feminine nature may lead her to be more docile and easily concede points,” notes Koh. However, “If a female litigator is confident, assertive, and tenacious, some others may perceive this as being too aggressive. At the end of the day, you have to find what works best for you, and let your work speak for itself,” she adds. Chin, who started her practice more than 30 years ago, says female litigators were a rare sight back in the day. “There was no discrimination before the courts, but not all clients accepted that the female litigator could effectively fight for their cause,” recalls Chin. But she is convinced that sound legal logic and persuasive argument is not, and never has been, the exclusive remit of the male litigators. “I was fortunate that the senior lawyers trusted me to do the job, and I was equally determined to prove to the doubters that I was more than worth my salt. Over time and with some perseverance, I won over clients,” Chin says. On the upside, there seemed to be more female lawyers making a foray into litigation. “More women are prepared to get into the arena, as they have found litigation work to be interesting and stimulating. At the same time, there is increasing acceptance that women should be entitled to career satisfaction – that it should not always be the case that women are to be defined only by their roles as wife, mother and daughter,” notes Chin. Koh believes young female disputes practitioners who start out in Singapore today will face fewer challenges than those who started decades ago. “One of the key factors driving this is the conscious effort made by all stakeholders in the disputes sphere to change mindsets and erode gender inequality. Efforts are being taken at all levels, whether at the law firms when it comes to hiring and promotion, at the arbitral institutions when it comes to arbitral appointments, at the judiciary when it comes to appointments, and even when it comes to the clients, who are prepared to appoint a female lead counsel and/or female arbitrator,” says Koh. In addition, in the past ten years, “there are many gender equality pledges such as the Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge, which have made a positive difference, by focussing on equal representation,” she adds. Chin believes domestic support, workplace allyship, and societal acceptance play a crucial role in encouraging more women to take up the litigation practice. Furthermore, it’s equally important, if not more so, for female litigators and women, in general, to lift each other up. “It is not just about what should be done to help break the glass ceilings, but also what should be done to get off the sticky floor,” adds Chin. “Women should stand up for themselves.” FEMALE LITIGATORS PRESS FOR CHANGE AS GENDER EQUALITY LAGS IN PRACTICE AREA Image: melitas/ BRI EFS