Uneven legal field
Lawyers fight for justice for others but women lawyers seem no better equipped to fend off discriminatory employment practices and sexual harassment.
She just jiggles and the files will come running. No need to do anything. For women lawyers it comes easy, just sleep your way up.”
“Why you are very good, what have you done to all the people (to) pass cases to you, they ‘keep’ you?”
Many Malaysians would nod in agreement hearing those comments or laugh. Fewer would froth at the mouth because these are sexist remarks.
These comments were uttered by some of the respondents in Malaysia’s first ever Baseline Study on the Working Conditions of Male and Female Lawyers in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.
The research project titled “51%! Is it a Level Playing Field?” was commissioned by the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), in collaboration with the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), and was funded by the United Nations Population Fund in Malaysia.
The project report was prepared by Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Dr Lai Suat Yan (chief consultant), Dr Kuppusamy Singaravelloo (statistician), Dr Nurjaanah Chew Li Hua and Dr Sarina Mohamed (researchers).
The research findings were made public yesterday at the Kuala Lumpur Bar Auditorium.
In an exclusive interview, AWL president and project coordinator Meera Samanther says one could be lulled into thinking statistically that the hiring of women lawyers is fair since women lawyers represent 51% of the Malaysian Bar.
However, gender equality is not alive and well in the legal profession.
The survey shows it is not a level playing field in regard to women’s position in the law firm, promotions and salaries, especially if they are also mothers.
And it is not just about balancing work and home life but can involve bending/breaking one’s values and principles.
A female partner who was surveyed noted this: “Male lawyers were not restricted in this regard and could indulge in the nightlife which included going out for drinks and massages as part of networking to entertain clients.”
She cited this as the reason why she would not get corporate work.
We’ve all heard anecdotal evi- dence like this before, says Meera, but for the first time we have a statistically based study to cite now.
She says that Dr Lai, who was overseas during this interview, played a critical role in providing a feminist perspective to the study.
For one, the study covered both female and male lawyers for a more balanced picture of the existence and perceptions around gender discrimination and bias in the legal profession.
According to the report, researchers used both quantitative and qualitative methods to obtain data; the quantitative survey complemented by the qualitative interviews provided in-depth details of the discrimination faced by working mothers which included lesser remuneration and chances of promotion and advancement.
Dr Kuppusamy, who is also acting director of UM’s Centre for Continuing Education, says they used a stratified random sampling procedure to select the respondents from the list of registered lawyers as at December 2012.
This gave a sample of 9,631 law-
association of Women Lawyers president Meera Samanther revealed that a recent baseline study shows that gender equality is not alive and well in the legal profession in Malaysia. yers, comprising 51% female lawyers and 49% male lawyers.
Dr Kuppusamy says there were 198 responses to the quantitative survey but three consultants were omitted due to the small figure not being statistically significant in analysing the data.
“However, they were included in the qualitative part as it adds more in-depth understanding of the issue at hand.”
Meera says they planned to survey 450 respondents but could not because of the lawyers’ busy schedules and the project timeline. The quantitative aspect of the study looked at status in firm, attrition rate, leadership role in the Bar Council’s executive committee or the KL and Selangor state Bars and working conditions.
Based on three time frames (March 2011, December 2011 and December 2012), the statistics show:
> Women make up over 60% of legal assistants while men comprise about 75% of consultants;
> Sole proprietors – 35% female