STEFANIE YUEN THIO & THIO SHEN YI
Stefanie Yuen Thio is a formidable force with an insatiable desire to do good and create change. For the last 20 years, she has helmed the homegrown TSMP Law Corporation with her husband and partner in crime (pun intended), Thio Shen Yi—a partnership both describe as great, but not suitable for everyone. The secret to their healthy professional and personal relationship? Shared values, complementary skills, honest yet tactful communication, and a deep understanding of the demands of each other’s jobs. Both are unafraid to vocalise the causes they are passionate about, but the topic of female empowerment hits especially close to home, as both were brought up by strong matriarchal figures. The leading lawyers discuss more about their growing-up years, and the realities faced by women in their industry today.
Growing up, I was told that while a man may enjoy going out with a woman who speaks her mind, he’ll want to marry somebody who is docile and a good wife material. Was that something you ever felt? Well, my mother had a successful career, so it’d be a bit strange for me to expect my wife to be a docile housewife. As a father then, what have you taught our son about women’s rights? Nothing explicitly, but I suspect that he gets it. He’s growing up in a household where his mother is a successful lawyer, and she doesn’t get any grief from her husband about working late and being away at work, sometimes even on the weekends. And that’s the best way, right? Not to make women’s rights this big flag that you need to wave around. What’s important is that parents walk the talk, as if it’s their normal daily routine. Is there a woman you admire? Yes, my grandmother. She lost her husband when she was pregnant with my mum during World War II. After she had Mummy, she would walk home from work during lunchtime every day just to breastfeed her baby. Remember how we used to joke that she was Carlos the Jackal, and that she was an international spy because she was so capable and always going around Singapore by herself ? Yeah! By the way, she shared how her great-aunt ran Singapore’s most successful brothel, which had the pick of the prettiest girls coming off the boat. So I come from a line of strong female leaders—that’s where I got it from, hon. Anyway, back to law. How do you feel we’re doing in terms of gender equality? We’ve seen female managing partners in most of the major corporate law firms, including ours, but there’s still a shortage of senior female role models in the litigation bar. Yes. When I first started out, I was told that as a female litigator, you need to come across as very strong. Yet if you come across as strident, you’re called a bitch; if you’re too soft, people will say you’re using your feminine wiles to get your way. It’s a lose-lose situation for women. The lesson here is accepting that women can be aggressive and tough, and still be feminine. It’s a mindset change that’s required. Also, women have to say, “I don’t care. I’m going to own it, I’m going to do my job.” Do you think this is something legislation needs to address? I don’t believe legislation can change mindsets. What we should have is a mindset where if you need gender diversity, appoint a woman on your board because if not, you won’t have that alternative perspective. I mean, it’s in the statistics that boards with women do perform better. It’s also partly our own fault, isn’t it? Women prefer to not put themselves forward. Yet, when we don’t step forward and accept an accolade when it’s due, we’re doing a disservice to the women who come after us. You have a point. Women won’t put up their hand to volunteer to do a job unless they’re 100 per cent sure that they can do it. Conversely, a guy would say he can do the job if he’s just 40 per cent sure. What about sexual harassment in law—have you seen or experienced it yourself ? Sexual harassment in the workplace obviously exists. The question is, what’s our response? It’s important to empower people to talk about this and be willing to say, “This doesn’t make me feel comfortable.” We women also need to stop treating ourselves as victims. We sometimes feel like, “Oh, if he treats me like this and I don’t feel comfortable, it’s not for me to tell him. It’s for him to stop doing it, and then I go and complain.” But the man might not know that it’s an area of discomfort! So it’s also for us to learn to say, “Please back off ”. And all this must be done in an atmosphere without recrimination. One of the things I’ll be asking my female associates after this is if we’re creating a safe working environment for them at TSMP. Yes. I also believe female leaders shouldn’t just worry about their female employees. They should also make sure that their male employees are being looked after because it’s important to protect their family lives. I agree. The world isn’t entirely equal yet and the topic of women’s rights is a conversation that has to continue, but I believe we’re generally moving in the right direction.