Women lawyers still lag men in senior in-house roles

Singapore - More women lawyers in Asia and the Middle East are opting for in-house roles, as they find it easier to ascend to senior positions in such roles than they would in private practice.

Despite this, however, they continue to be outranked by their male colleagues in in-house roles.

These were two of the key conclusions drawn from a study by In-House Community, a professional and social network for more than 20,023 in-house legal and compliance professionals.

The study was compiled from interviews conducted last year with more than 2,600 members of In-House Community from 12 jurisdictions, ranging from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Tokyo.

In-House Community said in a statement on Thursday that its study found that more women than men among in-house lawyers in these jurisdictions, suggesting that "it is easier for women lawyers to move into an in-house role and attain a senior position, than in private practice".

In Kuala Lumpur (KL), for example, the study found that 72.3 per cent of all in-house lawyers to be women, and that among all in-house lawyers holding a senior post - specifically that of "head of Legal" - 74 per cent were women.

In China, women made up 67.8 per cent of all in-house lawyers; among those heading in-house positions, 52.1 per cent were women.

In Hong Kong, 61.7 per cent of all in-house lawyers were women; among all Heads of Legal, 55.9 per cent were women.

However, in only four of the 12 jurisdictions - the aforementioned KL, China and Hong Kong plus Ho Chi Minh - did women outnumber men in senior in-house legal positions.

This was not the case across the board. Across the 12 jurisdictions taken collectively, women accounted for only 41 per cent of the senior in-house legal positions, with the remaining 59 per cent taken by men.

In Singapore, for example, 43.8 per cent of in-house lawyers were women; and, of those heading their in-house legal divisions, only 42.4 per cent were women.

In the UAE, women made up 40.3 per cent of the in-house legal force, but took up only 33.6 per cent of senior positions.

The gap yawned wider in Mumbai and Tokyo.

In Mumbai, 20.5 per cent of in-house lawyers were women, and only 20 per cent of the top in-house legal positions were held by women.

In Tokyo, 21.4 per cent of in-house lawyers were women, who held only 10 per cent of the top positions.

Women are thus still second to men across most jurisdictions when it comes to taking the senior in-house role of head of Legal, In-House Community said.

Still, it pointed out, the proportion of women in senior in-house roles across Asia and the Middle East is much larger than women who make partner in the traditional career path provided by private practice.

Legal recruiter Taylor Root said three-quarters (75 per cent) of partners in law firms are men.

Yvette Tan, head of Development at In-House Community, said that the option of a career as an in-house lawyer in Asia and the Middle East was relatively new, with a history of about 20 years or so.

"For the moment at least, more women hold these in-house roles. At this relatively early stage in the profession in Asia, in-house lawyers can aspire to top positions, hopeful that family responsibilities and gender are unlikely to be a barrier to advancement based on merit.

"Thirty years ago, in the early days of the technology industry, women also comprised a high percentage of the workforce. But this has been whittled down to less than 10 per cent, so there is no room for complacency."

This article was first published on May 27, 2016.
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