Women in law: a comparison between England and Wales, and Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the largest overseas destinations for solicitors of England and Wales. It's a major financial hub and an attractive market for businesses. But what obstacles face women lawyers struggling to make it to the top, and how can firms support them?

Mother with laptop sitting next to little girl laying on sofa

In July 2021, we held a joint discussion with the Law Society of Hong Kong to discuss the challenges and solutions to gender inequality for women in law in Hong Kong. Over 120 members took part in the event, which also covered cross-border dispute resolution.

Watch a recording (2 hours – start at 1:06:40 for women in law)

Challenges

Single parents

The burden of single parenthood, for both men and women, was identified as a key issue in our recent event.

Women face multiple barriers to entry to the legal profession, but traditionally taboo issues are even harder to address due to the stigma surrounding them.

Speakers urged jurisdictions to look to other countries as examples, such as the Philippines – where the government offers parental leave benefits, full scholarships, promotion at university as well as healthcare priorities for single parents and their children. France is also quite advanced in this area and offers similar benefits.

It's important for firms to encourage single parents back to the workforce through flexible working.

Support from one’s firm can make a monumental difference when it comes to professional women’s experiences of motherhood. For instance, enabling timely cover allowed one speaker to continue with her planned promotion and worry less about the impact of her pregnancy. She did note that there was still an issue of unconscious bias at play, as some colleagues would make comments or assume she would have less focus on her career after becoming a mother.

Gender equality

More industries are now aware of gender equality, and as a result, increased flexibility is much more possible for the legal sector.

The technology available today also presents an opportunity to help encourage the shift.

Despite the progress made, however, the solution is still far from a reality. Although 60% of trainees are now women, women make up just 30% of partners. This is similar at the bar level and Hong Kong is not unique; the UK’s statistics are similar.

Something’s happening along the way to prevent women from making it to the top, but better communication and the devotion of more resources to diversity and inclusion are encouraging signs. Statistics show there is a glass ceiling, but that the situation is improving.

In Hong Kong, two women judges have just been allocated to the Court of Final Appeal and we’re seeing an increasing number of female managing partners in law firms.

Solutions

To unearth and address the prevailing challenges, a holistic approach is necessary.

We need open dialogue to find solutions that enable women to support women, and lead from the top and by example.

Asking hard questions and not under-estimating men’s role as champions for change is also critical.

A report by WILCO (Welfare innovations at the local level in favour of cohesion) recently recognised the effectiveness of support networks as a key component to achieving change.

Key players’ commitment to raising women’s profiles – through coaching, mentoring and sponsorship – is paramount, and support and guidance from those in more senior positions can help focus women’s ambitions.

Law societies and bar associations are perfectly placed to lead and encourage the change, and practical tips such as providing step-by-step guides and transparent female-friendly policies are key to promoting gender equality, which are essential to finally breaking the glass ceiling for women.

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