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International Women’s Day: IP leaders reveal how they reached the top

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Asia counsel at Daniel Wellington, Lazada, Lego and elsewhere tell their stories of gender bias and give tips on getting a seat at the leadership table

The legal profession, infamous for cutthroat competition and long working hours, is by no means easy. And like most professions, it’s doubly hard to get a seat at the leadership table when you’re a woman.

But that’s not to say it can’t be done.

For International Women’s Day, which is being celebrated today, March 8, Managing IP spoke to some extraordinary women who have beaten the odds and climbed to general counsel and senior leadership roles at multinational companies and law firms.

Their journeys were, however, far from smooth.

They’ve faced workplace biases because of their gender, appearances, and more. Even those who’ve had better luck at picking equitable workplaces early on in their career recognise that there’s a need to create better support networks and opportunities to help more women reach leadership roles.

They say that it’s important for women to lead with compassion, not imitate male leaders, and call out prejudiced behaviour.

And women lawyers aspiring to get into leadership roles must be ready to voice their opinions at every opportunity, not be afraid to fail, and ignore those who make them feel like they don’t belong.

Call out prejudice

Instances where women are treated differently by colleagues, seniors, and clients are by no means rare. 

Robin Smith, general counsel for China and APAC at toy company the Lego Group, faced several such biases early in her career.

“I have worked with law firm partners who only liked to work with the male associates; I have walked into a conference room to take a deposition and was asked to go get coffee for the male lawyers on the opposing side because they did not know I was the lawyer opposing them.”

The biases are often associated with a woman’s appearance, she says.

“Because I am tall and blonde, there is often the stereotyped assumption that I am not as smart and experienced as I am. It took a little while to learn not to take those experiences personally, but I made sure that the people in those situations knew the mistakes they made.”

As well as calling prejudiced behaviour out, it is important for women to stand their ground and let their work speak for itself.

These are the principles that helped Priyanka Khimani – who was the youngest partner at India’s top-tier intellectual property firm Anand & Anand – convince the firm’s Mumbai office to change its name to Anand & Anand Khimani.

Khimani, who now heads women-run firm Khimani & Associates in Mumbai, says her professional experience hasn’t been free from gender bias.

“There have been times when I’ve been made to sit out of deals for reasons that had nothing to do with merit or ability. I’ve also been intentionally kept out of conversations or ‘boys’ clubs’, and labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘she knows too much’, ‘asks too much’, amongst others.”

It is important to develop a thick skin and not let anything shake your confidence, Khimani says.

“It wasn’t easy – it never is – but each time I thought I wasn’t getting what I deserved, I have made the tough decision to choose myself over everything else.”

It is why these senior counsel recognise there is a need for women to support each other, and to commit to training and mentoring others on how best to treat (or not treat) female colleagues.

Lead with compassion

Sources say that women must embrace their strengths and differences to lead effectively.

Linda Chang, general manager at Rouse in Shanghai, says women leaders can make the greatest impact when they try not to be like men.

“It is because we are respectful, resilient, less confrontational, unlike many men; we better keep those qualities than lose them.”

Chang says that she leads others based on how she likes to be led.

“I lead by being credible and trusting. I prefer to seek consent rather than be hostile. If people feel that they are trusted and get space, they deliver incredible results.”

The difference between women leaders and most of their male counterparts, according to Chang, is that male leaders tend to be very confrontational.

“It often creates a difficult environment for junior lawyers to stay for long. I try to stop that from happening.”

Some counsel, including Lily Chan, group general counsel at watch and accessory maker Daniel Wellington in Hong Kong SAR, say that women have stronger soft skills that can make them better leaders.

These could be emotional intelligence, empathy, moral sensitivity, and social skills.

“It’s not just about leading a team on work-related issues. As leaders, our responsibility is also to take care of the emotional and psychological issues of our team members, and women are often better placed to do that,” says Chan.

Make yourself heard

Being compassionate or less confrontational, however, doesn’t mean that women should not stand their ground or speak their minds.

Counsel say that being innately confident certainly helps. Others can borrow from their positive experiences, such as court wins, to get through the difficult ones.

Smith says that it is important to speak up and make yourself heard.

“I don’t like all those programmes and seminars out there which tell women that they must learn how to speak up, because it just creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of women thinking that they don’t know how to do that.

“I think all women know how to do it; they only have to choose to do it. True, sometimes you need to judge your timing to ensure that you’ll be heard, and sometimes you have to muster more than the normal courage not to back down in the face of strong or even inappropriate challenges,” she adds.

Chan at Daniel Wellington says that women must identify situations where they are unequally or unfairly treated at work and speak out against them.

“If you are being treated unfairly and you just stand behind the curtains, neither you nor the situation will change.”

Find your allies

Counsel urge women to find an environment where their skills are valued irrespective of gender.

Unsurprisingly, women leaders are likely to be found in companies that promote diversity and inclusion as well as practise it.

Chan and other women leaders from different departments comprise 50% of the management team at Daniel Wellington.

Similarly, Gladys Chun, Singapore-based general counsel at Lazada, says the e-commerce company’s mentorship programme comprises 40% women mentors and 46% women mentees, reflecting a strong support network for women.

Success isn’t just the result of one’s abilities, skills, or knowledge – often it’s the result of opportunities and access to these opportunities, she says. She encourages young female lawyers to seek out women mentors in the industry.

“Traditionally, the ‘boys’ club’ culture has helped men reach leadership positions. It offers professional support, opportunities for advancement, mentorship, and so much more. We need a similar club for women which can open doors for more women to break the glass ceiling.

“We also need more male allies, especially in male-dominated environments,” Chun says.

Smith advises finding a work environment that values fairness, diversity, and inclusion, and allows someone to be their authentic self.

“If you are not in that environment, change to a different one, or commit to advocating and making positive changes in the one where you are.

“Becoming a great leader is easiest in a place where you can be yourself, speak your opinions openly, and are allowed to learn and grow. In that way, you can turn around and do the same for your teams.”

Get that corner office

There is no shortcut to success, especially for women.

Women who want a seat at the table must be incredibly passionate about their work that they leave no stone unturned in getting what they truly deserve, says Khimani.

“Never listen to anyone who makes you feel like you don’t deserve or don’t belong. This will require an inordinate amount of diligence, perseverance, hard work, and most importantly self-belief.”

Smith advises women to make comments at every meeting they attend, even if it is just to second a motion, to let everyone know that they are there and have an opinion.

“Take some time to reflect on what type of leader you would like to be and write it all down. Go back and check on that document from time to time and see if you are being true to that vision.

“Most importantly, be kind to yourself and do not put yourself under undue pressure to achieve some ideal of leadership.”

Another important thing for women is to take their failures with a pinch of salt. Failures are often caused by unfair circumstances, which is even more reason to be resilient.

Chun at Lazada says the biggest regret can often be not trying, hence missing opportunities that can contribute to both personal and professional growth.

“Learn from each failure and success and learn from the people who journeyed with you.”

It may not become easy for women lawyers to get corner offices anytime soon, but standing their ground and speaking out against unfair practices will help them push for changes one step at a time.

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