Speech by Meera Samanther, President of AWL at the Colloquium at Taylor's University, 8th of April 2015
Gender Discrimination in the Working Environment 8 April 2015
Some of you may be wondering, and rightly so – why is there an organization specifically for Women Lawyers, when the Malaysian Bar caters for all lawyers – male and female lawyers.
Further, women lawyers represent 51 % of the Malaysian Bar. So statistically , this validates the position that the representation of women in the legal profession is fair .
But in reality is there a level playing field? Is it a fair playing field for women lawyers?
The title of the Association of Women Lawyers Baseline survey was “51% - Is it a level playing field?”. The survey was launched last mid year. We conducted a qualitative and quantitative survey on the working conditions of male and female lawyers in KL and Selangor in collaboration with the Bar, Suhakam and Women’s Aid Organisation. The researchers involved on this collaboration were from the Gender Studies Department and the Law Faculty of University Malaya .
This idea of a survey only surfaced after AWL held a brainstorming session with its members about 4 years ago. Some of the younger lawyers shared with us about the sexual harassment cases they knew of and the intimidation some of them had experienced. Most of us as senior lawyers knew or heard of such cases during our early years in practice but it was never brought up to the Bar.
At the brainstorming session, members also spoke about how they were encouraged by their lecturers, from one particular university, to steer towards a path in conveyancing and family law, as apparently it best suited a women’s lifestyle.
With such findings, our initial idea of a survey just on sexual harassment was scrapped but we broadened the survey to look at why women lawyers face unique challenges in their career. The study focused on direct and indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination occurs when demands are made of employees that are not cognizant of the various social expectations placed on women.
We believe there has never been any survey or analysis of how women have progressed in the profession in Malaysia. We know there have been many rising stars and some who have been and are somewhat legendary in the legal circles – to name a few, we have Tan Sri Siti Norma Yaakob – former Federal Court Judge, Dato’ Noor Faridah (who is leading the G26, a former Ambassador and former Sessions Court Judge) and Dato Ambiga (and who are all AWL members too) . We are extremely proud of these individuals. But we felt that we also needed to look at the landscape of all female lawyers.
The survey raised many issues and provided much needed data that points to the uneven playing field for women in the legal profession. Some of the questions posed were: Are women represented equally in leadership position within the Bar? Of the 15 members of the Bar Council Committee, only 5 are women. Of the past 28 Bar Presidents, only 2 have been women. The Constitution of Committee members of the various State Bars also show that women are under represented.
The survey also indicated the existence of barriers of upward mobility that affect women. The different areas of practice also revealed a delineation of areas by gender and current social expectation.
The repression or suppression of women is not something new that only affects the legal profession. Gender Discrimination exists in most professions.
Gender Inequality - So where does it stem from? Well I’m not going to have a discussion now as I’m excitedly waiting for the answers from our participants today.
But before I end, I must thank Ms Santhi Latha, the representative from the Bar and Jian also from the Bar . Santhi and I had brainstormed this project sometime last year . My initial discussion with Santhi was on trying to introduce a compulsory Gender Sensitization Curriculum for all chambering students entering the legal profession. Well I think it’s too late for the older lawyers so the next best step I thought was working with chambering students.
But I think working with Law students was even a better idea and a great privilege. I am honored to have been working with Taylors, INTI College, BAC, ATC and KDU since last year. I must also thank Mr Harmahinder and Ms Tamara, and her colleagues from Taylors for kick starting the Gender Initiative project today. Thank you Taylors.
The next competition would be held on the 16 June where INTI International University will be hosting the Debate Competition. The Video Competition hosted by the Bar will be sometime in July, followed by the Moots, hosted by ATC sometime end of August/ early September. Then BAC will host the Final closing ceremony in September. In future we hope to include the public Universities in this project.
Students – You are the future generation that can change the landscape of Human Rights, in particular Women’s Rights. It needs the efforts of Men and Women together to end Gender Discrimination. You need to be part of the Change.
I hope this Colloquium will set the context and train young legal minds to be more respectful and sensitive to the opposite sex and people of different sexual orientation.
Thank you and all the best to the participants.
*The Colloquium at Taylor's University was the first event under the Gender Equality Initiative 2015