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Why Chinese Female Lawyers Are Successful (Part 2)

Vivia Chen

June 6, 2012

ChineseLady1930s_Shanghai_Cigarettes_Ad_1More dragon ladies than China dolls, Chinese female lawyers are on a tear. I talked about that in my last post— how Chinese female lawyers in Hong Kong are way ahead of their American and European sisters, despite being late entrants to the game. That post focused on Chinese lawyers working for Western firms, where women have (presumably) more opportunities than in Chinese organizations.

But how are female lawyers faring in Chinese firms? Are they delegated to serving tea and moon cakes?

In a fascinating study [Download pdf] by Beth Bunnell (managing director of Asia Legal Resources in Hong Kong) and Amy Sommers (partner at K&L Gates's Shanghai office), the authors find that female lawyers in Chinese firms are more than holding their own.

In fact, the obstacles most often cited by Western women were largely absent from their list of greivances:

In reviewing the responses, a striking point was the strength of the perception that gender does not impact issues that are frequently discussed as problematic in the U.S./U.K. profession, such as (1) assignments, (2) the way the subjects conduct themselves, or (3) compensation (83 percent responded that gender had little to no impact on their compensation!). 

But before you sign up for intensive Mandarin and buy a one-way ticket to Shanghai, consider this: Chinese women also say that gender discrimination is alive and well. (One woman in the study said: "I accepted the reality [of gender bias]." Another woman talked about how she downplayed her personal responsibilities: "Try not to let others notice that you would need more time than a man to take care of family and kid(s).")

Not exactly liberated. Yet, despite the inequities, Chinese women have found ways to cope. The reports offers some surprising insights about how the work culture in China helps women succeed:

1. Compensation in Chinese firms is largely transparent. "In China there is little, if any, stigma or social mores against openly discussing/comparing compensation (meaning that Chinese females are, in fact, likely well aware of what their male colleagues/counterparts are earning)."

2. Eat-what-you-kill model prevails at local Chinese firms, and this helps promote fairness. Under this system, compensation is set by formula, rather than left to the discretion of an inner group. "An interesting corollary" to this model is that "Chinese women are not necessarily looking for, nor do they need, mentors to pull them through the ranks."

3. Chinese women (and men) have no qualms about hitting up friends and relations for business. This  marks a big difference between Chinese women and their American counterparts, explained Sommers: "People in China are much more matter-of-fact about using their personal relationships to get clients. Chinese women lawyers would say, 'Why wouldn't I ask friends for business?' " Western women, she added, are much more ambivalent about parlaying personal contacts into business.

I agree that all women should be much more proactive about asking for business, and I also believe that women will only gain if there's greater transparency about what other lawyers make. But eat-what-you-kill as a panacea for the gender gap? I mean, isn't law practice Darwinian enough?

"Chinese women have no problems with eat-what-you-kill-culture," Sommers told me. "Children are taught at an early age that it's a tough, competitive world."

Related posts:  The Model Minority Is Grumpy; Too Nerdy to Get to the Top?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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