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Why Chinese Female Lawyers Are Successful (Part 1)

Vivia Chen

June 5, 2012


Think Chinese women are demure lotus blossoms? Well, you can toss that stereotype on the compost heap. Among the professional class in China, at least, women are enjoying extraordinary success and are often surpassing their Western sisters. Several recent articles have explored this phenomenon.

Let's start with The Asian Lawyer (I'll be looking at other articles in upcoming posts), which reports that women in Hong Kong represent 46 percent of the 10,000 lawyers and make up 24 percent of the partners . The United States, where women constitute fewer than a third of all lawyers and only 19 percent of law firm partners, pales in comparison.

At some of the most prestigious Western firms in that part of the world, women rule:

    - Chun Wei, head of Sullivan & Cromwell's Hong Kong and Beijing offices

    - Jeanette Chan (right), head of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison's China practice

    - Teresa Ko (middle), head of the China practice for Freshfields

    - Elaine Lo, head of Mayer Brown JSM's Hong Kong office

    - Poh Lee Tan, head of Baker & McKenzie's Hong Kong office

    - Akiko Mikumo, managing parter of Weil, Gotshal & Manges's Hong Kong office

And that list doesn't even include top female partners like Celia Lam of Simpson Thacher & Barltett or Benita Yu (left) of Slaughter and May, and others.

How did a patriarchial society produce this kind of success story for women in the legal profession? Theories abound. One is that many Chinese clients are women, as a result of China's one-child policy. Reports The Asian Lawyer:

Paul Weiss's Chan sees the number of woman executives as a legacy of the Communist government's one-child policy. Ambitious parents who might have favored sons instead pushed daughters to succeed. As a result, she believes that there is very little workplace discrimination, and women hold senior positions at many large Chinese companies.

But here's a theory that is bound to upset some people:

Women in Hong Kong are also rising on the backs of other women—the armies of inexpensive domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia who do the cooking, cleaning, dog-walking, and child-minding for a large swath of Hong Kong's professional classes. If the lack of affordable and reliable child care is the most frequently cited obstacle to professional women's progress in the West, that obstacle simply doesn't exist in Hong Kong.

Okay, I can hear the disapproving chorus already. American liberals are probably saying that Chinese women are exploiting the underclass, while traditionalists are undoubtedly horrified that these women are putting ambition ahead of motherhood.

I'm not going to get into those debates. What stands out to me is that women in China are much more open about their ambitions. Whether you approve or not, there's an unapologetic honesty about the necessity of delegating child care to others to get to the top:

"I think in Western jurisdictions, there might be a stigma attached to getting house help," says Chan. "Lawyers in the West may think that, since they weren't brought up by nannies, they should also weigh up to that responsibility. But it's different over here. People here don't think it's a big deal because most have been brought up by nannies themselves."

Skadden capital markets partner Julie Gao tells The Asian Lawyer: "[The] majority of my time goes to work, but I love what I'm doing, and I cannot imagine being a stay-home mom and not working." She adds: "No one at home is complaining, and until someone does, my life is not going to change."

Tiger lawyers. Tiger moms. Whatever. There's no pretense of work/life balance—if that term exists at all there. If it works, who's to argue?

Related posts: Why Chinese Female Lawyers Are Successful (Part 2); The Model Minority Is Grumpy; Too Nerdy to Get to the Top?

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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What broad shoulders you must have, Beentheredonethat, to carry such large (and offensive) chips on them. Your prejudices are malevolent and entirely undermine any points you make.

I practiced in Hong Kong around 1995-2000 in an international firm. Yes, I saw associates made up to partner who would not have justified partnership in other offices. Yes, it was generally felt that it was because they were Chinese and the firms needed to show that they had Chinese partners. But the ones I observed were both male and female; and though they were not exciting talents they were basically competent, and like all of us would continue to improve with experience. And often they did move up to equity partnership in due course. And in none of the firms of which I am thinking were the top equity partners who made the decisions Jewish. White? Often. Male? Usually. Jewish? Often not.

Ultimately firms are in practice to make money for their owners. It would not be in their interest to promote people who cannot then deliver financial benefit to the firm through work brought in and billed. So if firms promote Chinese associates (whether male or female) to partnership because it helps win business why should anyone be surprised? And what is wrong with that? It sounds like good business sense to me.

Chinese women are promoted as "partners" to satisfy Western law firms' diversity quota. Both "minority" and "women". They are not paid a lot. They are just non-equity partners. They often report to white Jewish men, who get most of the profits. You know the boss by their waist size. All these three women are just working class, surely elite professional working class, but still just working class. The equity partners who get the money are white Jewish men from the U.S. side and the male Communist politburo on the Chinese side. China is still a very conservative society despite the one-child policy; women are allowed to climb to the top if they want to, but it's the Chinese men who rule. Lawyers aren't paid much comparatively; it's the bankers who are. These are predominantly white Jewish men from the investment banking world or Chinese men from the Chinese side. Women in Hong Kong have to sacrifice everything, even motherhood for their job. Filipino and Indonesian maids are highly paid in Hong Kong compared to the world; apartments are minuscule and easy to clean; overworked bosses don't do spot checks and they are free to bring boyfriends in during the day surreptitiously. The lives of these successful Chinese women are very hard, it's not as glamorous as White women think it is. There's a saying in Hong Kong that if a Chinese female lawyers goes into delivery for a baby, she had better bring her blackberry and iphone along to respond to client queries. This is not the sort of equality in gender rights American women want. It's just a glamorous facade - compared to the other billion exploited Chinese girls and women working in real sweatshops in Dalian or Tianjin.

Are Chinese women so much more successful when it comes to areas OTHER than China or Hong Kong? Face reality. It is the language that helps. And the race. Be honest, people.

I find Ms. Chan's comment about China's one child policy to be most intriguing. So much of what one achieves is influenced by parental expectations. I recall a talented asian woman in my law school class who decided once she got engaged that she would defer to her husband's views when it came to her choice of job upon graduation. Perhaps there are still cultural stereotypes underlying career decisions?

I get the reference to "Tiger" moms, but I really wish we would all stop using it. It's establishing a stigma to asian women that I don't feel should be the case. For example, a partner (white male) recently asked one of our chinese associates whether his mom was a tiger mom, and how many instruments he plays. This stigma is not true for a lot of asians - neither he nor I had tiger-like moms. I understand the reference but I'd like to try to mitigate the use of the word, since I can see it being very easily thrown around in the near future.

Ms. Chan is quite out of touch with the realities of her own country when she says, "People here don't think it's a big deal because most have been brought up by nannies themselves."

Ms. Chan, servants even in your country are reserved for the privileged few. Do you think your servants have servants?

Her point remains valid. I'm sure that a greater proportion of the elite in her country have servants than in the US. But it's hilarious how out of touch a wealthy individual can be to actually think that everyone lives just like they do, when the people working in their own home have far less than them.

Vivia, A perhaps related question. Has anyone ever studied the partnership prospects of women who live in the city vs. women who live in the suburbs? Do the successful Chinese women you profile live in the city or the suburbs? My hypothesis is that time spent on child care is only one of the drains on women lawyers. Another is time spent in that awful commute.

This does not surprise me at all. In my class, and I'm talking about a tiny class of women, back in the 1970s, two of the women with the stand-out careers are Chinese or half-Chinese.

Childcare and domestic issues are absolutely the number one reason why women in the U.S. don't rise to the top. To an earlier point someone made (was it you, Vivia?) even if the woman is the primary wage earner in the household, she is also the primary caregiver. And the women who have made it to the top have only been able to do so because of very expensive help and an astonishingly supportive husband. How many of you out there know financially successful men who are also primary caregivers?

I am definately a Tiger Mom and a Tiger Manager, but my daughter and colleagues love and respect me because even though I drive them hard to get results, I genuinely care about them on a personal level. Abolutely no surprise that Chinese women make fantastic lawyers - I've seen what happens when someone goes after a Tiger cub. Imagine what happens when you go after a Tiger mom's children or work projects or clients!?

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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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