Hong Kong legal sector needs to address ‘boys’ club’ culture

The survey found women face gender-based discrimination in all walks of the profession

Hong Kong’s legal sector needs to address its ‘boys’ club’ culture in which men form groups excluding women, and tend to favour other men when it comes to promotions or professional development opportunities.

That was one of the many conclusions that came from a joint survey from law firm Mayer Brown and pressure group Women in Law Hong Kong, looking into gender disparity in the special administrative region’s legal sector.

The survey, which was carried out in 2022 involving 360 men and women who currently or have previously worked in Hong Kong’s legal sector, found that women face systemic gender bias in all walks of the profession.

“Every day, women have to contend with barriers, ranging from unwanted comments about their appearance, overt and covert displays of bias to active discrimination and exclusion – simply because of their gender,” the report said.

“The bias is widespread and prevalent at all levels, from the most senior to those starting out in the profession.”

According to the survey, 23.7% of female respondents have been told to change their specialty in law or career paths because of their gender compared with 5.1% of male respondents.

At the same time, 38.2% of women respondents felt they have been left out of career-building opportunities because of their gender or care-giving responsibilities compared with 18% for male respondents, underscoring the ‘boys’ club’ culture.

“I don’t fit into the ‘club’. I have not been invited to work drinks, late nights out and other lads-style get-togethers whereby inevitably deeper bonds are created,” said one senior female practicing lawyer.

In addition, 20.5% of women received negative experiences of clients directing questions or queries to more junior colleagues because of a gender difference compared with 9% of men.

Meanwhile, 26.1% of female respondents have negative experiences of receiving comments or advice on their clothing choices at work compared with 14.1% of men.