Nicole Li* made her way successfully through law school and landed a job at a Hong Kong legal firm, but was not prepared for the gender discrimination she faced at work. Unsolicited comments about her clothes, patronising remarks about her work and being talked down to were just some ways men upset the lawyer, in her 20s, who has been practising for more than two years. Men in the office providing “friendly advice” warned her that her career would be derailed if she ever decided to have a baby and went on maternity leave. And there was the colleague who thought he was making a joke when he called her a rude word . Although offended, she felt she had to laugh along because of his seniority and to avoid being considered “too sensitive”. Two-fifths of Hong Kong women have experienced sexual violence, survey finds “Even if you have good and encouraging male bosses and colleagues, having just one person terrorise or harass you at work can make the workplace very unsafe,” she said. Her experiences reflect the results of a survey conducted jointly by law firm Mayer Brown and non-profit Women in Law Hong Kong, showing that women lawyers face more gender discrimination than men. The first survey to focus on the experiences of women in Hong Kong’s legal sector, it was conducted last year and involved more than 360 men and women lawyers. More than one in four women reported negative experiences over their clothes, along with advice on what to wear at work. Almost one in four women – five times more than the men in the survey – said they had been told to change their preferred law speciality or career path. The report said women were assumed to be better suited to the “softer” side of law, so they were often encouraged to move into areas such as family law and avoid more confrontational roles in criminal or commercial specialities. Almost two in five women felt left out of career-building opportunities because of their gender or care responsibilities, compared with under one in five men. Mayer Brown partner Amita Haylock, who led the survey, said the attitudes reflected in the survey resulted in a gender imbalance at senior levels of private practice and in-house legal teams. She said women made up two-thirds of trainee lawyers, but less than a third of partners. Gender equality at work: how do Hong Kong, Singapore and others compare? She said she believed the proportion of women lawyers declined along the way not only because some left the profession or focused on their families, but also because of negative everyday experiences and microaggressions that took a toll. “Once a person’s confidence is dented, the knock-on effect is they feel apprehensive to put their hand up, perhaps they don’t want to take on new or challenging tasks because they think they simply can’t do it,” she said. “That has a huge mental health impact.” While discrimination against women occurred in other professions and workplaces, Haylock said the survey helped address the lack of data around issues relating to microaggressions in the legal profession that previously made it challenging for such issues to be substantiated and addressed formally. The findings have also been presented to legal organisations and industry leaders to raise awareness. Hong Kong teen challenging school’s long hair ban reaches out to equality watchdog Alison Tsai, chairwoman of Women in Law Hong Kong, a non-profit which advocates for gender equality for private practice lawyers and others and has more than 1,500 members, urged more workplaces to create a company culture where all employees felt psychologically safe. “You need that psychological safety in the workplace, knowing you can speak up and that when you speak up, you will be believed and what you say will be addressed,” said Tsai, who is vice-president and senior legal counsel at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. Chan Chak-ming, president of the Law Society, said based on his personal experience and observations, men received more favourable treatment in the industry. “At the partnership level of law firms, there are significantly more male partners than female ones,” he said, adding that maternity reasons could hinder the promotion of women solicitors to partners. He said he hoped everyone in the industry would become more aware of such discrimination and proactively take action to address it, while regulatory bodies like the Law Society could also do more to provide guidance to members and law firms. Chan added that law firms with robust gender equality policies were more likely to be able to retain talent. Young lawyer Nicole Li said despite feeling frustrated by some of her colleagues, she had not complained for fear of jeopardising her career. Women holding top jobs in Hong Kong paid nearly fifth less than men “I don’t want to be seen as too sensitive or emotional,” she said, adding that people would gossip even if you were the victim of harassment. “It’s really hard because after complaining, you still have to face the person on a daily basis, he may paint the wrong picture of you to his ‘allies’ at work, and you could be the one ostracised. Is it really worth it?” She added, however, that quitting was not an option and she hoped to bring about change as she progressed in her career. “I will not let such people undo the years of hard work I put in to be here,” she said. “I am resolved not to create this work environment for my juniors.” *Name changed at interviewee’s request.