In 1992, when Chun Wei started out as an associate in the Hong Kong office of Sullivan & Cromwell, the demographics of the legal profession reflected the British colony that Hong Kong was at the time: lots of white, British male lawyers and very few female Asian ones. In order to feel less isolated in the male-dominated culture, the handful of women at different firms -- all of whom were associates -- sought each other out. Wei's circle included rising associates Teresa Ko at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Celia Lam at Linklaters, and Benita Yu at Slaughter and May.
Fast-forward two decades. Wei now heads the Hong Kong and Beijing offices of her New Yorkbased firm. Ko is head of the China practice for Freshfields. Lam leads a Hong Kong practice for Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Yu is one of Slaughters' top partners.
Female lawyers are no longer a small minority at Hong Kong firms. And they're no longer just populating the lower ranks. The largest law firm in town, Mayer Brown JSM, is led by a woman, Elaine Lo. So are the Hong Kong offices of Baker & McKenzie (Poh Lee Tan) and Weil, Gotshal & Manges (Akiko Mikumo), as well as Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison's China practice (Jeanette Chan).
Women are also among the top partners in the local offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (Z. Julie Gao); Sidley Austin (Constance Choy); Davis Polk & Wardwell (Bonnie Chan); Clifford Chance (Amy Lo); Herbert Smith (Anna Howell); and others.
"It's really a reflection that there isn't much of a glass ceiling here," says Weil Asia managing partner Mikumo, who moved to Hong Kong from New York in 2007 to establish her firm's local office. Women also make up a larger proportion of the legal profession in Hong Kong than in many other jurisdictions. According to The Law Society of Hong Kong, some 46 percent of the territory's 10,000 lawyers are women, who also constitute 24 percent of local law firm partners. By comparison, according to the American Bar Association, fewer than a third of U.S. lawyers and only 19 percent of law firm partners are women. (In other Asian countries, things are worse: only 18 percent of Japanese lawyers are women, according to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.)
Why are more women reaching the top in Hong Kong? Changing social mores are frequently cited, as are China's socialist legacy and the diversity efforts of Western multinationals. 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.
It doesn't hurt that plenty of clients are women. A recent study by U.S. accounting firm Grant Thornton found that 35 percent of senior management roles in Hong Kong were held by women, compared to 23 percent in the United Kingdom and 15 percent in the United States. In China, the focus of most Hong Kong practices these days, some 19 percent of chief executive officers are women, while only 5 percent are in North America. None of the women interviewed for this story said that they had encountered gender discrimination in their careers. "I don't think people would make a distinction as to whether you are male or female," Lo says.
Paul Weiss' 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. A senior vice president and executive director at state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd., the world's largest bank, is female, Wang Lili. So is Zhang Xin, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Beijing-based property group SOHO China Ltd.
"If you are dealing with China-related work, people are used to dealing with women," says Chan. "China is a socialist country, so you see a lot of senior female leaders. Females are given opportunities, and it's really not such a big deal."
The rise of China has certainly turbocharged the careers of Hong Kong's female rainmakers. In the 1990s, when Chinese state-owned companies began looking to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange, they lacked long-standing relationships with lawyers in the market. The Asian women were able to seize an opportunity many of the white men couldn't.