"Making it work for yourself"—Anupama Puranik interviews Rachel Eng, deputy chairman of WongPartnership LLP
What challenges exist for women in the workplace? How have traditional gender norms affected female career advancement? What should organizations do more of to support women in the workplace?
"In the end, culture is much more important than any scheme you can write down in a handbook."
An interview with Rachel Eng, deputy chairman of WongPartnership LLP
Rachel Eng is the deputy chairman of WongPartnership, where she is involved in the initial public offerings by companies and REITs listed on the Singapore Exchange. She also handles corporate advisory, REITs and funds, and corporate governance work.
Rachel has been repeatedly recognized for her outstanding achievements in a male-dominated business environment; in 2015, she was named in The Peak Power list, an award which highlights those who have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling. This came just after Rachel was named "Her World Woman of the Year 2014" by Her World magazine, which awards the title to Singaporean women who have advanced a particular industry through their selfless dedication and determined spirit. She was the first person to twice be awarded "Managing Partner of the Year" at the ALB Southeast Asia Law Awards and has been recognized by a number of leading law journals.
Q: You've consistently risen to the top of traditionally male-dominated environments. Tell us about your personal journey.
A: I started at this firm in my fourth year as a lawyer in my 20s, and I was lucky to have very supportive senior partners from the start. I remember, back when I was expecting my first child, that working from home was quite a new concept—only one woman in my firm had really tried it before me. When the idea of working from home was proposed to me, I decided that what I ultimately needed was flexibility and that I still wanted to come into the office. So when I delivered my child, I had my two-month maternity leave and came back to work but had the flexibility of working from home. This approach worked for me, and having such supportive senior management who allowed me to have that flexibility really made the difference.
Q: Did you ever feel like your gender impacted the kind of work you were assigned to or the cases that came your way?
A: I think the challenge with this profession is that we always have to be available, and there is no fixed time when we can go home. We have night secretaries who provide support at night, so it wasn't so much the staff support that was the issue as much as the pace at which schedules could change. We were like the emergency room—things just happened and we had to deal with them, so it wasn't that I faced any discrimination, but instead it was simply the challenges associated with this field of work.
Like all working parents, I had to make trade-offs. I had to constantly decide how to allocate my time to provide the best and most prompt legal services to my clients and, at the same time, care for my family. For me, such questions significantly impacted the way I planned my life. Ultimately, we are a professional service provider, so a lot depends on whether you are technically sound and willing to put in the work rather than your gender.
Q: Given your experience, what do you feel matters most in the corporate world to make it easier for women to build their careers?
A: Culture matters, a lot. In the early days, we did not have a structured approach to recognizing diversity or promoting inclusion in the organization. It wasn't until we were involved with a Women in Business Law award that we started crafting an approach, and it became clear that culture is what matters. You can write something down and claim inclusivity, but an organization has to live up to it. During periods where employees are going through a hard time or cannot be at work, it's all the more important that the culture of the firm supports them. In the end, culture is much more important than any scheme you can write down in a handbook.
Open and direct conversations matter too. Male managers need to be equipped and trained to manage female talent or risk being misunderstood. For example, when I was pregnant, my male managers tried to reduce my workload. Internally, I questioned whether this was discrimination, but I found that they were just doing this out of concern for not wanting to overload me. The intentions were good, but this is where conversations and training are needed. We needed to have that conversation; otherwise, we would have just misunderstood each other's actions.
Q: As you look to the next five or ten years, what do you think the future is going to be like for the younger generation coming into the workforce?
A: I think many corporations, like yours, have taken clear and positive steps, so it seems that awareness is rising. In terms of action, it has generally been far behind awareness. I think employers have to be more broad-minded. In our industry, some law firms "clock-watch" and this places the focus on the time that one is in the office rather than on one's output. Organizations need to consider whether their traditional structures and processes are truly inclusive of different talent needs both in and out of the office.
I think things will get better. I'm hopeful.
Thank you, Rachel.