For years, female lawyers in Thailand were required by the Thai Bar Association and Lawyers Council to adhere to strict dress codes when appearing in court, which meant wearing a neutral-colored skirt and a white collared shirt. However, with recent changes to the dress code policy, female lawyers will now be allowed to wear trousers in court, marking a significant step in the fight to end gender-based discrimination in Thailand’s legal profession.
Although the Bar Association amended its dress code policy on 24th March, the Lawyers Council is still in the process of finalizing changes to its code. Both institutions await the final publication of their respective changes in the Royal Gazette, which is expected to occur by the end of March.
Nonetheless, while formalizing policies that alleviate gender-based discrimination is a step in the right direction, several civic groups and individuals have pointed out that more needs to be done to address institutional discrimination against female (and LGBTQ+) lawyers. This was highlighted amid the Bar Association’s perplexing notice to female examinees instructing them to wear skirts for the upcoming bar examdespite already making changes to its ethical code.
The rationale behind the change
Over the years, concerns have been mounting over discriminatory dress codes in Thailand that affect both female and LGBTQ+ lawyers. These codes, which have historically perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes, place undue restrictions on clothing choices that are often not applied to male lawyers. Women in particular have been subject to reprimands, dismissals, and even ridicule from male colleagues for “dressing inappropriately” when wearing trousers, while facing the threat of license suspension or revocation for non-compliance with the codes. Furthermore, the fact that other professions and jurisdictions have largely abolished gendered dress codes underscores the need for reform in the legal profession. These outdated rules fail to reflect the changing times and only serve to perpetuate discrimination and inequality.
Initially, interest in challenging the outdated dress code rules for female and LGBTQ+ lawyers was sparked among human rights lawyers. However, over the past three years, a broader coalition of lawyers and activists has joined the cause, united in the goal of nullifying the discriminatory regulations. In 2020, the Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA), along with the public interest forum Nitihub and several other organizations, submitted a petition to the Thai Bar Association urging them to revise the rules. When the Bar Association failed to respond to the initial petition, the petitioners issued a warning in December 2021, stating that they would take the matter to the Central Administrative Court if the Bar Association continued to ignore their plea for action.
Despite their efforts, the coalition faced resistance from the Supreme Court president’s office and the Thai Lawyers Council. An open letter submitted to these bodies was met with indifference, and the president’s office responded with a statement that lawyers must adhere to the Lawyers Council’s dress code and rules of etiquette.
The controversy surrounding the discriminatory dress code rules in the legal profession came to a head when a non-binary lawyer was admonished by a criminal court judge for wearing pants during an online court session. In response, the lawyer brought the case before the independent committee responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Gender Equality Act B.E. 2558 (2015). This ultimately led to a legally binding recommendation for both the Bar Association and the Lawyers Council to amend their dress code policies.
What comes next?
Changing the dress code policy is undoubtedly a significant victory for gender equality in Thailand. The policy change indicates that the legal profession in Thailand and the institutions governing it are moving towards more inclusive policies that accommodate all practitioners regardless of their gender or gender identity. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to truly combat the inequities that female and LGBTQ+ lawyers are still facing – not just by governing institutions, but also by other stakeholders in the profession. This comes at an important time as institutions and industries around the world place greater importance on social responsibility and inclusive governance.
One challenge still gripping the legal industry is the lack of women in leadership positions. According to the Law Society of Thailand, only 17% of lawyers registered with the organization are female, and only 10% of law firm partners are women. This underrepresentation of women in leadership positions limits their ability to influence decision-making and shape the culture of the legal profession, thereby slowing down the trajectory towards a more equitable profession.
Another challenge is the gender pay gap, with women in the Thai legal profession in earning 30% less on average than their male counterparts, according to a study by the World Bank. This disparity is partly due to the concentration of women in lower-paying practice areas and positions, as well as discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.
Sexual harassment and discrimination also remain prevalent in the legal profession in Thailand. A survey conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that 39% of female lawyers in Thailand had experienced sexual harassment at work. This creates a hostile and unsafe work environment for women, which can deter them from pursuing a legal career or cause them to leave the profession altogether. This issue also extends to lawyers who identify as LGBTQ+ who likewise face discrimination in hiring, promotion, and workplace culture, and in some cases experience workplace harassment.
Addressing the inequities
To address these challenges, several steps should be taken. First, there needs to be greater representation of women in leadership positions. This can be achieved through targeted mentoring, sponsorship, and training programs that help women develop the skills and networks needed to succeed in their careers. Second, there needs to be greater transparency and accountability in hiring and promotion practices to ensure that women are not discriminated against. This can be achieved through the implementation of policies and procedures that promote gender equality, as well as regular monitoring and reporting on progress.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a cultural shift within the legal profession that promotes respect for diversity and zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination. This can be achieved through training and education programs that promote awareness of gender issues and provide tools for addressing and preventing harassment and discrimination.
There have indeed been improvements in gender equality in Thailand’s legal profession, but there is still a very long way to go. While the profession is still largely an old boy’s club, more attention is being brought to existing inequities that exist, and interest in addressing them, not only among female lawyers, but also by the LGBTQ+ and male colleagues, have been building up over the years. By promoting gender equality, Thailand’s legal profession can become more diverse, inclusive, and dynamic.
In the meantime, at least we can wear trousers in court.
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