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Lawyer Simonette Sibal-Pulido on why successful women shouldn’t have to be ‘super women’

‘What derails women in their careers is conceding to the expectation of society that a successful woman is a super woman. It is a disservice to us women because we perpetuate an unequal social structure.’

Lawyer Simonette Sibal-Pulido is described by her colleagues as a “transformational” leader: someone that motivates them to do more than what they originally intended and more than what they thought they could. She is firm and uncompromising, a lawyer who’s “anchored on compassion and concerned for the firm and personnel.”

A founding partner of Vasquez Bretaña & Sibal-Pulido Law Office, Simon also teaches law at the University of the Philippines and Arellano University. Simon says she “grew up in a lower middle class family that saw education as the most valuable asset.  My father emphasized that since I was the eldest, I was responsible for my siblings. It did not matter that I was female. So growing up, what was instilled in me was that sense of responsibility. That you exist not just for yourself , but for others as well.”

An advocate for women since her college days, Simon is a legal consultant for the Coalition  Against Trafficking  Women in Asia Pacific and has helped successfully prosecute a trafficking case and convict traffickers.

As successful as she is in her law career and family life, Simon hates the idea of being a “super woman.” Her argument against this (below) is eye-opening to say the least.  

Simonette and husband Atty. Roel Pulido and children Sophie, Cesky and Raph.
What is your leadership style?

I lead by example. I do not ask anything from my staff or associates that I am not willing to do myself.  As co-managing partner of the law firm, I am personally responsible for the cases that we are handling. Leading by example is not determined by gender. Women have no monopoly of this trait. I have a co-managing partner who happens to be a male and we have different styles. I am passionate and assertive; he is more calm—that’s just his personality.

What are the benefits of having women in leadership roles? Is the law profession a great space for women lawyers? Is the law fair to women?

Having women in leadership roles allows management to immediately understand the situation of women at work. We can strongly push for the actualization or operationalization of the policy of the State for employers to provide work mechanisms that accomplish fundamental equality of men and women in the workplace, such as providing day care centers in the office, ensuring equal work opportunities, or equal pay for work of equal value.

There are many laws now that recognize the fundamental rights of women. We begin with the 1987 Constitution which contains a declaration that the State recognizes the role of women in nation-building, and shall ensure the fundamental equality before the law. Recognizing that women continue to be at the receiving end of violence and that there is still discrimination against women, various laws have been enacted to address these issues, to wit:  

Republic Act (RA) No. 6725 renders it unlawful for any employer to discriminate against any woman employee with respect to terms and conditions of employment solely on account of her sex. RA No. 9262 or An Act Defining Violence Against Women and Their Children recognizes the need to protect the family and its members, particularly women and children, from physical, emotional and economic violence and threats to their personal safety and security.

RA No. 7877  or the  Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 addresses the issue of sexual harassment committed in employment, education or training environment. RA No. 8353 or The Anti-Rape Law of 1997 now recognizes that rape is a crime of violence and any woman, whether a prostitute, non-virgin or one with an active sex life, can be the victim of rape. It is no longer a private crime.

Adultery is still a criminal offense. It is discriminatory because a married woman is criminally liable for having one count of sex with a man who is not her husband. The same is not true for her husband.

RA No. 9710- Magna Carta of Women (August 14, 2009) was enacted to eliminate discrimination through the recognition, protection, fulfillment, and promotion of the rights of Filipino women, especially those belonging in the marginalized sectors of the society. It affirmed that women’s rights are human rights and are therefore universal and inalienable.

But while these laws have been passed, there are still other laws that are discriminatory. For example, adultery is still a criminal offense. It is discriminatory because a married woman is criminally liable for having one count of sex with a man who is not her husband. The same is not true for her husband. Husbands will not be imprisoned for having sex with a woman who is not their spouse, provided that he does not do so in a scandalous manner.

The Family Code now provides that the administration of the community property shall belong to the spouses jointly. However, “in case of disagreement, the husband’s decision shall prevail, subject to recourse to the court by the wife for proper remedy, which must be availed of within five years from the date of the contract implementing such decision.”

The law profession is a great profession for women. The infrastructure allows us to excel based on merits. The limit is only the limit we either set for ourselves or the limit we allow others to set for ourselves. Our firm believes and advocates for equality of women. Our lawyers know that there is no glass ceiling because one of the managing partners is a woman. The cases are assigned based on the intellectual abilities of the lawyers, not gender.  Apart from being an equal opportunity employer, our lawyers are given the opportunity to advocate for women’s rights.

What do you think is the behavior or trait that derails women in their careers? What is it that lets them flourish in their careers?

What derails us in our careers is conceding to the expectation of society that a successful woman is a super woman. A woman is actually expected to work and contribute to the family income but she is also expected to take care of her husband and children and household. She has to be a super woman. Otherwise, she is a failure. No such expectation is placed on the husbands. This should not be the case.

We should not have to be super women. Building and supporting a family is a shared privilege and responsibility. Thus, we should demand from our partners that they share equally in raising the children and managing the household. That way, we are freer to pursue our careers. Ultimately, to accept that we need to be super women is a disservice to us women because we perpetuate an unequal social structure.

What makes us flourish in our careers? We accept the challenge no matter how difficult it is. We do it for ourselves and for our family.  May balon tayo ng lakas ng loob at tibay ng damdamin.

VBSP Law Office founding partners Atty. SImonette Sibal-Pulido, Justice Undersecretary Raul T. Vasquez and Atty. Manuel Joseph R. Bretaña III.
 How did you navigate power structures when you were starting and how do you navigate them now?

As a young lawyer, I just worked hard. I let my work and determination speak for itself. I was promoted to senior associate in three  years. After three years, I was promoted to junior partner.   However, as a junior partner, I had very little say in the direction of the firm and the case assignments.

Eventually, I decided that it was time to grow.  After being in the same firm for two decades, I founded my own law firm. It took a while to decide to leave, but once I made the decision, everything fell into place.  We will be celebrating our fifth year anniversary this  July. Navigating the power structures today is not difficult since I am the co-managing partner. I just have to assert what I think is right and best for the firm. The better idea always triumphs.  

Did you have a role model or mentor? What are the lessons they taught you?

My parents are my role models.  They instilled in me the value of hard work, dignity and responsibility.  My parents worked very hard  to provide us with a good education. My parents always said that the only thing that they could leave us was our education. Hindi ito mananakaw.

My father also encouraged me to be a lawyer. My parents had absolute faith and confidence in me. They said that I just had to work hard at it.  So now, I do know that if you have the courage to try it and have the faith to believe in it, you will achieve your goal.

What’s your advice for women to advance professionally?

One has to continuously strive to be excellent at her craft. Learning never stops. You also have to fight for what is due you.  Nothing is ever handed on a silver platter.

What is your secret in balancing career and family/personal life?  How hard was it for you and what was the breakthrough moment when you said, “I got this!”

I have been a lawyer for almost 27 years now. I am married for 25 years and with three beautiful children. Our eldest is 23 years old and is now a senior at UCLA. The two are in DLSU and Ateneo. Masaya naman daw sila. Hindi naman sila nag rerebelde. So, I guess that means I did pretty well as a wife and mom.

I really had to balance my career and family life. It was difficult especially when the children were very young. I was able to balance it by working efficiently. Weekends are, as much as possible, sacred and dedicated to the family. I was able to do this because I had help at home from fellow women. Our manangs took care of our children while I was at work.

Law is a great profession for women. The infrastructure allows us to excel based on merits. The limit is only the limit we either set for ourselves or the limit we allow others to set for ourselves.

I was also blessed with a husband who is a firm believer of equality between men and women. Since he is also a lawyer, he understood the demands of the work. He was, and is, an amazing father. We share our duties as parents.

One day, I overheard my young daughter who was probably 8 or 9 years old talking to her friend who was being bullied in school. My daughter said to her friend, “You should not let her do that to you. And if she (the bully) continues to do that, I will ask my mom to get a restraining order against her.” She understood that I defended people’s rights and that through my work, I can protect her and even her friend. So I felt less guilty about going to work.

My “I got this” moment was when we set up Vasquez Bretaña and Sibal-Pulido Law Office (VBSP Law) together with my two partners. I am the youngest partner in firm, but we are equal partners. Initially, the proposal was for me to have a slightly less share in the partnership to acknowledge seniority. However, it was important for me that I be treated and acknowledged as an equal. I had enough experience and expertise in my practice. In the end, they agreed with me. I am happy and privileged to be able to establish a firm that values and promotes the fundamental equality of men and women.