Unicase Law Firm partner, Saniya Perzadayeva, shares her story and perspective on the legal environment in Kazakhstan as it pertains to gender disparities and consequential initiatives taken to support and advance women lawyers.


I. About Saniya Perzadayeva

What obstacles have you faced during your legal career related to your gender?

I suppose the major obstacle would be establishing a career, not only for me, but for many women all over the world, as there is the need to maintain work-life balance. Normally, finding a job and getting an entry-level position is easy for young professional females. The obstacles come when she starts a family and has children; they need proper care and massive amounts of time. At the same time, she has to work and demonstrate productivity, dealing with the pangs of guilt over leaving her children. Moreover, because of parental leave, women take a pause in their careers, whereas life never stops. Not only in the legal and consultancy industry, but in any sector - new concepts, discoveries and inventions emerge every single day. Her professional skills, because of the pause, would no longer match those of a man, who has not had to stop for a year or two. Therefore, I find attaining that much needed work-life balance is an eternal problem for many women in Kazakhstan.

Regrettably, women still experience problems from the larger society’s prejudices and discriminations. These contribute to domestic violence, pay gaps, fewer bonuses, underrepresentation in public institutions, devaluing of achievements and deprivation of opportunities - factors alone which fashion lacks, losses and obstructions to women progress in Kazakhstan. Women's role and purpose here have been considered mainly domestic: to deliver babies and look after them, to run a household, while working and preferably becoming breadwinners. And if she does better than a man, she is envied, retaliated, reproached and downgraded - factors alone which increase daily struggles, troubles and distress - which generate emotional disturbances and often hopelessness for a better life. A woman is more often than not forced to pay a huge price for success: it is either a lack high self-esteem, a good family, strong relationships, respect from others or a decent career. In either case, she had better keep a low profile. A tough choice for anyone; we cannot even say it is one, though.

What Kazakhstan does lack is a level playing field for both men and women, with a culture of mutual respect and complete equality and it is one of the aspects of our job to develop one. I have come a long way, but I created Unicase with the mission to develop society and cancel out the lack of awareness. And it is never impossible, as my practice shows.


What do you consider your biggest success in your career thus far?

Creating a successful, cutting-edge law firm which lands on the list of the best consultancies in Kazakhstan has undoubtedly been one of paramount achievements for me. Even more so is nurturing a new cohort of women lawyers, supporting them at every step they take and sharing experience with them along the way. Our chamber of lawyers, the KazBar, organised a Women’s Committee to support young lawyers, provide mentorship, address career-related issues and advise on how to get back to work after maternity leave.

Being a good mother to four children should also go into the hall of fame as it is inseparable from my career. Being a mother is something to be proactively managed and sustained over the course of life - it is a process, not a result. I can say that I do cope with almost everything in terms of the family commitments, having to raise the children alone. There are minor issues, as everywhere, some misfortunes, or even mishaps; but these can never stop a woman, can they?

Another achievement I would like to mention has been our work with traditionally male dominated fields of legal practice, namely oil & gas, mining, energy, renewables, climate change, blockchain and fintech. At first, I found it rather difficult to navigate the seas of the fields, but as years went by, my team and I gained valuable experience and a reputable name for being one of the most effective teams in Central Asia.


Did/Do you have any mentors that have helped you get to where you are? How important is mentorship to you?

Two outstanding women have been role models for me while I was developing my career. When everything started, I joined KPMG as a junior attorney. I worked under Mrs. Janat Berdalina’s management who led the firm in Kazakhstan back in the 2000s. She proved to be a strong professional and could combine being a great mother and perfect wife with an apparent ease. Another woman who influenced my development was Ms. Marla Valdez, the Managing Partner at Denton Wilde Sapte in Almaty. Marla was a brilliant negotiator and showed me how to deal with international clients and work on complicated cases and deals.

I admire every woman who works hard, pursuing her goals. Mindful of arrangements, every woman achieves success and excellence in her own way and this inevitably gets my attention and deserves utmost respect. It is crucially important to have an authoritative and wise mentor from the outset. I had mine, being of exceptional value and help, and remembering this, I help and share advice and experience back at everyone who follows.


What is the most important thing you have learned in your career thus far? What is something you wish you knew earlier in your career?

The legal profession has shown the way to - first and foremost - professionalism, which is inextricably intertwined with the mission I am after, the vision I have, the ability to see what is coming next, flexibility, reflection, daily communications with clients, the quality of works delivered and the appearance of such.


What advice would you give to young women looking to start a career in law?

Don't ever be afraid of making mistakes, take initiative within both the firm you work in and outside of, constantly develop and learn new skills and be confident in yourself and your abilities. Every day, we do impossible things. We have to - if we want to see the planet as a true home for our children and the generations yet to come. You should realise one thing - wonderful, never-been-done-before things can become possible on one condition only: you should muster the strength, refuse to fear and defy the impossible. Everything else will follow.


II. About the legal environment

How do you think the legal environment in your jurisdiction has changed for women since you started your career? Do you think the profession treats genders equally?

It is no coincidence that the general trend has improved over the years: women invest heavily into development, our firm being no exception. Although the labour market has undergone a sea change over the last 15-20 years and many large private companies now have women across management positions, we cannot speak of genuine equality yet. There are critically low percentages of women employed in the government, both in legislative and executive bodies. As of March 2022, for example, in the Kazakhstan Parliament, there are only 37 women deputies, out of 156 deputy positions, in the government, there is only one female Minister, and among Akims (local Mayors) there is merely one woman. In this regard, there is still room for growth and change.


Do you feel like women are well represented at the partner and management levels at firms within your jurisdiction?

More and more companies today are becoming aware of the importance of women's role in business and there are women in senior management positions as partners and managers. In 2019 alone, the number of female executives managing private enterprises increased by 11.4%. Back at Unicase, when working with clients, we notice - and I could not possibly be happier - that in many companies, it is women who act as representatives and executives. We took an active interest in the statistics and noticed that 80% of our clients were represented by women. However, the number of women taking leadership positions in our jurisdiction has not reached a satisfactory level yet.


What are the most important diversity and inclusion initiatives a firm can implement?

In my opinion, a firm should introduce the principle of meritocracy and evaluate its employees based on their achievements and the work they do, irrespective of gender. Other initiatives could be welcoming and accepting female employees so that the company could enjoy genuine equality.


What initiatives has your firm implemented to promote diversity and inclusion? 

Unicase’s policy fully supports inclusion and diversity and both genders are well-represented. We do not differentiate our employees by gender since we treat and value everyone equally.  Interestingly, the Unicase's partner team has 63% of women and everyone is happy.


Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has created disproportionately greater challenges for women practitioners? If so, what?

The pandemic has certainly had a serious impact on legal practitioners, without much difference for a particular gender. Personally, I always look for newness and the good in all difficulties. For example, the pandemic has shown us the charms of working online and has opened an opportunity to come up with more flexible schedules for women, which allows them to stay in touch with their families at the same time preserving their agility.