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A Universal Truth about Women in Law in India

Shalaka Patil

- January 9, 2017

Universal Truths in Indian Law Profession

That women have to make their voices heard? That women are treated as second class citizens unless proved otherwise? That having a say about women’s rights doesn’t automatically make your opinions shrill? That while many try otherwise, you have been treated a bit differently at least once in your life because of your gender?

Perhaps you will agree with each of these if not all. Perhaps you will think I am making a big deal about nothing really. Perhaps you will slot me as one of those women that always like to believe that they are being unfairly treated.

‘Not everything is about gender bias, you know’,  you will tell me.

Why Women Lawyers in India Feel Discriminated

I am here today to write about women in law in India. In this piece, I will examine how women in law have done over the years. I will also examine how clients perceive women in law and professional barriers they face. Indeed, I will examine what all the fuss is about.

In law schools and colleges there are more or less an equal number of men and women. At that stage then there isn’t an entry barrier or under representation, at least on the face of it.

At work places though, whether law firms, counsel practice or work in companies, the problems are familiar. Perhaps not overtly, but the legal profession penalizes women for taking time out for pregnancies and maternity leave. There’s an anecdote about a senior and very successful Indian lawyer. She went to her delivery room straight from court and was back to work very shortly thereafter.

Such decisions are personal and her commitment laudable. But can we be sure to treat someone as equally committed if they took 12 weeks of maternity leave?

I know of countless women lawyer friends and seniors who felt short-shrifted. They were denied promotions or appraisals for taking time out to deal with family roles. Some could not slip back into their erstwhile roles with the same ease. On the other hand, some felt like they were far behind their male counterparts despite being equally qualified.

Stereotypes Plaguing Indian Male Lawyers

In law firms (and this is something I have personally experienced) one has to work late often. And by late we mean 2 or 3 AM or sometimes even pulling an all nighter. In cities like Delhi, one never feels particularly safe traveling home alone at that time.

A number of law firms will make arrangements for the transportation of lawyers staying back late. This may not be enough. I remember having a debate with a dear friend once who told me he prefers to pick a team of men when they know that are going to stay back late. He does not want “excuses” with the women leaving early. These are barriers that women cannot fight alone. Work needs to get done. If that means organizations investing in secure transport measures for their women employees, so be it.

Such systems need to be institutionalized. Another very unfortunate stereotype is that of single, successful women partners. There are many such wonderful, highly accomplished women between 35-55 that have chosen not to marry and have scaled many heights professionally. Yet they are often spoken about as “single”, “bitter” or “frustrated” women whose biggest achievements pale when confronted with the one goal they failed to accomplish – marriage. I am yet to cobble together a rational explanation as to why the notion of marriage is so inextricably linked with women and their goals.

Women Carry These Stereotypes Too

Unfortunately this stereotype is perpetuated not just by men but by women too, where these women will be plagued with the question of, “why don’t you get married?” Ours remains a traditional profession. I have personally experienced this too. I was at the forefront of handling a complex matter and would interact with a client on a regular basis on a number of commercial aspects of the case. Once at the client office where I had gone along with my male colleague, the client asked me, 

“What does your husband do?”

I have to admit I felt a bit ashamed in telling him I didn’t have a husband. It was almost as if I were telling him I didn’t have a law degree and all my months of work on the case had come to naught. Of course this wasn’t quite a rational way for me to think but the fact that this played on my mind makes my point apparent. I cannot imagine the client asking something similar to my male colleague. 

Counsel practice has traditionally been a close, niche area, an old boys’ club as they call it. It’s hard to succeed without the right senior, regardless of gender. More often than not having a judge or a senior counsel as a father helps (I say father because I don’t know of anyone who has made it because their mother was a successful senior counsel).

Preparing for life as a woman counsel in India

Now, if you are an ambitious woman who wants to make it in counsel practice, you’d better be ready to live on your savings for 5-6 years and even after that there is no guarantee. Traditionally counsel roles have been dominated by men. I can think of perhaps three or four successful women senior counsels. Clients trust the sexist stereotype of reposing faith only in male counsels. There is the fear that women will be forced to take breaks for personal reasons and given the periodic nature of the job (what with intermittent court vacations). There is the fear that the woman’s opinion won’t be taken seriously.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most judges are men.

The success of your case hinges largely on who argues it but also before which judge.

I must add though that it is not all so bad. The male to female ratio in law firms is improving. Many top firms inIndia have 40 to 50% women.

But their strength is greater at junior levels than senior ones.

In academia some women I spoke to felt that there is a tendency to sexualize women and not take them seriously. Students may talk about how hot a woman professor is and seldom discuss their work. Whereas for men the opposite is true, even if they are of an above average attractiveness.

Strategies and Support Women Lawyers in India Need

Many of the barriers I spoke about above, are not unique to the legal fraternity and certainly not unique to India. But they are common to women. In an age where speaking of empowerment of women is popular, it ought to mean more than just big talk. Here are some examples of real issues – 

  • High Courts and City civil courts ought to have more restrooms and baby changing stations for women (the latter is unheard of in our abodes of “justice”)
  • Women lawyers do not need to excel only in what some view soft subjects such as family law
  • Power dressing to work does not automatically change my role to “sitting pretty” at a meeting
  • The length of my skirt had nothing to do with my ability to draft an SHA
  • Wanting a work life balance does not translate to being passed over for promotions, after all justice is a woman and she’s blindfolded, perhaps, so that you look past these gender stereotypes and make the profession a level playing field even for women.

And that’s a universal truth.

About the Author

Shalaka Patil is a senior associate with the dispute resolution team at a leading law firm in Mumbai. Her practice focuses on arbitration and litigation and she has worked in matters involving shareholders’ disputes, investor-promoter disputes, disputes in the healthcare sector, infrastructure and energy sectors. 

Shalaka was a Research Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance (Harvard Kennedy School) and has published articles and research papers in various publications. She obtained her first law degree from Government Law College and an LL.M. from Harvard Law School. She obtained her licence to practice law in India from the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa and is also dual qualified to practice in New York, U.S.A. 

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Elina is a certified coach who works with leaders, entrepreneurs and business teams from over 30 countries. At Serein, she facilitates sensitisation sessions for clients across the globe.

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Before Serein, she was a Gandhi Fellow working in rural Rajasthan to address educational leadership and gender equity in government schools. She graduated from Azim Premji University in Bangalore with a Master’s in Education where she specialised in gender and sexuality education.

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Aparna Pandurangan holds a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Anna University, Chennai. 

Faakirah Irfan

Head of Legal

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Guest Consultant: Gender

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Before Serein, Bhavini worked as an archivist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and as an editorial assistant for IIT Bombay’s PR and Alumni Associations department.

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Kirtika N

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Safety and PoSH expert

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Sri Padmavathi C specialises in providing accounting consulting services to companies. She helps in assisting & maintaining Serein’s Books of Accounts, GST, TDS, PT filing, financial statements preparation & audit review.
 
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PoSH and DEI Workshops Facilitator

As a PoSH and DEI Workshops Facilitator, Anisha is primarily responsible for conducting sessions and facilitating conversations that enable building of safe and inclusive workplaces for all. Anisha also undertakes in-depth research into various Diversity, Equity and Inclusion issues that plague our work cultures today. All of this research goes into designing bespoke sessions and curating interactive learning experiences for several of Serein’s partners. 

Anisha has a background in History, especially in the history of gender and early feminism in colonial South Asia. 

Anisha has a Bachelor’s degree in History (Hons.) from Gargi College, University of Delhi. She has also studied for an MPhil in World History from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

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Inclusive Workspace Architect

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Aseem is an Inclusive Workspace Architect dedicated to reshaping workplace diversity and accessibility. He is skilled in conducting comprehensive accessibility audits and implementing inclusive design solutions.


Aseem is passionate about creating environments that foster equal opportunities

He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning.

 

Siri Prasad

Safety and PoSH Expert

Siri Prasad is a Safety and PoSH Expert at Serein and serves as an External Member of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) for Serein’s clients. Her work is not limited to, but includes advising in legal procedures, best practices for safe work cultures, and reviewing of PoSH policies and labor law compliance.

Siri is a Gold Medallist and holds a BBA, LLB (Hons.) from Christ University and a Masters in Science (International Employment Relations) from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she also served as the EDI Officer.

Abhishek Ghattamaneni

Head of Financial Strategies

Abhishek heads Financial Strategies at Serein. He is responsible for overseeing finance, Corporate Secretarial (CS) related work, and compliance among other things. He is a seasoned professional with a wealth of experience in finance and corporate governance. With over 15 years of expertise as a qualified Company Secretary, he has made significant contributions to the finance departments of companies within the real estate and startup sectors.

Having worked with organisations operating across multiple countries, Abhishek brings a deep understanding of international taxation to the table. Notably, he achieved an impressive 42nd rank in 12th grade under the AP Education Board, demonstrating a strong academic foundation to complement his professional achievements.

Kaushik Mazumdar

Engineering and Platform Consultant

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He looks after the technology and education segment of Krishworks, and has built Ed-Tech products to improve English Literacy in rural areas of India with QR coded books, Smart Classrooms, Teacher Trainings and increased involvement of parents.

Kaushik holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. He mentors a young and dynamic team aligned to the vision of Krishworks. Outside of work, he is a fitness and technology enthusiast, and loves running and swimming.

Balaji P

Design Consultant

Balaji has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from PSV Engineering College and has practised UX design at Growth School in Bangalore.

As an associate UX/UI designer at Krishworks, Balaji is responsible for collecting client requirements and converting them into usable digital products using UX principles. He also helps in maintaining brand identity and aesthetics in the products by creating UI design systems and high-fidelity screens. For Serein, Balaji has designed the PoSH LMS Product and the website.

Subhajit Roy

Engineering and Platform Consultant

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At Serein, Subhajit and his team has helped develop the e-learning platform and DEI SaaS Tool. He also oversees its maintenance and development.  

He is an incubatee at IIM Calcutta Innovation Park and an alumni of ISB Dlabs. Along with his co-founders, he is recognised with the Leaders of Tomorrow Award by Times Now. During the early days of his career, he worked as an Embedded System Designer, and was involved in various projects related to National Defence (DRDO) and health care research. Some of the products designed by him have been used by Apollo Hospitals, Govt of India, got patented and also received FDA approval.

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