The legal profession must ensure gender balance| Analysis

Feb 26, 2020 07:08 PM IST

Introduce flexible hours and crèches in courts and law firms. Address the pay gap. Honour women role models

Justice Sujata Manohar, the second woman judge to be elevated to the Supreme Court of India, had an amusing anecdote to recount at the 5th edition of the Difficult Dialogues conference in Goa, the subject of which was The State of the Law. When she started practising as a lawyer, she was asked by her male colleagues whether she was looking for a husband in the courts. Attitudes may have changed, but across the world and in India, women are poorly represented in the legal profession. India has only three women judges in a Supreme Court of 34 judges and just 73 women judges in high courts. There are more women coming into the legal profession, but when it comes to moving ahead as judges, they tend to fall off the radar.

Courts and law firms in India should now look inwards, and accept the inequality in the profession(ISTOCKPHOTO)
Courts and law firms in India should now look inwards, and accept the inequality in the profession(ISTOCKPHOTO)

Professor Linda Mulcahy, director of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford feels that the legal profession, like many others, tends to be a closed club. In the United Kingdom (UK), her experience has been that almost all the senior judges went to schools such as Eton and Harrow, and attended top league universities like Oxford and Cambridge. She describes the judiciary as “male, pale and stale”. If in the UK, the barriers are colour, class and gender for women. In India, there is the additional factor of caste, and strong patriarchal prejudices both at home and in the workplace. The inflexible hours and often hostile work environment lead to women finding it more difficult to manage the work-life balance than in the UK. The legal profession requires long hours, and women face stereotyping in the sort of briefs they get. Women are also not able to keep up with their male counterparts in networking skills, which, according to several women lawyers, is invaluable in getting ahead.

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Many law firms too are biased against women for the usual reasons — she may take time off to start a family, she cannot be trusted with “substantial” briefs, and she is thought less capable and committed if she takes time off to start a family. Re-entering the profession usually puts the woman at a disadvantage.

In a feminist judgement project undertaken in the UK in 2010, it was found that more women judges do not necessarily lead to better outcomes for women’s cases. But if the judge were a feminist, the narrative is different and the endpoint changed for the better in many cases. Which is why India needs not just more women judges, but also more gender-sensitive ones.

There is also pressure for women to be better than their male colleagues, and women lawyers or judges who fight to make their voices heard are often described as aggressive. This trait is seen as a virtue in male legal professionals, though.

Then there is the largely hidden problem of harassment at the workplace. Such is the opaque nature of our higher judiciary that this sort of harassment is largely swept under the carpet. There have been many instances of women lawyers being subject to verbal harassment by their counterparts while arguing cases. There are states which do not have a single woman judge in the high courts — these are Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh among others. Of a whopping 1.7 million advocates enrolled with the bar councils, just about 15% are women.

Mulcahy feels that we ought to see legal professionals more as practitioners of human rights, and that gender should feature more in legal courses in India. But, according to her, behind every successful woman lawyer or legal academic is another woman who did not make it. Her mother and aunts were fully behind her though they themselves were not recognised in their fields. Role models need not necessarily be other female legal luminaries but these women, the unsung heroes who are often family members, without whose support many women lawyers could not have made it. India could emulate a project started in the UK to identify such women and honour them.

Legal firms which are active in far-reaching life decisions for people should begin by providing infrastructural support for women to advance. The courts too should become more gender-friendly. This should include flexible work schedules and crèches, and a narrowing, if not eliminating, the pay gap.

But women in the legal profession also must be more proactive. They should come together to tackle issues of gender inequality in the workplace. There are many women lawyers who can lead such associations, and while it may not change things overnight, there is strength in numbers. In recent years, the courts have made several gender-friendly amendments to the law. But now, it should look inwards, and accept the inequality in the profession, and how because of this, it is clearly losing the services of many talented women.
The views expressed are personal

    Lalita Panicker leads the opinion section at Hindustan Times. Over a 33-year career, she has specialised in gender issues, reproductive health, child rights, politics and social engineering.

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