A universal truth

What's a universal truth?

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.

I am here today to write about women in law in India. In this piece I will examine (admittedly from my point of view) how women in law have done over the years, how they are perceived by clients, what professional barriers they face and indeed 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 women are penalized for taking time out for pregnancies and maternity leave. There's an anecdote about a senior and very successful Indian lawyer who went to her delivery room straight from court and was back to work very shortly thereafter. While such decisions are personal and her commitment laudable, 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 and who were denied promotions or appraisals for taking time out to deal with family roles. Those that could not slip back into their erstwhile roles with the same ease and felt like they were far behind their male counterparts despite being equally qualified.

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.

While a number of law firms will make arrangements for the transportation of lawyers staying back late, that may just 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 because, 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.

This is half the work force.

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.

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). 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.

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.

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.