Women and The Legal Profession in India

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Throughout our history as a society, women have been considered to be somewhat lesser than men in nearly every section of the social hierarchy. These inequalities have negatively influenced many factors such as voting rights, physical as well as emotional abuse, unequal opportunities in addition to many others. These biased and oppressive ideals have indeed changed to a certain degree with correspondence to the evolving modern times. However, although attitudes may have changed, across the world and in India, women are poorly represented in the legal profession, to the extent that India has only three women judges in a Supreme Court of thirty-four judges and just seventy-three women judges in high courts [1]. This example portrays that the historic inequalities against women have trickled down even into our modern society.

Like many other occupations and careers, the legal profession tends to be a closed club which is predominantly male-dominated. Along with other barriers like caste and race, sex or gender is also an impediment which affects a large population of the women who are a part of the legal profession of India. Historically, women are given the responsibility of taking care of the household as well as the children, which would hinder their effectiveness in the workplace. 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 thoughtless capable and committed if she takes time off to start a family [2]. Marital status of the women also plays a role in their participation in the field of law and so does the family support that they get as a lot of women practising law are unmarried because the women lawyers face severe family pressure and they tend to opt-out of their profession after marriage [3]

Women in the US and Canada were also attempting to enter the legal profession from the latter half of the 19th century. Some like Myra Bradwell relentlessly pursued her admission to the Illinois bar only to be told by the good judges in Bradwell vs Illinois that “natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life” and that “the paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother”, rendering the demarcation between private and public life almost a matter of “divine ordinance” [4]. The rise of the modern professions and the overall modernisation of the society created ripples for the legal profession, which included reforms in legal education, establishment of new professional organisations along with an expansion of the idea of legal work. This time gave rise to the emergence of women lawyers as professional citizens in India as well.

There is also a lot of pressure on women to be better than their male colleagues, and women lawyers or judges themselves who fight to make their voices heard just to be treated equally are often described as aggressive. Additionally, there also exists the largely hidden problem of workplace harassment. A reason is the opaque nature of the higher judiciary which causes this sort of harassment to be largely swept under the carpet. There have been various unfortunate instances of women lawyers being subject to verbal harassment by their counterparts while arguing cases.

Justice Indu Malhotra, who was the first woman ever to be elevated to Supreme Court judgeship from the bar, recounted her personal experiences as a woman litigator, by referring to the legal profession as a “jealous mistress”, she stressed on how women had a tougher time managing work-life balance [5]. Female lawyers also had to face stereotyping in the kinds of briefs they received, such as undue stress on family matters and lack of trust in engaging women in commercial matters. She also remarked on the discomfort that women face in networking, a skill which is in increasing demand for success in the profession [6].

Despite the discourse on equality in the legal profession, interviews conducted with women lawyers across three cities — Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore — highlighted a gap in standard industry policies and practices that ensure and promote equal measures [7]. In most cases, policies were not written. Interestingly, while most informal conversations with the more younger women lawyers started with the assertion of professional equality, questioning further revealed gender biases and discriminatory practices that are widespread in the profession. This includes women being allocated unchallenging work, being forced to contend with lesser professional fee than their male counterparts and denial of benefits and promotions in corporate jobs.

However, with further modernisation in the society and as a result the profession itself women lawyers have been beneficiaries of the change in corporate law firm culture, which continuously seeks to move from the previous patriarchal network to a more open place to work within. On the face of it, such changes have provided women lawyers with a more congenial work environment, with unheard-of salaries (at least in the top dozen law firms), sophisticated clientele who are more restrained in gender discrimination [8]. And to further improve their standing in the profession the women can come together to tackle issues of gender inequality in the workplace as there are many women lawyers who can lead such associations, and while it may not change things overnight, there is indeed strength in numbers.

  1. Lalita Panicker, ‘The legal profession must ensure gender balance’ (hindustantimes, 2020)
  2. Lalita Panicker, ‘The legal profession must ensure gender balance’ (hindustantimes, 2020)
  3. Nitesh Mishra, ‘Gender Disparity in Legal Profession’ (lawtimesjournal, 2019).
  4. Jhuma Sen, ‘The Indian Women Who Fought Their Way Into the Legal Profession’ (The Wire, 2019)
  5. Lavanya Rajamani, ‘Women in the legal profession in India’ (University of Oxford Faculty of Law, 2018)
  6. Lavanya Rajamani, ‘Women in the legal profession in India’ (University of Oxford Faculty of Law, 2018)
  7. Sonal Makhija, ‘Indian women legal lawyers face many challenges’ (The Sunday Guardian, 2021)
  8. Nandini Khaitan, ‘The Firm Women: A perspective on Indian Women working in Law Firms’ (Bar and Bench, 2018)