Successful woman lawyers have had to lean in to succeed but this does not remove the onus on institutions to reform

Prof. Lavanya Rajamani 

Vidhi Centre Event 2018
Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in collaboration with the University of Oxford recently held a panel discussion on “Women in the Legal Profession in India”. The discussion delved into the barriers and opportunities in the judiciary, the bar and legal academia for women. It looked into the causes for the lack of representation, drawing from not only personal experiences of the panelists but also research into structural issues leading to discrimination. It also explored possible solutions and where specifically such solutions must emerge from.

Justice AK Sikri, sitting judge of the Supreme Court of India, delivered a keynote address, emphasising the continued relevance of the issues at hand despite how long it has been plaguing us. He stressed on the pivotal role of the legal profession in creating the necessary change within itself so that it may foster change in the rest of society. Despite changing levels of representation at lower levels of the judiciary, there had to be greater emphasis on how  advancement to higher levels could be secured. 

Following this, Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, began the panel discussion by referring to how even the UK battled with institutional bias for a long time before they could enjoy some parity. She narrated the tribulations of Cornelia Sorabjee, the first woman to receive the BCL at Oxford, setting the tone for the other panelists. 

Justice Indu Malhotra, the first woman to be elevated to Supreme Court judgeship from the bar recounted her own experiences as a woman litigator. Referring to the legal profession as a “jealous mistress”, she stressed on how women had a tougher time managing work-life balance. Woman 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. 

Ms. Madhavi Divan, Supreme Court Advocate, explored the demands that practitioners have to face and how aggression and tenacity have been held up as necessary virtues to succeed at the bar. She looked back at her experience as a young mother who had to take breaks as a result of maternity and faced considerable barriers in re-entering practice. She also remarked on how she sees herself as a “mainstream lawyer” and not as a woman lawyer who has to be pigeonholed into specific legal roles and fields. 

Prof. Lavanya Rajamani at Centre for Policy Research , drawing from the previous panelists’ views, pointed out that the onus for continuing disparity cannot be laid only at the feet of women and there would have to be a more detailed investigation into the role that institutions play in propagating structural bias. Referring to the increasing female representation at lower rungs, she bemoaned the lack of diversity at positions of power and how this leads to a “gatekeeper bias” with men appointing and citing other men. Stressing that “affirmative action does not equal tokenism”, she pointed to the need for better outreach to find meritorious women.

Mr. Arvind Datar, Senior Advocate, outlined the changing representation not just in the judiciary but also in law schools, law firms, and chartered accountancy firms, in some of which the figures appeared heartening. He suggested that changes need to be made at the level of appointment bodies like the collegium and in judicial services exams so that this may better translate into representation at all levels.  

The Vidhi Centre previously  held an event on judicial diversity and published a report on the same subject and they hope to take this cause forward as an essential plank for judicial and social reform.  

by Jit S. Banerjee, Manager - Development and Partnerships, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy