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SONAL MAKHIJA
GUEST COLUMNIST
SONAL MAKHIJA

Sonal Makhija is a Bangalore based lawyer and researcher.

Indian women legal lawyers face many challenges

75% of women working in law firms say that maternity breaks had an adverse impact on their careers.

arissa Mayer, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, found herself in the centre of a media maelstrom when she announced that her maternity leave would not be more than a few weeks long and that she would continue to work during her leave. Is Mayer setting a bad precedent for all women and companies? Was she taking motherhood too lightly? Do women who take maternity leave damage their careers irreparably or lack Mayer's professional commitment? These were some of the questions that arose in online discussions on Mayer's pregnancy. What's implicit in many of these debates was that these choices are mutually exclusive.

The study on the Indian legal profession, Challenges Faced by Indian Women Legal Professionals, to an extent validates that. Like many working women, women lawyers too are forced to choose between careers and children. A nine-month study on the legal profession and interviews with 81 women lawyers unearthed some unsurprising and anticipated findings. Like, 75% of women working in law firms, 43% working in companies and 52% in litigation admitted that maternity break had an adverse impact on their careers. Women in law firms appear to be the worst affected, followed by women in litigation. For 21% of women in law firms this included losing out on a promotion despite deserving it.

The Indian legal industry has witnessed an unprecedented growth, especially law firms, post liberalisation. In the last decade, the legal sector claims to have transformed from a kinship-based partnership model to an industry that is based on meritocracy. The adoption of a "professional" hierarchal structure in law firms, international clients and an emphasis on rankings and branding has reinforced this assertion. But how does this burgeoning legal industry retain its women lawyers? Why do women lawyers disappear as we move up the proverbial corporate food chain?

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. In most cases policies were not written. Interestingly, while most informal conversations with young women lawyers started with the assertion of professional equality, further questioning revealed that gender biases and discriminatory practices are widespread. This includes women being allocated unchallenging work, being forced to conten d with lesser professional fee than their male counterparts and denial of benefits and promotions in corporate jobs.

Most corporate organisations are unwilling to invest in women's talent. They view maternity leave and benefits as a drain on their resources. Not surprisingly then 84% of women in law firms and companies rated their employers below average on the parameter of childcare assistance programmes and 74% of them felt their employers fared average and below average in promoting or mentoring women within the organisations.

Not that litigation fairs any better. Women in litigation don't have the standard 12 weeks of maternity leave, given the structure of court practice. But the practice offers them greater flexibility, insisted many women litigators. Unlike a corporate job that requires one to clock in at least eight hours of work, litigation gives one the freedom to structure the day as per one's professional and personal commitments. This includes time off during court summer vacations. Of course, that doesn't imply that it is free of gender bias. Women in litigation have to confront gender bias at several levels. According to senior advocate Pinky Anand, "Women in litigation have it harder as they have to face clients, lawyers and judges, most of whom are male, on a daily basis. In a way, they have to confront gender bias at several levels. If a woman raises her voice to make a point, she is discerned to be cantankerous, not assertive. At times, this perception overshadows her merit and results in her being labelled aggressive." Nonetheless, only 14% of women in litigation said they had experienced discrimination or bias by judges in the form of sarcastic remarks.

Unsurprisingly for most women in law firms and companies gender bias appears to be more widely prevalent. Questions on marital status and children regularly surface in job interviews. While questions pertaining to marital status and children are illegal in the United Kingdom under the Equality Act 2010, in India there are no such regulations or guidelines. But aren't lawyers conscious of the implicit discrimination inherent in these questions?

For the legal sector where continuity is appreciated by clients and employers alike, absence from work, however brief, puts women's careers to a disadvantage and is met with unspoken disapproval. Networking, an essential function of the profession, is another aspect that women grapple with when they take a brief hiatus.

For many women litigators absence from court corridors, which are an integral space for networking and kowtowing, often spells doom for their careers. Further, mentoring programmes that could ease the transition from maternity break to work are largely absent. These programmes could act as an assurance to employers of women's commitment to their careers and contest the assumptions of "what women want" after having a child. Sure, women lawyers want careers that offer them better work-life balance, flexibility, mentoring support, crèche facilities. But if we were to conduct a similar study with male lawyers, I doubt their needs would be starkly different.

 

The study "Challenges Faced by Indian Women Legal Professionals" was conceptualised and authored by Swagata Raha and Sonal Makhija. The study was supported and published by Rainmaker Training & Recruitment Private Limited.

 
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