By Geetika Srivastava
The first conversation that I ever had with a lawyer during my initial year of law school was him telling me that I really don’t need to take my career so seriously because one day, I’d be too busy taking care of my family and kids to actually have and sustain a legal practice.
I know, it’s a little extreme- and a little unlucky on my part to have encountered a specie like that on my very first internship, and maybe not everyone meets someone like this while on their quest to establish a career- yet it happened, and it left me with a pretty sceptical view of what I was getting myself into.
You’d be thinking that this is another long feminist rant, painting an entire profession with a broad brush and calling every man sexist, but it’s not.
The only reason I wish to write this is because I believe that sexism in the legal profession is something which remains grossly neglected to date.
The recent documentary and the infamous statements of defence lawyers AP Singh and ML Sharma should not be taken in isolation- sadly, these views are of many in the profession.
Only recently there was a complaint of sexual harassment made by a legal intern, Stella James, working under a retired Supreme Court judge.
In her blog, she says that she wasn’t the only one, and that many of her fellow interns were also victims, but they were too afraid to speak up, even though the allegations could not be proved.
Merits or demerits of the case aside, this incident made many other women in the profession speak up, including lawyer Mihira Sood, who shared her experience of being sexually harassed by a senior advocate whom she was assisting.
A while ago, a male friend of mine was discussing his experience working with an experienced male advocate, who would apparently keep female interns who wore “really short skirts” outside at the reception.
When asked whether they actually did any work, he replied with a negative, and implied by his words that they were kept there as showpieces.
A few months back, while I myself was working for a very well known advocate, his advice for me was to “stay out of litigation” as the male lawyers were “desperate” and I had no idea about the kind of work environment that I would be in if I decided to stay.
His advice was well meaning, however, it still stung. It’s not just the men however, it’s the women too.
Stella in her blog writes that both men and women working in the Supreme Court would know about such instances of sexual harassment and would very happily joke about it.
Keeping aside personal experience, let’s talk about the statistics in the Supreme Court itself. I’m surprised at how I’ve not come across even one person who has tried to highlight the blatant gender gap which exists!
The Gender Stats
At present, the Supreme Court has a total number of 29 sitting judges, out of which only 1 is female. In the history of Independent India, we have had a total number of 42 chief justices- out of which the total number of women chief justices is 0.
As on 21st January, 2013, the total number of Senior Advocates in the Supreme Court were 309, out of which the number of females was a glaring total of 5. Where is the equality?
As if this is not enough, I have heard people blame women for not being taken too seriously in courts because they “dress up a lot”.
Agreed, that there is a code of conduct to be adhered to and proper dressing sense which is required in a formal institution and it should be followed, however, many women are bashed for the most redundant reasons- and I’ve seen many fellow women advocates bashing them while they’re at it.
As a result, many women lawyers- and in this particular case, female professionals from all fields- sometimes decide to cut their hair short, or cover every inch of themselves as a mark of “professionalism”.
Don’t get me wrong, if a woman wants to get a haircut she sure as well can, but many a times, it is as if she’s doing it because there is a culture which believes that the more un-feminine you become, the more you would be taken seriously while at work.
This usually plays a role subconsciously.
Many of us would have met legal professionals who would have encouraged and supported us through every step of the way, irrespective of our gender.
However, it cannot be negated that the legal profession still remains, to a large extent, majorly prone to gender stereotyping and discrimination. These glaring inadequacies must be expediently addressed.