I write this from the 2012 London conference of women lawyers organised by the International Bar Association (IBA). Here we are, 300 women serving the law, from 50 jurisdictions of the global judiciary; searching the silver bullet for challenges faced by us. Why did I realise only now: the challenges before women in law practice and judiciary are the same the world over!
Confession: Till now, we’ve been proud flag-bearers of gender neutrality. We have always preferred cold merit to my team member’s gender. Why do I now feel that unless we women do not take the extra effort in promoting women, making the world a better place for women will remain a distant dream!
Before all you men start seeing our law firms as anti-male, let’s visit some indicative statistics. How about the ratio of women lawyers and judges in our own backyard? While the Delhi high court bar has 40 percent women lawyers, only seven of the 36 (approximately, half, i.e. 20 percent) of judges in our high court are women. Even in the hon’ble supreme court of India only now (for the first time in our history) we have two women judges at the same time. This in the land of Ghosha, Lopamudra, Sulabha Maitreyi, and Gargi!
Of cold comfort is the fact that even in England, although all judicial offices were opened to women in 1919, the first woman judge, Sybil Campbell, was appointed 26 years later, in 1945. A comparison of the figures for England and Wales (validated by the Lord Chancellors' Department on 1 March 2003) with those of the past decade (from Karen Ross, Women at the top 2000: Cracking the public sector glass ceiling, Hansard Society (2000), p.10) shows that all areas have improved ratios, except for high court judges. Looking specifically at Northern Ireland, according to research by the Law Centre NI, up to March 2005 women held 18% of judicial posts above tribunal level and made up 8% in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland still has no woman high court judge and compares very unfavourably to England and Wales where just 8% of high court judges are women. The county courts do not fare much better with only nine women judges compared to 30 men. Resident magistrates are similarly male-dominated: three women full-time resident magistrates compared with 15 men; and five women deputy resident magistrates compared to 13 men. Out of a total of 63 Queen's Counsels in the province, only five were women.
The Law Centre report notes that women in Canada, Finland and France make up 26%, 46% and 54% respectively of the judiciary.
In the US, initially the entry of women into the legal profession was continuously thwarted and we women were considered unfit, i.e., too tender and not intelligent enough to practise law. Ha!
In 1872, the United States supreme court affirmed a decision from the supreme court of Illinois that had denied Myra Bradwell admission to the state bar. The state supreme court had reasoned that because state law invalidated any contract entered into by a married woman without the consent of her husband, women (what are we without being married, right!) could not adequately represent their clients. The US supreme court affirmed this utter nonsense, noting that even though some women might not actually be married, such women were the exceptions. In 1873, one Belva Lockwood was admitted to the Washington, DC bar only after a year-long battle.
“The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases.” Bradwell v. Illinois (US 1872).
The recent sex-video purportedly concerning a lawyer-parliamentarian and a woman lawyer circulating on social media in India is a notable example of what some women have to go through to enter the man’s preserve of “power play” and ‘networking’. Many women lawyers must be left wondering. If this is what is required to fulfil my dreams of serving the bench, I do not have it in me. I would hope explicit calls for enhancing the number of women judges in the bar would mitigate this scourge considerably.
Another issue thrown at us women is work-life balance. We face every day after a particularly tough day at work, still left with a bagful of briefs for the next day. Like all working moms, we cry when we see our children already sleeping, sometimes unable to complete their homework, sure to be reprimanded in their schools. Even schools and teachers repeatedly suggest that working women spare more time for children in order to enable them become better human beings. And we thought most teachers are working women too!
Is there any such reality such as ‘work-life balance’ we ask ourselves in our deliberations. Is it, in fact, only about the preferences and choices at a relevant time?
So, here’s our takeaway. The woman leader should stop trying to appear gender neutral. She must be more conscious of the concerns being faced by fellow women and understand and appreciate them. My interaction here with dozens of successful working women, shows that work-life balance of, say, Katrina Kekkonen, a top-dog lawyer in Norway or Karin Ebbinghaus, a legal eagle of Sweden, and a working mom to three children, confirms this. They too return from work around the time the children are likely to be back from school and other extracurricular activities. They too post the children to bed, and then resume their office work. Some work-life balance, this, huh!
Decades after women entered the work force in large numbers, a leader is still ‘obviously’ supposed to be a male. The females, if at all, are expected to behave just as a male would! The past Patna high court chief justice Rekha M Doshit said last year that mere enactment of laws will not help end gender discrimination. What’s really needed to ensure gender equality in our society is the change in mindsets. Only an attitudinal change can help establish a society free from gender bias.