•  •  Dark Mode

Your Interests & Preferences

I am a...

law firm lawyer
in-house company lawyer
litigation lawyer
law student
aspiring student

Website Look & Feel

 •  •  Dark Mode
Blog Layout

Save preferences

All-boys clubs and short skirt stereotypes hurt women’s legal careers: SOWL panel

A woman, non-lawyer, Madison Avenue, 1960s (image (c) AMC)
A woman, non-lawyer, Madison Avenue, 1960s (image (c) AMC)

Workplaces are structured to lose the women along the career ladder and colleagues’ and bosses’ attitudes do usually not alleviate the loss, was a hot topic of discussion in a room of 80 women at the Society of Women Lawyers’ (SOWL) annual conference in Delhi on Saturday.

In a panel discussion moderated by Fidus Law Chambers founder Shwetasree Majumder, Amarchand Mangaldas strategy head Padmini Rathore, Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages senior vice-president legal Shukla Wassan, and IP Gurus partner Sujata Chaudhri described the hurdles faced in retaining women in the workplace.

One audience member said, citing a survey, that while women associates in India outnumbered the men at the entry level, the ratio of women dropped starkly from the middle rungs and fell to less than 15 per cent, in the average partnership or at other top levels.

Structural problems

According to audience and panel feedback, work hours, systems of billing, structures of the work-day, lack of infrastructure conducive to working mothers, lack of sensitivity amongst male colleagues and stereotypical perceptions attached to women and their attire, were particularly to blame.

Rathore recounted her experience of having resigned from the law firm where she was retained when she had a child, because of the lack of a crèche facility at office. Fortunately, fairly soon she was made an offer from Amarchand where the presence of the crèche in Delhi made a “big difference”.

She also appreciated the concept of “flexi hours” for working mothers, but criticised the lack of a system that quantifies the work contributed in each hour. A member in the audience seconded her opinion that without a fair measuring system, flexible hours can be a mechanism of conveniently undervaluing employee’s efforts.

The existence of “all-boys clubs” could be another dampener to the careers of women. A common practice where men spend many office hours unproductively and make this up by working late nights, can put female colleagues who finish their work within office hours on the back foot.

It can be a similar disadvantage for female lawyers who choose to avoid staying late for after-work drinks and socialising.

Sexual harassment

Majumder asked the panel if each of their workplaces was equipped with measures to keep sexual harassment in office at bay. While all three panellists concurred that detailed manuals defining conduct within the ambit of harassment existed, Chaudhri highlighted the fact that most employees had little awareness of conduct befitting the description.

“Asking you if you’re married or not, your plans of marriage, or even your after-work-day plans fall within sexual harassment,” she explained, adding that sexual harassment can be both covert and overt.

She also noted that at a US law firm where she was previously a partner, some employees were even unaware of the existence of a chapter on sexual harassment in the manual on office regulations.

Stereotypically female

The discussion also turned to stereotypes surrounding women, right from their life-choices to their attire.

Rathore narrated how women faced a variety of job-related stresses different from men, such as being afraid of telling their boss about being pregnant or suffering the uncomfortable vibe created by male colleagues “not sensitive enough” to refrain from cracking indecent jokes in the company of female co-workers.

Majumder and Wassan noted how being dressed in neutral coloured clothing and wearing minimal-to-no make-up was conducive to maintaining the perception of “a serious lawyer”. On top of that, streaks of grey hair – as evidence of age and experience in the profession - evened out the perceived disadvantage of being a woman lawyer.

However, when senior litigators spoke in favour of conservative dress codes for court and business, some members in the audience were quick to take objection. Specifically, the condemnation of “sleeveless shirts” as “unprofessional” or “inappropriate” attire was the subject of charged discussion for a while.

One law firm partner argued that women wearing sleeveless shirts and short skirts to work posed no hurdle to them successfully “billing clients at $500 an hour”, and “running one of the best law firms for the last 20 years”.

Click to show 22 comments
at your own risk
By reading the comments you agree that they are the (often anonymous) personal views and opinions of readers, which may be biased and unreliable, and for which Legally India therefore has no liability. If you believe a comment is inappropriate, please click 'Report to LI' below the comment and we will review it as soon as practicable.