Women lawyers experience courtrooms and law firms in a manner fundamentally different than their male counterparts, which means that their career opportunities are drastically curtailed. Yet conversations in the legal community about the obstacles women face often produce a series of responses from male colleagues that can be reduced to defensiveness (“there are good men out there, too”), denial (“surely you’re exaggerating”), or at best, uneasy sympathy (“it’s a shame other men make you so uncomfortable”). These conversations usually conclude with everyone agreeing that law is a male-dominated profession and that women either need to choose a different career in which they feel more comfortable, or more of us need to join the legal profession. Both responses require women to shoulder the responsibility for a problem of structural inequality.
It is superficially true that increased visibility leads to increased acceptance, but there is no critical reflection around how a woman’s ability and willingness to join the field — or remain in it — is eroded by an environment that constantly sets her up to fail. In its 70-year history, the Supreme Court has never seen a female justice preside. Only seven of 112 high court judges are women. As of December 2017, there were 2,446 women registered with the Sindh Bar Council — compared to 15,752 men. These numbers are even more embarrassing when compared to the state of the legal profession in neighbouring countries. Three of the judges in the Supreme Court of India and seven justices of the Bangladesh Supreme Court are women.
To shed light on factors accounting for Pakistan’s dismal figures, and to give voice to the daily reality of women lawyers, the Women Lawyer’s Association (WLA) in Karachi conducted a pilot study through interviews with lawyers, and discovered similar trends in their experiences of job interviews, working in law firms, and appearing in courts.
The legal profession is split between litigators who appear in courts and corporate lawyers primarily engaged in transactional work. Gender bias cuts across the legal profession but WLA’s interviews revealed that women litigators face greater barriers to professional advancement due to the more overtly male-centric nature of the courts.
Times have changed in Pakistan but attitudes have not — a fact that also applies to our legal fraternity. Is gender equality in the legal profession a distant dream?
A MAN’S WORKPLACE
The dreary stereotyping women lawyers are forced to contend with begins immediately upon entry into the profession, when they are asked at job interviews whether they are married or not. One woman reported that it wasn’t enough for her interviewee to know her marital status; he inquired about the marital status of other women in the family as well. Another recalled a partner at a prestigious law chamber informing her that his workplace is not an “equal opportunity” employer. Interviewers justify their fixation with women’s personal lives and reluctance to hire them by saying that women aren’t serious about their careers, are unable to commit to the long hours, and don’t work as hard as men — especially if they have “family commitments.”
The fact that employers feel so comfortable airing such opinions to prospective employees points to the complete lack of accountability for disparaging remarks based on gender, despite the fact that “sexually demeaning attitudes” have been deemed to constitute harassment under the Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act, 2010.
These comments also put an applicant in the coercive position of proving her worth by agreeing with disparaging views about how her entire gender is lazy and uncommitted but insisting that she’s different. She’s better. More importantly, though, it reveals how the structure of the legal workplace —and by extension, what constitutes success in the field — is inherently gendered male.
In litigation firms, for instance, the workday routinely sags late into the night six days a week. Partners — almost all of whom are men — frequently go home after court concludes, come to the office in the late afternoon, and don’t leave until late at night. Associates are largely expected to maintain the same hours.
Leaving aside the fact that such work hours are staggeringly inefficient and exhausting regardless of gender, our interviewees agreed that this schedule makes it much harder for women to succeed in law firms because their days are already stretched thin spending time with their children, managing households, and taking care of ageing parents and in-laws. In other words, unlike many men, women don’t have wives to keep their personal lives at bay while they work. And women are sometimes penalised for it when their multiple commitments get in the way of the hours they can give to a law firm.
The work day does not have to be structured this way.
While it’s true that the practice of law, especially litigation, is laborious and sometimes requires long working days to serve clients, there is no need for law firms to expect their employees to be available to them round the clock. And if law firms were structured and run by women, it is unlikely that workdays would be organised the way they are now.
In the meantime, many women lawyers feel that their choices are circumscribed: they can either have a family or a successful legal career. If the definition of success in the legal field is an uninterrupted employment history and the willingness to give their job primacy over all else — in the way only men are able to do since they have wives and mothers who take care of their family needs — then society, and by extension the legal profession, is designed for women to fail.
EVERYDAY DISCOMFORT IN LAW FIRMS AND COURTS
Across male-dominated law firms and courtrooms, many women report an uncomfortable awareness of their difference. One interviewee explained the isolation she felt in her previous job where she was the only woman in an all-male law firm, and categorically left out of conversations, meals, and breaks. Other interviewees reported that male colleagues and bosses frequently ask them why they need a job or a larger salary when they have rich fathers or will marry rich men.
Colleagues also comment that female associates are only being allowed to argue cases because “the boss likes women.” Numerous interviewees noticed that colleagues attributed their successes in court not to their competence, but to the fact that “girls have it easier.” Any gains a woman makes — by this argument — are a result of male chivalry rather than female competence.
Women’s experiences in the Sindh High Court are also troubling. One litigator described the men as “vultures” who lose all sense of professional norms and courtesy when they enter the building. Another’s first boss discouraged her from entering litigation because “women who litigate are all randis [whores].”
Yet another lawyer likened walking down the halls of the high court to walking down a street in the marketplace: “There are men everywhere; lining the stairs, draped on chairs, leaning by walls, and idling in groups. You try to ignore the eyes sliding lazily down your body. When you make eye contact with a stranger, you always look away first. He keeps staring.”
Interviewees pointed out that new female graduates attract a great deal of attention in court, and there is even talk of a male WhatsApp group devoted to alerting male litigators of new female faces in the courtrooms. Women eventually settle into familiar discomfort, and go about their work feeling trivialised, objectified and exhausted.
To create a woman-friendly space for lawyers who spend hours in male-dominated court rooms, the WLA approached the Sindh High Court Bar Association two years ago to request that a women’s common room be designated in the High Court. The proposal was met with reluctance and suspicion; WLA was told that a woman-only space would only encourage unspecified “indecent activities.” It took months of advocacy with the chief justice of the Sindh High Court and other lawyers to overcome the resistance, and one room was finally allocated to women lawyers. The staunch opposition that the WLA faced in response to such a benign request further illustrates how unobservant many members of the legal fraternity are about women lawyers’ experiences and perceptions of the legal workplace.
In law firms and offices, too, women complained of feelings of discomfort. Interviewees noted a litany of comments from their bosses and co-workers about their physical appearance and their outfits. An experienced litigator recalled being told that she looked like a “Kashmiri princess” by a colleague, and a boss telling her he didn’t approve of the fact that she had put on weight. Her boss also attempted to set her up with a client and laughed in response when she told him never to do so again. A corporate lawyer recounted a male partner on a work trip telling her, “paas to aajao na” [why don’t you come closer] and running his hand down her back on another occasion. She later found out that other women had had similar experiences with the same man, but her complaint to another partner was ignored. One interviewee told the WLA that it was commonly known at her previous firm that the partner invited prostitutes to the office every Sunday, a fact that influenced her decision to eventually seek work elsewhere.
The “otherness that one feels as a woman in an inherently male space”, as one interviewee described it, forces women lawyers into a state of interminable vigilance about how they present themselves in front of bosses, clients, and judges. Many women admitted that they feel the need to behave like men to feel respected in their workplaces. One litigator recalled her boss telling her not to wear a particular lipstick to court; she was astonished that the ability of a judge to assess her legal arguments depended on the shade of her make-up.
Another mentioned that she deliberately wears glasses to court. Several other interviewees (both litigators and corporate lawyers) emphasised the importance of looking ordinary to attract as little attention as possible. A corporate lawyer recounted a time when a partner at her workplace told a female associate not to be too aggressive or assertive with the male partners as it bothered them. The need to be diminutive and inconspicuous in order to be taken seriously is directly at odds with what we’re taught constitutes good lawyering and zealous client representation. But this is the ludicrous impasse with which many women lawyers must struggle in order to succeed.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN A BOYS’ CLUB
Lawyers’ professional progress depends a great deal on relationships within the legal community, mentorship and support from senior lawyers, and credibility among judges. Even male lawyers who do not inherit these relationships through familial ties or class privilege struggle to advance in their careers beyond a certain point.
But nurturing these relationships proves a lot harder for women lawyers because the legal community is dominated by men, many of whom harbour negative stereotypes about women. Consequently, even women who overcome barriers to entering the profession and the daily discomfort of being a minority in the workplace, find that they have hit a glass ceiling early in their careers.
The WLA’s interviewees complained that one of the biggest obstacles to their professional advancement in the field is getting clients to take them seriously. Clients mirror the same biases women encounter elsewhere: a woman lawyer might not be as competent or hardworking as a man, or she might have other responsibilities that detract from her attention to the case at hand. In meetings, clients frequently direct questions and conversations towards the male lawyer in the room and avoid eye contact with the woman. Interviewees largely agreed that women have to work twice as hard as their male colleagues to foster clients’ trust in their ability to get the job done.
In litigation, a client’s desire to be represented by a particular lawyer depends a great deal on what they see in court and on a judge’s impression of the lawyer, which, in many instances seems to matter far more than the applicable law and the strength of the legal argument. Women litigators’ examples of some of their experiences with judges ranged from patronising to predatory. One lawyer disclosed that during her initial years of practice, a city court judge was in the habit of telling her boss, “agar madam argue karein gi to bail de dun ga, agar bhai argue karein ge to double saza dun ga” [If madam is arguing the case then I’ll grant a bail but if this brother is arguing the case then I’ll double the punishment]. She would then be made to plead the matter while her boss and seniors would laugh at how “funny” the judge was.
Another lawyer, while arguing her case, joked that the staff should spend some time in jail for negligence, and the presiding judge, responded, “agar aap raazi hon to hum aap k saath jail jaanay ko tayyar hain” [If you agree to it then I am ready to go to jail with you] — a comment he repeated twice during the course of proceedings.
Yet another lawyer, with almost two decades of experience, recalled a time when she was arguing a case in front of a prominent judge who laughed in her face, while male lawyers behind her whispered “English aati hai, law nahin” [She knows the English language but not law].
While discussing the glass ceiling that many women eventually reach in this environment, one litigator pointed to the importance of a lawyer’s particular “brand”, which is determined by his “stature in the boys’ club of elite male lawyers.” Whether a lawyer is able to secure the judge’s attention to hear a particular matter and obtain favourable orders is influenced to a large extent by the lawyer’s “face value.” Unsurprisingly, it is rare to find women who have fought their way into this club. And given the obstacles and challenges outlined above, it’s not surprising that many just don’t want to, or give up along the way to pursue jobs less overtly hostile and dismissive of their gender.
Consequently, the demographics of the legal field in Pakistan remain grim. Prestigious law firms across the country are built on the names and reputations of men (and their brothers, sons, nephews and grandsons), and it is rare to see female partners at all, let alone with a familial legacy of any kind. Women leave law because the work culture is hostile, patronising, and inflexible and, consequently, the lack of female representation on the bench, in courtrooms and law firms continues.
Women complain about how this lack of representation creates an environment that requires far more from them than their male counterparts and, in response, they are told that women can make the profession better by more of them joining it. The cycle perpetuates itself.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In a society constituted by male norms, women face prejudice and sexism, and the legal profession is no different. The legal fraternity must accept that the problem is not about the interactions between individual men and women; it is about structures of power designed to devalue and disempower women. Male colleagues need to be willing to listen to what women lawyers have to say, drop the defensiveness, and work with them to address these problems together. The following are some concrete measures that can easily be taken to improve women’s experiences of law firms and courtrooms.
First, the Protection Against Harassment in the Workplace Act, 2010 should be implemented in courts and all law firms. Under the law, all employers are required to display a Code of Conduct — the terms of which are specified in the law — in their workplaces, and to form inquiry committees to investigate sexual harassment complaints.
Second, legal workplaces should make consistent efforts to educate and train their workers about gender inequality, discrimination and harassment. Law firms should hold trainings on gender sensitisation and prevention of sexual harassment, and courts should do the same for their officers and staff. Law firms should also make workplace policies that prioritise work-life balance for all employees. Paid maternity leave that extends for a reasonable period of time, as well as flexible work hours, should be made a part of workplace policies.
Third, bar associations should make it a priority to promote gender equality in the profession by investing in initiatives to support the professional development of women lawyers, educating male lawyers about systemic gender inequality in the profession, and breaking stereotypes.
Finally, the judiciary should take the initiative to recruit more women judges, and actively encourage the professional development of women judges in the subordinate courts.
Pakistan has a history of vibrant women’s movements as a result of which important gains have been made, including in the legal field. By systematically excluding women from the profession, we treat hundreds of dedicated and qualified women lawyers unfairly, and we deny the country the benefit of vast reserves of legal talent.
The entire legal community would agree that, in spite of barriers, women lawyers and judges have made long-lasting and inspiring contributions to the legal field, for example Asma Jehangir, Hina Jilani, Shehla Zia and Justice Majida Rizvi. It’s time to build on the achievements on these extraordinary individuals by creating an inclusive legal culture, and by holding to account power structures that seek to sideline women rather than empower them.
The writers are lawyers based in Karachi.