by Ananya Bhardwaj
In 2019, there arose sexual harassment allegations against the then Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi. While the allegations themselves sent ripples through the legal community, the procedure with which the matter was handled gave rise to much more than just ripples. There was a wave of objections and controversies. The Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association expressed their reservation at the fact that the three-judge bench investigating the allegations was instituted by the CJI himself and the lack of proper implementation of Vishaka guidelines. While the events unfolded might have come as a shock to many, female lawyers are far too familiar with the dismissive treatment afforded to sexual harassment allegations.
The struggles that female lawyers face in their professional lives owing to their gender are multilayered. It seems particularly ironic that in a field like law where the crux lies in delivering justice to those alienated from it, the prejudices are prevalent in ways that cannot be held illegal yet exist so abundantly. It is ironic that this is a profession symbolised by the statue of impartial Lady Justitia who sees no biases. On the surface it might appear that the problems for women in the profession refer to the gender wage gap or the necessity for POSH in workplaces. However, it goes far deeper than that.
Women in workplaces are often seen as a “risk” which eventually results in one, male peers being not hired in places where there are women working or two, women not hired being by organisations or chambers where there are men. The “risk” that there could be an instance of sexual harassment, in this manner, ironically tends to disadvantage women in gaining access to employment. Once the burden of gaining access to employment is overcome, a female employee then risks facing sexism and, sometimes, workplace social exclusion where the office has a “boys club” for locker room talk. A female first-generation lawyer describes her experience so far to be educational: while her supervisor has been impartial, and even supportive, in her learning, she has had to continuously face sexism by other male staff members.
Her friend, a litigator, narrates her experience. She initially started her career in a law firm where upon facing sexual harassment, the matter was hushed up even though they pretended that the matter was being taken seriously. Over time, when she decided to quit the organisation she was urged to submit ‘personal reasons’ as the reason for her resignation. Even though she is still the only woman in her current office like the previous one, her experience in litigation has been diametrically opposite to her treatment in the corporate world. She notes that she got lucky the second time around. However, food for thought— should a woman have to rely on luck to not get harassed or be treated at par with her male peers?
This question can be answered by a female advocate in Uttar Pradesh, who speaks of her experience as a female in litigation. Right off the bat, she brings up how she was physically stalked and when she approached the stalker’s superior, a fellow female lawyer who heads the Sexual Harassment Cell at the concerned institution, she was quickly dismissed with a comment that she was being delusional or paranoid. She also speaks of instances where she was groped while standing in court, on the pretense of it being accidental ofcourse, which affected not only her physical health but also has had a lasting impact on her mental health. She speaks about how other women like her have to work doubly hard to prove their worth in the face of biases which result in them not being taken as seriously. Even so, they cannot work past 10 pm because the danger of being harassed and pursued on roads poses a real threat outside courts too.
The fact that the common “concern” for employers hiring female employees is the ‘risk’of being sued or the firm’s PR or image being tarnished, which are risks concomitant with sexual harassment incidents, is grossly misplaced. The concern is not in taking action to root out sexual harassment at work or to implement mechanisms to ensure the safety of female employees or to inculcate gender sensitisation or training or to ensure proper implementation of Vishaka guidelines and the necessary functioning of POSH committees. Instead, the burden here too falls on the female employees. It is the female employees who have to bear the brunt of male employees behaving improperly and, in fact, criminally.
Another outdated “concern” by interviewers or employers in hiring female employees is that women might leave to start families or might be distracted if they already have an active family life. How often are men asked such questions or held answerable for their familial responsibilities?
In the popular series Sex Education, one of the most poignant scenes was when a group of women, each member having seemingly nothing in common with the other, was brought together by one unifying factor – they were all survivors of sexual trauma and shared experiences on how it changed their lives. It is rightfully – and sadly – true that fiction is not all that far from reality and seems clear that more often than not, microaggressions hamper the professional growth of female lawyers more than that of her male peers.
To the women reading this, you are not alone. The system and society have not been kind to us, but we stand together. To the men reading this, be better allies and stand up for your female peers—do not let sexist remarks slide or let incidents pass unaddressed. Only when the light is shed on problematic areas brushed under the carpets of our legal profession, the dignity of a field like the law can shine through the muck one person at a time.