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Dear CJI, Systematic Sexism, Not Domestic Duties Real Reason For Fewer Women In Senior Positions

Posted: April 17, 2021

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While the CJI may seem to be keen on more women in senior positions in the judiciary, on closer observation is this not again a ploy to put blame back on women; in short, victim blaming?

The Honourable Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde recently stated that he has been informed that women lawyers refrain from taking judgeship citing domestic and parental responsibilities. Is this a valid justification of lack of female representation at the bench or another instance of victim blaming?

CJI SA Bobde was a part of the bench also comprising of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Surya Kant, who were hearing a plea filed by the Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association (SCWLA). The plea was filed, seeking the Supreme Court to consider the elevation of experienced women lawyers from the Supreme Court as judges in High Courts, to  increase women’s representation among judges in High Court.

The CJI, in the course of presiding over the case said, “Time has come for a woman Chief Justice of India. (But) Chief Justice of High Courts stated that when lawyers are asked to come on the bench, they deny saying they have domestic responsibility or their children are in class 11 or 12 and thus these things have been communicated to me”.

While at the outset this may appear as the CJI is keen on seeing women play an important role in the judiciary, on closer observation is this not again a scenario where the onus for the lack of female presence in the judiciary has been put on the women herself? Can this be classified as a variant of victim-blaming?

Sad state of women’s representation in Judiciary, done by collegium at senior levels

The Supreme Court currently has only one female judge after the retirement of Justice Indu Malhotra as reported here.

Out of the 1079 judges in the High Courts across the country, only 89 are women. Justice Hima Kohli Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court is currently the only female Chief Justice of a High court in the country.

To date, only 3.3% of the 245 judges who have served at the Supreme Court have been women.

A study conducted by taking data from 10 states between the period of 2007-2017 observed that 36.45% of judges and magistrates were women.

If you study the above data points, you can see that the representation of women gradually decreased as one moved up the tiers of the judiciary.

One of the researchers involved in the study explained that a possible reason for this could be that the appointment to the lower tiers of judiciary happens through an entrance examination, where the process is defined and mostly transparent. While the appointment at the higher rungs happens through the collegium, where the process is opaque.

India’s first female Chief Justice of a High Court Justice Leila Seth had spoken about being asked by a Senior Lawyer at the start of her career why she was aspiring for a career in the courtrooms, that she ought to get married. When she revealed she was married and mother, she was told how it is important that she provide her child with siblings. She revealed she had three children, and the senior gave her the opportunity after there were no further arguments against her.

Though this has occurred decades ago, the sexist mindset has not changed much until now.

Not just Judiciary, this discrimination common across workplaces

So, are women not given the rightful opportunities? Is the onus for the same also being shifted on the women?

I cannot recall attending one interview in the last 7 years where the interviewer has not asked me about the child care arrangements I have made. In one interview at one of the top law firms in the city, I was questioned about where my parents and parents-in-law were residing, and on being told that neither of them resided permanently in the same city as me, the interviewer wanted a clear detail about who would be looking after my daughter while I was at work.

The smarter interviewers ask me would it not get stressful managing a young child and work.

At all these instances I have been left wondering, do they scrutinize the male candidates also in this manner, I strongly doubt that and I am sure women from other professions will also have such harrowing experiences to narrate.

Unfair expectations of women at workplaces, plus the stereotypes

As a woman who has been a working professional for over a decade, I can vouch for the fact that women are under constant pressure to never go wrong. One minor mistake and you would end up hearing words like “don’t bring the tensions of your home to office.” A male colleague who makes the same mistake would be told by the same manager to take a tea break and freshen up a bit.

The constant taunting can break your morale and make you question your calibre. Often, this is a tactic used by insecure men to prevent a talented woman from raising the ranks in the organization.

Indian employers per se are not supportive of the concept of work-life balance of employees, more so against women – the workplace is structured on the male social model, who have someone at home taking up the slack – another way of discriminating against the wives whose unpaid labour holds all this up.

Women leaving work on time are chided and made to face the brunt during appraisals, coz they are in a hurry to rush back home. I have seen managers call out female subordinates saying it is just 15 minutes past the clocking out time, why are they in such a hurry to leave. Thanks to work from home, these very men schedule meetings late at night and on weekends and if the woman were to refuse, she would be called unprofessional. Some even saying condescendingly “this is why we don’t employ women; they are always busy with their personal life.” I wonder why this stance is never used with such level of hostility against men?

The social structure hostile to working mothers

Let me also bring up the point of ‘domestic and parental responsibilities reason why women refuse senior positions’ that the honourable CJI states.

One question which almost all working women face in the country is “do you give adequate time to your home and husband?” If she is a mother, the guilt-tripping is worse.

The lockdown imposed last year owing to the pandemic, proved to be a harrowing nightmare for women across the country. The absence of the domestic help only added to their woes. Parental responsibilities are one more area where the major chunk of the responsibility lies with the woman. But the fact is despite these pressures women are striving and making their mark.

Time to make infrastructure changes and stop blaming women

Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India Mr. Gopal Sankaranarayanan in response to the CJI’s remark said in response to the CJI’s statement “I have encountered not one or two, but literally hundreds of extremely capable colleagues who have discharged the diurnal demands of the profession while also balancing their roles as mother, wife, homemaker, daughter, nurse and God knows much more. While the ladies’ bar rooms across our courts may find shared stories about domestic pressure, I have yet to come across a single case where a woman lawyer has sought an accommodation because of it. Yet, this became an obstacle to judicial office?”

He goes on to explain the discriminatory treatment meted out to be women when recommendations are made for appointments to the higher rungs of judiciary. Women have been striving ahead despite the odds plied against them. It is time the patriarchal lenses are cast aside, and efforts are made to make this journey to the top level ground for all.

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