Women in the legal profession, have had a long history of struggle. Women in the subcontinent were allowed to practice only when the Legal Practitioners’ (Women) Act, 1923 was passed to counter the decisions of the High Courts of Calcutta and Patna that did not allow women lawyers to appear in court. The Act removed all legal barriers for the entry of women in India to practice law.
A century later, while a lot has improved and more women appear to be joining law schools and subsequently the legal workforce in Pakistan, the gap between the status of male and female lawyers remains glaring. This is primarily because law is still considered to be a traditionally ‘male’ profession. According to reported data, Pakistan is the only country in South Asia that has not yet elevated a female judge to its Supreme Court. Neighboring countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal have all had female justices in their Supreme Courts. Currently, there are only 6 women judges in all high courts across the country against 110 male judges. In 1974, the first woman, Khalida Rashid Khan was appointed as a civil judge in Pakistan. After serving as an anti-corruption judge from 1981 to 1982, she was elevated to the High Court in 1994 and in 2003 she became a judge and then Vice-President of The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. While this was a great achievement for a country with a striking gender imbalance, many in the judiciary believed that her nomination to the Tribunal was done to thwart her chances of being elevated to the Supreme Court.
As regards the admissibility of women to the judiciary, that was first challenged before the Federal Shariat Court, in 1982 and then in 2010. Both petitions were dismissed and admissibility of women judges was protected. It was further held that women judges should not only be restricted to family courts.
According to figures, there are more than 3000 lawyers registered as Supreme Court lawyers out of which 102 are women, yet not a single woman serves as a member of the Pakistan Bar Council, an apex body formed in 1973. The Council currently consists of 23 members, all of which are men. The figures are not different for the federal and provincial bar councils either. On the other hand, the Supreme Court Bar Association has been relatively progressive by previously electing a woman as its president, though this only happened once. Similarly, no woman has ever been appointed as the Federal or Provincial Law Minister or the Attorney General for Pakistan, while the first ever woman to become the Advocate General for Punjab was removed a month into her office. Furthermore, neither the Supreme Court nor any of the high courts have had a female Registrar which is the highest administrative office in any of the superior courts.
The reported figures of the two Islamabad Bar Associations - the District Bar and the High Court Bar show an equally abysmal picture. In 2020, out of the 4800 members in total, 842 were women. Not a single woman has ever served as president of either bar association.
It is important to bear in mind that these figures exist amidst constitutional and legal guarantees such as Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan which provides that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex and Section 29 of the Legal Practitioner’s and Bar Council Act, 1973 which provides that no woman shall be disqualified for admission on the basis of her sex. Furthermore, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which Pakistan is a signatory to, obligates states to take measures to ensure women’s full participation in public life.
Having sketched the state of women’s representation in law in a brief overview above, I will be discussing the impediments and systemic barriers women lawyers and judges face in the profession whilst also exploring possible solutions thereof in this article. Although research has been carried out to write this paper, a substantial portion of what is discussed is based on either personal experiences or interviews conducted of colleagues and peers. Several female lawyers, judges as well as law students between the ages of 18-60 were interviewed over telephone, email and in-person. Each interviewee was asked about the impediments she has faced in the profession and what is it like operating in a male-dominant environment.
Impediments faced by women aiming to pursue the legal profession
The legal profession is heavily male dominated and women find themselves operating in a male sphere, where decision makers are mostly men, who intentionally or unintentionally watch out for male interests. The dominance of men in the profession weaves in with the age-old concept that associates women with childcare, managing the household and looking after the larger family. In this respect, professional life for women is viewed only as secondary to their role as mothers and wives. Women pursuing careers find themselves necessarily balancing between work, children as well as the larger family. This is why to reconcile family with a career, women often opt for more part-time jobs that have shorter working hours and do not require late sittings or travelling. This is especially true for the legal profession where long working hours are the norm.
Since the profession is largely male dominated, it is not surprising if women and young girls are discouraged from studying law. In recent years, the lawyer community has come to be perceived to be rowdy, unruly and uncouth. This perception stems from the many occasions where lawyers have displayed such indiscipline and unprofessionalism.
Not all women who attend law school end up practicing law. In fact, only a small percentage pursues careers in law. Those who do either drop out from the profession in early years or choose a path where they feel more safeguarded and the working hours are more flexible. These include in-house counsel or teaching jobs. Though these jobs provide better remuneration and flexible working hours, they certainly do not overcome the challenges women lawyers face overall.
Impediments faced by female lawyers
Women, who are lucky enough to practice out of choice, often face a conundrum in balancing between work and personal life. This is due to inflexible working hours and lack of childcare support. Litigation firms in particular, operate six days a week and late into the night. Partners, most of whom are men, normally take a break after court and return to work later in the evening until late night. Associates however are expected to stay till late at night - at least until the partners are around. While partners get a breather, associates go without that break. Such schedules are extremely difficult for women who are principal caretakers of children, (especially early childcare), households and the larger family, including ageing parents and in-laws. While men have their wives to look after the family and the house, women do not have anyone but themselves. In some situations, women are provided support from their families or their in-laws but that support is not across the board. Therefore, many of the female lawyers that were interviewed believe that they are held back because of inflexible working hours, lack of applicability of maternity leave ordinance to law firms and lack of provision of day-care facilities in courtrooms, law firms and chambers.
Caregiving extends over a woman's lifetime which is why women frequently have to take time out from their career to return to caretaking as work offers them little support to have uninterrupted careers. As a consequence, women pay a heavy price for exiting and re-entering the profession by missing out on promotions, better job opportunities, greater earning power and professional growth in general.
Because of the larger conventional mindset of the society where women are still associated with domesticity, rather than pursuing meaningful careers, even alongside, female lawyers also often experience distrust in their capabilities from clients and even their male counterparts. If a situation arises that requires choosing between equally competent men and women lawyers, more often than not, employers and clients alike prefer male lawyers. Therefore, women often find themselves having to work twice as hard just to gain that trust or prove themselves. This is in addition to the fact that they have to juggle work with childcare, household responsibilities and looking after the larger family including sick members and ageing parents/in-laws.
Some interviewees also expressed as to how big names in the legal profession to this day profess that they do not “allow” their women to become legal practitioners. These include well-established lawyers as well as judges who ardently believe that the profession, especially litigation that entails practicing in courts and getting more “exposed” to the public is not suitable for women. Rather than encouraging women and ensuring that the profession is more welcoming towards women - or that there is equality of opportunity, these seniors dissuade women, especially those who are capable, driven and could otherwise excel in the profession.
Additionally, many women I spoke to expressed that there appeared to be a perception that because women ‘eventually get married’; there is no point in them practicing at all. Even at job interviews, the interviewees expressed that the stereotype sets in and women are frequently asked about their marital status while the same question is not asked of male candidates. The idea denotes that an unmarried woman will be a wasted resource for the firm or chambers once she gets married or that those who are married may not be able to dedicate late nights due to childcare responsibilities or family commitments. This notion of course does not take into account that it is not necessarily marriage itself that makes female lawyers quit the profession but in fact, a host of structural impediments that they face as both single and married women. Furthermore, as discussed above, the profession’s lack of support and accommodation for family responsibilities compels many women to quit. It is important to understand that working late into the night poses a problem for women lawyers and even judges because of family and household responsibilities and lack of childcare support available in firms, chambers and courts. In any case, late nights should be an exception, not the norm, especially because working till late does not necessarily guarantee efficiency or quality output.
Women who join practice further report that they are given menial tasks to do, such as attending court and taking dates in cases. The more serious or quality work goes to their male counterparts thus showing that firms and chambers are more invested in training male lawyers. This mindset consequently allows male associates more responsibility and quality work and therefore, greater chances of succeeding in the profession.
Similarly, the interviewees observed that some judges tend to not take women practitioners seriously or blatantly give preference to male counsels and that clients also stereotype female lawyers, often placing greater trust in a male lawyer’s abilities. Clients assume that female lawyers cannot take up complex cases, especially those involving litigation and negotiation and are only best suited to “softer” areas of practice such as family law. Some clients approach women only because they think they can pay a female lawyer less than a male.
Some interviewees also spoke about the barriers to access networking opportunities which their male colleagues may not have. Networking is indeed a critical skill that is required to acquire and maintain a clientele. A lot of a lawyer’s growth also depends upon the support or mentorship he or she is offered from senior lawyers. Due to societal and cultural barriers that are furthered by a male dominant profession, women lawyers (and judges) are at a significant disadvantage than their male peers who can actively mobilize and socialise with members (most of whom are male) of the legal community. Interviewees expressed that concerns over women’s characters are raised and they are subjected to gossip if only so much as seen communicating with their male colleagues. Women are stigmatized for having wide social circles, while men are encouraged to form them for professional growth which is also why men are in much larger numbers at professional gatherings as well as in bar rooms. It is important to note that it is impossible for professionals - men and women alike, to hone their skills and talent if they are not given the opportunity to network.
As a consequence, it is natural for women lawyers to feel a lack of confidence or self-belief, or have ideas that they are inferior in aptitude and ability. This also leads them to taking less risks or pursuing more ‘secure’ career choices which means that they may also lag behind in assuming leadership or management roles. Most interviewees confirmed to having felt like this.
As regards remuneration, either there is no remuneration or very little paid by employers or ‘seniors’ in the early years of the profession. This is true for both men and women however; women face discrimination in this regard too. One interviewee told that when she asked her employer for a pay raise, he told her that she does not ‘need’ one as her husband can sustain her. Such comments unabashedly discard the fact that women, especially those that earn themselves, are independent of their husbands.
The legal profession has also done little to safeguard women lawyers from unwanted physical advances and harassment experienced in firms, chambers and courts. It is not uncommon for women lawyers to face sexual harassment from colleagues, seniors, court staff and even judges. Furthermore, women lawyers are persistently made conscious of their appearance because of the stares, lewd remarks and judgements passed on them. Complaints of sexual harassment and other misconduct against lawyers and judges appear to be rarely investigated. This is also because laws protecting women from harassment such as Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 and the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 largely remain unimplemented. The situation in in-house organisations is thought to be relatively better due to anti-harassment policies and implementation thereof but some of the interviewees who work in-house reported otherwise.
Impediments faced by female judges
Female judges also have their own set of challenges. District and civil judges have reported that they face opposition and resistance from male lawyers who create hurdles for the judges by persistently criticizing or complaining about them. Furthermore, female judges also face difficulties due to a lack of childcare facilities. Some have reported that they get their mothers to look after their children when they are at work, while others state that they have no choice but to take their young children to work i.e., court. These judges have also found it difficult to participate in training and workshops in other cities as well as abroad because they are not allowed to take their young children with them. In fact, some judges’ requests to take a relative or helper to look after their children at training carried out in judicial academies have also been declined. This problem is exacerbated for those female judges who get postings in far flung areas.
Furthermore, the environment in which women judges work is far from ideal. Justice Mansoor Ali Shah (while he was a Senior Puisne Judge at the Lahore High Court) in his remarks at the Punjab Women Judges’ Conference in 2016 noted that there are no toilet facilities exclusively for women judges in district and sessions courts. The judges have to use the toilet in the common room instead. In fact, he noted that many judges conduct court in places which were previously toilets. Justice Shah also pointed out that there are no separate chambers for women judges either, therefore they have no choice but to use a common chamber. It is yet to be seen if the situation has changed 5 years on.
Female judges who were interviewed expressed that they are also stereotyped. They are thought to be more ‘emotional’ and ‘soft’ than male judges, thereby unable to adjudicate ‘justly’. This however has been countered by the interviewees as well as other female district and sessions judges who distinguish between ‘softness’ and their ability to pronounce justice in a considerate manner. They believe that they use ‘softness’ to provide speedy justice by not making litigants suffer. Both women lawyers and judges also face criticism for being too ‘assertive’ or ‘bold’, though the same criticism is not extended to their male counterparts who are lauded for what is referred to as ‘independence of mind’. This is perhaps because a woman exhibiting assertiveness is contrary to her stereotype of being warm and less direct or confrontational. The woman judge or lawyer, especially the latter, is instantly disliked if found to be assertive and audacious. As a result, women lawyers and judges’ abilities are judged a lot more harshly than men’s and they are assessed more critically than their male counterparts.
Conclusion and Way Forward
Over the years, all these impediments have drastically curtailed women lawyers’ advancement in the profession. The question therefore is how to overcome these impediments? There is no doubt that representation of women in the legal profession is crucial to a just decision-making process. Since almost half of the country’s population constitutes women, every decision made in a court of law also affects the lives of women; therefore, a judicious and scrupulous justice system cannot be ensured without women’s active participation at all levels. Furthermore, having a greater number of women in the profession, especially in leadership and other senior positions, helps to dismantle structural barriers for other women in law. Women judges or lawyers in senior positions can also normalise the idea of women as ‘equals’.
It is therefore imperative that affirmative actions for greater participation of women in the profession are taken. For instance, the National Judicial Policy Making Committee (headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan with Justices of the Federal Shariat Court and High Courts as members) in 2009 suggested including more women judges, particularly in the subordinate judiciary, to increase the disposal of cases. Even though the larger aim was effective case management, the idea that female judges be inducted rather than more male judges was a step towards greater gender balance in the subordinate judiciary and equal access to the judiciary for women lawyers.
The level of seriousness on the issue of gender-based discrimination and protection and equality of opportunity for female lawyers is close to non-existent in bar councils and associations. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the bar councils and associations to promote gender diversity and take action against gender discrimination as well as harassment against women lawyers. The bar associations and councils should introduce training programmes for professional development of women lawyers and educate and sensitise male lawyers about the systemic barriers and problems women lawyers face in the profession.
Examples can also be taken from other jurisdictions. In Armenia, the Armenian Council of Court Chairpersons which is a judicial self-governing body, adopted measures to promote gender equality and gender balance in the judiciary. The action plan included development of gender equality training materials and thematic training programmes. Similarly, in Georgia, the Public Defender’s Office has a designated department since 2013 that monitors the implementation of gender related legislation and policies and studies complaints and individual cases of gender-based discrimination. Likewise, the Republic of Moldova’s Equality Council (set up as an independent body under the anti-discrimination law in 2013) examines individual complaints, especially cases of sex-based discrimination. The Council also conducts awareness raising activities on gender discrimination and more importantly, scrutinizes draft laws for compliance with anti-discrimination legislation.
Despite the resistance, quite a few women lawyers and judges in Pakistan have made remarkable contributions to the profession and have helped dismantle barriers for younger generations. Depriving women of fair and equal access to the profession only robs it of quality decision-making and the greater perspective women bring to it. It is therefore imperative that women in law be given the opportunity to build on their talent, competencies and expertise for themselves and for the greater good of the legal profession.
The writer is a barrister currently working at Justice Project Pakistan (JPP). Prior to JPP, she clerked at the Supreme Court of Pakistan with an Honourable Senior Puisne Judge. She leads the Women in Law Initiative’s Islamabad Chapter and holds a keen interest in ensuring equality of opportunity for women and their equal representation, especially in the legal profession. The views expressed are solely of the author.
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