Structural biases against women must be addressed
Speaking at an occasion when the Supreme Court Women Advocates Association was celebrating the appointment of nine new judges, three of them women, to the court, Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana called for equal representation for women across sectors. The CJI said women should “shout and demand that we need 50 per cent reservation”, adding that this was “not a small issue” and had emerged from “thousands of years of suppression”. The CJI went on to admit it was long past time for there to be equal representation for women in judiciary, which should not be regarded as charity but as a right. The problem is clearly pressing. Last year, then Chief Justice of the J&K High Court Gita Mittal pointed out only 73 of the 673 High Court judges in office were women.
Justice Ramana’s framing of the issue as a right rather than charity is spot on. Yet the problems that he has himself identified in finding enough female jurists for the highest levels of the judiciary might be considered relevant in other fields as well. Reservations, while useful, stumble at higher proportions such as suggested by the CJI; they cannot alone overcome structural barriers faced by the disadvantaged group. They might help raise the proportion of women from, say, 10 per cent of the judiciary to, say, 25 per cent; but without an improvement in the overall gender ratio of the legal profession, they will struggle to move it from that 10 per cent to half.
By comparison, a breakup of the partners at the 30 top Indian law firms by gender, conducted by the web site Legally India, noted that less than a third of the partners were women, and at less than a quarter of the firms the gender ratio was greater than 40 per cent female. The Supreme Court chooses its own senior advocates, and there are only 17 women senior advocates designated out of 430 in total. Even the metropolitan high courts do poorly. The Delhi High Court, the most progressive in the country, has eight women against 229 senior advocates designated. In the Bombay High Court, the equivalent number is six women out of 163. How can reservations at the top address these structural impediments at every stage of the legal profession? How will it help if there are 15 more female Supreme Court judges if that leaves no female senior advocates?
The fact is that the problem must be addressed throughout the system. More female judges can be found for the Supreme Court when there are more female high court judges; which will happen when there are more female senior advocates; which will happen when there are more female partners; which will happen when there are more women in the legal profession; which will happen when law schools seek out and promote the most talented women. In many parts of India, girls do better than boys in school-leaving examinations; there is every reason for law schools to be incentivised to take on more female candidates. The CJI will get his wish for equal representation when the judicial class takes the lead in reforming the structural biases within the legal profession.