In 2018, the global #MeToo movement sparked conversations in many industries and professions across Pakistan about the systemic harassment and sexism faced by women in the workplace.
In addition to the fields of politics, entertainment and journalism, women in the legal profession have also been increasingly vocal about their experiences, and groups such as the Karachi-based Women Lawyers Association (WLA) and the Lahore-based National Women Lawyers Association have undertaken numerous initiatives to highlight the high degree of gender-based segregation in the profession.
It is mostly men who hold leadership positions and women are greatly outnumbered in law firms and in courts. At the same time, law firm bosses and legal luminaries carry subjective and largely unchecked control over hiring and promotion and career advancement depends to a large extent on informal networks and influential kingmakers.
While some in the legal community have welcomed women lawyers’ voices in this debate, others have struggled to understand that women’s obstacles in the profession cannot be reduced to the behaviour of individual lawyers and law firms.
Even lawyers who recognise that gender discrimination in the profession reflects social structures continue to argue that the legal fraternity is not responsible for creating the problems of society and is therefore absolved of the responsibility to reflect upon the segregated nature of the profession as well as the subjective, unconstrained power of a few over the career prospects of many.
Over the course of WLA’s work, many of our colleagues have raised questions about the nature and scope of gender disparity in the profession, and where its solution lies.
During these conversations, we noticed many common themes and questions, which the following FAQ addresses.
Q:There are many male lawyers who promote and encourage their female colleagues and employees. Instead of generalised statements and male bashing, shouldn’t women lawyers acknowledge good men and those women lawyers who have had positive experiences in the profession?
We invite you to ask yourself: when someone talks about the treatment of minority populations in Pakistan, do we require the author to acknowledge that some Muslims are good people who don’t discriminate against minorities and that some minorities have had positive experiences with Muslims?
Or when a lawyer critiques corruption or nepotism in the legal profession, do we require them to first acknowledge professionals who are not corrupt or nepotistic and to point to aspects of the system that are relatively honest by comparison?
We don’t, because we intuitively understand that these critiques are not about individuals, but about a system that allows, encourages and promotes certain kinds of actions and behaviours without repercussion.
The same is true for gender inequality in the legal profession — the problem cannot be reduced to isolated acts of bad behaviour by some men against some women. The problem is about the legal system as a whole.
Q:So the problem is about “the system” and not individuals. What does this mean?
Great question. It means that we live in a society in which men tend to dominate all significant institutions, and society is organised to reproduce and reinforce this power structure.
Of course, there are examples of women who occupy positions of power, too. But the overwhelming majority of decision-makers in important institutions tend to be men.
This, in turn, means that male interests and preferences are unconsciously embedded within such institutions. The legal profession is no different.
To better understand what we mean by this, we recommend that you revisit the Women Lawyers Association’s recent article, which gives many examples of how the legal workplace often feels like a foreign country to women in the profession.
Q:If societal expectations of men and women are the reason women face obstacles in the profession, why should the legal fraternity be responsible for this?
Also a great question, and one we’ve been asked repeatedly.
The legal fraternity is responsible because we are all products of this society. Many men in the legal profession are participants in perpetuating a culture that creates barriers that prevent women from entering the profession or sustaining long-term careers in this field.
Even male lawyers who might personally be against sexism and discrimination continue to reap daily benefits in a society — and legal profession — that privileges them and disempowers women.
Q:How does the legal field privilege men and disempower women?
Men don’t know what it’s like to walk into a law firm, a courtroom, or look at a bench of judges and not see other men. Men don’t experience the legal workplace as uncomfortable, and aren’t constantly aware of their bodies or how they present themselves or how many people are staring at them in court.
Men have never experienced the isolation of being the only male in an all-female workplace and being categorically left out of conversations, meals and breaks. Men’s daily reality is not cluttered with thoughts of how to avoid being leered at or sexually harassed.
Men don’t have to work twice as hard as their female colleagues to be taken seriously by clients. Men don’t have to worry about returning home from work at a reasonable hour to look after children or run a household.
The list goes on, but the point of these examples is simply this: our society affords men — and by obvious extension, male lawyers — many advantages that it does not give to women.
As the dominant group who has more power, male lawyers have the responsibility to reflect on this power without defensiveness and commit to doing their part to make the legal workplace more palatable for their female counterparts.
Q:Women lawyers complain about the long hours frequently. But we all know that the legal profession is notoriously difficult. Men tough it out and put in the long hours. If women aren’t willing to do the same, why should we take them seriously?
The point is not that women 'aren’t willing', but that society frequently puts women in a position that makes it doubly hard for them to commit to those hours precisely because of the many other responsibilities with which they must contend.
Uninterrupted time to work late into the night, six days a week, is a privilege that society affords most men but few women.
Q:Sure, but many women want to go home at 5pm because they have to go to the salon or to a shaadi in the evening. If women are going to be lazy, is that men’s fault?
Embedded within this question is the assumption that women are inherently frivolous and prioritise make-up and weddings over their professional lives.
This is an embarrassingly archaic stereotype that has no place in a 21st century discussion about women’s equality in the workplace.
More importantly, like any profession, ours has many examples of mediocre practitioners. This question, however, attributes the laziness and lack of focus of a woman lawyer to her gender.
When we encounter sub-par male lawyers, we never blame their questionable work ethic on their gender. Let’s not have a different standard for women.
Q:But don’t you think it’s actually easier being a woman lawyer in some cases, because judges and bosses are nicer to women than they are to men?
Notice how the previous question assumes that mediocre women lawyers aren’t good at their jobs because they are women, while this one assumes that when a woman lawyer is successful, it is because of the benevolence of men.
In other words, when women fail it’s because they are women, and when they succeed it’s because of the nice men who support them.
Discussions about men’s success or failure generally have nothing to do with their gender; let’s extend women the same courtesy.
Q:There are many men in the legal profession who consider themselves allies to women lawyers. When women lawyers call out the entire profession, it hurts their feelings and makes them feel like nothing they do will be good enough.
If you are a man and don’t recognise yourself or your friends and colleagues in any of the behaviour or patterns described by women, the discussion should not offend you.
A male ally is someone who listens without defensiveness, amplifies women’s voices, and examines his own behaviour, and the behaviour of those around him.
If your response to a conversation about women’s painful experiences is to ask for praise or validation that you are one of the good guys rather than listening to these experiences in a spirit of openness and inquiry, then you are disrupting the conversation by shifting the focus to yourself.
Even if it’s not your intention, you are asking women to shoulder not only the immense weight of being a minority in this profession, but also the weight of making you feel reassured and comforted. This is unfair.
Q:What do women lawyers want from men, anyway?
We are so glad you asked! We want you to take the time and effort to understand that many of us are living a completely different experience of lawyering than you are — simply by virtue of our gender. We want you to listen to our experiences without belligerence, hostility or defensiveness.
When you’re in your workplace, we want you to look around and count how many of you there are, and how many of us. Count how many partners are men and how many are women. Do the same count in court. And when you’re in a meeting with your clients.
When you’re in a meeting with a female colleague, notice how frequently your client addresses questions to you and how frequently to her. Notice who your client makes eye contact with more often.
When you and your colleagues get together for tea or lunch or a break, observe whether any of you invited the one or two women in your office to join you. Think about whether your workplace has a women’s bathroom or not.
Engage us in conversations about gender disparity in the profession instead of rolling your eyes and criticising us behind our backs for talking about it — this is a discussion we’ve wanted to have for a long time. Don’t make assumptions about what we think and want — instead, ask us questions.
When you see or hear sexist comments or behaviour from your friends and colleagues, don’t be complacent. Call them out on it. If you have colleagues in positions of power who abuse that power by sexually harassing or otherwise demeaning women, call them out on it.
Talk to other men about it. Do your part to try and stop it. We understand that this will be terribly uncomfortable and means risking mockery, censure and resistance from other men.
Take the risk.
Be an ally.
Are you working for women's empowerment? Share your insights with us a firstname.lastname@example.org