Can Feminism Be Accidental?

Unintended Gender Parity and Speculative Isomorphism in India’s Law Firms

Swethaa S Ballakrishnen

In India, elite law firms are a limited – and surprising – oasis within a hostile, predominantly male industry. About (and, by some accounts , well under) 10% of all lawyers in the country are female, but women in the biggest and most prestigious law firms are significantly represented both at entry level and in more senior levels of partnership. What is more, many women in these firms, like in the quote above, feel that gender discrimination “just isn’t there” within their subjective environments. This kind of lived experience offers a rich contrast to the general narrative of women and work in general, but especially in the context of India, where the cultural politics of women entering prestigious white-collar work is still a relatively recent phenomenon. In a country that ranks 108th out of 145 countries for women’s economic participation in the Global Gender Gap Index, where less than 15% of all urban workers are female, where only about 5% of all board directorships are held by women, what particular conditions allow for relative gender parity in certain prestigious workspaces but not others? This is the central empirical puzzle that motivates this research more generally.

Photo by Oliver Tsang/South China Morning Post

The following text is from “Why is Gender a Form of Diversity?”: Rising Advantages for Women in Global Indian Law Firms which was published in 2013. An updated manuscript can be found in the book Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite.

Following market liberalization in 1991, the Indian legal profession has had more demands for cross-national legal services than ever before. One of the ways in which the country has responded to this new work and clientele is by reorganizing its professional spaces in new, competitive ways. On the one hand, there has been a burgeoning of new, elite law schools that train young lawyers in comparative, cross-national law and include rigorous clinical curriculum. At the same time, there have emerged, especially over the last decade, a hoard of new legal organizations that deal primarily with transactional corporate work for large global and domestic corporate clients. These big law firms have expanded and grown institutionally in many unprecedented ways, but a striking feature of their emergence—even in the largest and most prestigious firms in the country—has been the growth and success of their women lawyers. For instance, in the year 2012, Amarchand Mangaldas, the largest and, arguably, the most influential of these big law firms, promoted thirteen senior associates to partnership, 70 percent of whom were women. In a similar vein, the other leading firm, AZB and Partners, co-founded by Zia Mody (the country’s leading mergers and acquisitions (M&A) expert who was cited on the Forbes list of Asia’s Fifty Power Businesswomen)7 has a gender composition of “about 50 percent,” with women rising in partnership tracks with more regularity than ever. A large part of this explanation is that a majority of women—and associates in general—who work in these firms are graduates from the country’s premiere national law schools, which select incoming students using highly-competitive entrance examinations, graduating as many women as men from their rigorous five-year undergraduate curriculum. But it is not only overarching numbers that make this emergence of potentially gender egalitarian workspaces promising. Preliminary interviews suggest that women in these big law firms are not discriminated against or disadvantaged as compared to their male peers in that they receive similar organizational rewards (pay, promotion, client attention) and interactional status among clients, peers and superiors alike. This is an intriguing finding in that it does not correspond to mostly gender-disadvantageous accounts of women in high status professions universally, nor in the legal profession specifically.

The partner asked, “How many of you have walked into the room and have people mistake you for a secretary or a paralegal?” To my surprise, everyone had a story of some sort that fed that agenda: about how they were at a constant disadvantage vis-à-vis their male colleagues, not treated as “serious stuff,” etc. On the other hand, I had to confess as the only non-white woman from a developing country that I had never felt the same pressures while working in India. If anything, being a woman was an advantage—especially compared to the U.S.
-Author’s Interview with a Female Partner in a Big Law Firm, in Mumbai
Photo by Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Adding to scholarship that engages with this question by exploring mechanisms at the individual level (e.g. socialization ) and the interactional level (e.g. relationships with clients ), this article isolates the importance of organizational and institutional factors in producing this unusual outcome. Using data from 139 original, semi-structured interviews with professionals in India’s elite litigation, transactional law, and management consulting firms, I analyze the variations in the experiences of similarly high status professionals to shed light on the ways in which different organizational environments and motivations influence individual experiences. In unpacking these comparisons, I find two specific factors to be of relevance in dictating firm choices and culture. First, following a line of research  that suggests the advantage of new firms to offer new kinds of gendered environments, I find that institutional novelty is important: newer kinds of professional practice in India like transactional law and management consulting are indeed more hospitable to women than more traditional forms of practice like litigation. However, not all kinds of new practice are equally advantaged. This research suggests, somewhat counter-intuitively, that the most egalitarian work environments are found not in local offices of global firms (such as global management consulting firms), but rather in domestic firms with foreign-facing clients and transactions (such as Indian corporate law firms).

Particularly, my research offers that despite having more global institutional mechanisms in check (e.g., women’s seminars, maternity leave policies, flexi-work times), women in consulting felt gendered pressures that were well in line with other accounts of elite professional global work environments. What was more, they felt resigned to their plight because, although they worked for global firms, “it was, after all, India.” In contrast, women in elite law firms felt entitled to their relatively egalitarian environments. I was often asked why I thought gender would matter, because they saw themselves as naturally “meritocratic” and “just like any international firm.”

To explain and theorize this difference in experience, I highlight that, unlike Indian banking and consulting firms that were local offices of elite global conglomerates, transactional law firms struggled with issues of organizational legitimacy and felt the need to differentiate themselves aggressively from their more traditional peers (i.e., domestic litigation firms). In doing so, this research offers a new way of thinking about neo-institutionalism in these contexts—a mechanism I term “speculative” isomorphism”. Regulatory constraints that barred foreign law firms from India also created a special kind of organizational vacuum, within which domestic law firms had diffuse ideas of what was considered “global” and little concrete connection to organizational praxis and culture that could specify the more complicated realities of manifesting this ideology. As a result, unlike local offices of global consulting firms that could ride on the legitimacy of their parent organizations, domestic law firms saw themselves as needing to adhere to, replicate, and often outperform the ideals of the western firms they sought to emulate. It is this performance of meritocratic mimickery for the purposes of global legitimacy – and its subsequent incidental advantages for women within it – that this case exposes.

Photo by Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times

In analyzing this unlikely empirical case, this article goes beyond descriptive research on the global legal profession to engage with a set of interrelated conversations about global organizations and institutional emergence, especially with respect to the recursive relationship  between global scripts and local firms in emerging markets. Further, in extending this line of neo-institutional theory, I make a larger suggestion: equal gender representation may not necessarily represent the triumph of a social movement, but instead be one mechanism by which local firms struggling for legitimacy can signal meritocracy and modernity to their increasingly global audience.

Photo by Punit Paranjpe / AFP

About the book: In India, elite law firms offer a surprising oasis for women within a hostile, predominantly male industry. Less than 10 percent of the country’s lawyers are female, but women in the most prestigious firms are significantly represented both at entry and partnership. Elite workspaces are notorious for being unfriendly to new actors, so what allows for aberration in certain workspaces?

Drawing from observations and interviews with more than 130 elite professionals, Accidental Feminism examines how a range of underlying mechanisms—gendered socialization and essentialism, family structures and dynamics, and firm and regulatory histories—afford certain professionals egalitarian outcomes that are not available to their local and global peers. Juxtaposing findings on the legal profession with those on elite consulting firms, Swethaa Ballakrishnen reveals that parity arises not from a commitment to create feminist organizations, but from structural factors that incidentally come together to do gender differently. Simultaneously, their research offers notes of caution: while conditional convergence may create equality in ways that more targeted endeavors fail to achieve, “accidental” developments are hard to replicate, and are, in this case, buttressed by embedded inequalities. Ballakrishnen examines whether gender parity produced without institutional sanction should still be considered feminist.

In offering new ways to think about equality movements and outcomes, Accidental Feminism forces readers to critically consider the work of intention in progress narratives.


Swethaa S Ballakrishnen is an Assistant Professor of Law (and, by courtesy, of Sociology, Asian American Studies, and Criminology, Law and Society) at the University of California, Irvine. Primarily oriented within a critical socio-legal praxis, they write, think, and teach about law’s connection to actors/institutions/relationships at the periphery, usually around identities/queers/souths.


This article first appeared on the Law and Society Review Blog.
Cover Photo Credits: Soumitra Ghosh/AFP

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