As one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India is at the forefront of business, commerce and technology. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted that many bank CEOs are female mainly due to the fact the banking sector has adapted well to the needs of women employees thus allowing women to stay on in their jobs and rise up the career ladder. But what is the reality like for women lawyers in India?
The Legacy of Indian Women Lawyers
Indian lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji set a high precedent for the legal profession. She was the first female graduate from Mumbai University in 1887 and then became the first woman to read Law at Oxford in 1889. Despite such a progressive start, female Indian lawyers have not had the smoothest of career trajectories. In 2012, Sonal Makijha and Swagata Raha’s study, Challenges faced by Indian Women Legal Professionals, explored key issues affecting working mothers in the legal profession such as flexible hours, the impact of pregnancy on careers and the negative perceptions of working mothers. 52% of women surveyed admitted that maternity breaks had an adverse impact on their careers and women working in particular practice areas such as litigation felt they lost clients who opted for more available lawyers.
Sandhya Surendran is Practice Counsel and Head of Corporate Affairs & Employment at InMobi. Based in Bangalore, Sandhya heads up the general corporate and employment profile of the company. Sandhya began her legal career at one of India’s largest firms, Amarchand: “The pace was quite overwhelming which isn’t a bad thing but the learning curve is more of a 90 degrees angle than a curve. It was an enlightening experience working with an extremely high quality of lawyers. I really enjoyed interacting with legal teams of other companies. It sparked my interest in working in-house.”
After a three year stint at Infosys, Sandhya moved to InMobi. Her main area of interest is start-ups and in terms of technology, being a female lawyer in the technological space is still an ongoing challenge:
“You come across women on the legal side however it is rare to see women in leadership positions. There are huge chunks of tech lawyers who are women however they are mostly at mid-manager level and you don’t come across many who are senior VPs.”
Sandhya believes that Indian firms and companies need to adapt to the needs of their diverse lawyers:
“Most women don’t want to take the additional commitments because it affects their personal lives. Law firms in India are exceptionally cut-throat and very male-driven. Perhaps the dawn of international firms may help smash the glass ceiling as firms will be in competition to retain the best lawyers.”
In addition to working in her in-house role, Sandhya takes a keen interest in helping differently-abled children. She is a volunteer at the Reach-Swasraya organization located in her hometown of Kerala. Her interest in the organisation was sparked by her nephew who attends a school there. Reach-Swasraya has a range of specialised units such as a unit for children with cerebral palsy, a unit for children with autism and vocational training and employment programmes. Sandhya helps the organization by managing their social media profile: “the organisation is not government-funded and it’s often quite difficult to raise funding and awareness so I assist with them in funding and I also speak to others to raise awareness of their work.” She hopes to set up an organization of her own someday that will partner with schools like Reach-Swasraya and help reform the infrastructure for the differently-abled in India.