Gender at a Law Firm

Exploring gender disparity in Indian law firms by applying Catharine MacKinnon’s theory of butterfly effect.


Niyati Karia, Writer

Illustration by Suryansh Deo Srivastava

Post-1991 following market liberalization, the Indian legal profession enlarged its avenues to accommodate overseas legal services. One of the ways it acknowledged the flooding work and clientele was by restructuring and expanding its professional space to fit in female lawyers and many prestigious law firms in India have witnessed the growth and success of these lawyers. At the outermost layer, one can see how promising law firms are at promoting gender egalitarianism. Ostensibly, many interviews can be suggestive of the fact that there is no place for gender discrimination or disadvantage as compared to male counterparts in law firms. However, it is interesting to note that many female lawyers practicing in firms are oblivious to the salient role gender plays in upward movement, client attention and pay cheques.

Even a flap of butterfly wings can bring cyclones or thunderstorms.

The word ‘butterfly effect’ was coined by Konrad Lorenz. It is a metaphor for the manner in which even a flap of butterfly wings can bring cyclones or thunderstorms. It’s supposed to convey that extremely small and simple interventions can bring larger effects and changes in the complex unstable systems. Catharine MacKinnon picked this theory in her book “Butterfly Politics” to reflect that correct human actions in an unstable highly-politicised system sooner or later have large reverberations. Smaller affirmative steps can in turn attempt to bring parity between the two genders. MacKinnon’s book showcases dimensions of legal political activism focused towards empowering women in both the private and public realm.

The book indicates that by virtue of the social structures being complex and unstable, sex inequality is inevitable. It is complex, among other reasons, because the actors in the society do not only interact with a single variable, but with multiple variables simultaneously – i.e. race, ethnicity, class, caste, sexuality, etc. In other words, intersectionality plays an important role which makes the structure complex. The structure further is unstable not because of inherent biased norms which reflect women’s natural inferiority to men, but due to the dominant approach to inequality which has been normalized – rendering the nature of the structure misguided. Thus, both the complex and unstable nature of the structure have a conjoined adverse effect on women who are placed at disadvantaged positions to that of men.

Therefore, necessary interferences and negotiations are required to disrupt the current status quo in order to facilitate sex equality. The book highlights several substantial changes made in sex equality which once had no institutional backings. Thereby, it also opens avenues for changes that have yet to be realized. The butterfly effect is one way to understand how critical intervention (even tiny ones) can influence structures to bring transformative changes in our gender system. It inspires interjections and encourages multidirectional political thinkers to engage in debates and discussions on the subject matter of transformation towards sex equality. One wing flap of the butterfly, subsequently, can cause amplified change. Therefore, equality demanders should spread and flap their wings.

In principle, the bar and the bench are deeply committed to foster equality. However, in practice, they lag behind. Women in Indian law firms feel that they are placed in a better position than those who practice litigation because of hierarchical male dominated settings. The unanimous answer by women who claim that there is an absence of gender discrimination raises speculation in the mind. The statistics clearly reflect how gender discrimination is persistent in the legal profession otherwise. In major firms, the ratio of women to become partners is much less to that compared to men. The attrition rates are higher in case of women lawyers. Even though women express the level of satisfaction they get, they are often dissatisfied in arenas of responsibility, work recognition, type of work assigned and chances for advancement. Many of these barriers lie in the structural problems.

The point here is to understand how different identities of one person intersect and negotiate with the structure of a law firm. Class and gender stereotypes also are well-documented, playing an unconscious role in a law firm experience. When one notices the success of female lawyers from big law firms, it is visible how advantage is limited to only certain kinds of women. These big-shot female lawyers have class-based privileges. Only people who are English-speaking, studying in National Law Schools, highly educated and/or are from professionally well-connected families get an opportunity to work at such law firms. Even though there is no demographic statistical data to support this assertion completely, it is not too much to assume that class effects have overshadowed the gender phenomenon.

Even the age of a woman plays an important role. Many women become partners at the age of thirty, however – they are either in committed relationships or married, although very few have children. Women in senior positions are usually either unmarried or married with no children. These women have familial and communal structures to leverage them, while there are other women with similar class advantages who are not in a position to avail the opportunities. To understand the hindrances women face, it is substantial to understand why they leave the firm at a younger age as compared to men- which also throws light on how they succeed within the law firms. One of the reasons is that their identity as a woman overpowers their identity as a professional. They are unable to strike that balance between work and home life.

There is also a difference between the kind of work allotted. It is assumed that women who are mothers are less available and committed, an assumption not made about fathers. Traditional male clients usually are not comfortable to assign cases to female lawyers initially, however the approach changes once they begin to work with them because of “quality work” delivered by female lawyers. They are often referred to as “hard working”, “careful” and “dedicated.” These terms used are self-evident of gender being a positive salient in a successful career. This re-enforces the assumed stereotypes about gender roles of women being docile, dutiful, and caring. In this way, gender roles are given precedence over actual professional roles that these women employ- thereby overlooking their caliber and qualifications.

How can firms be effective in promoting gender equality? MacKinnon’s book advocates that small interventions in the legal realm can generate larger substantive changes i.e. to end inequality. The first step is to establish structures that will promote equality by taking tiny steps. The complex and unstable structures of law firms bearing intersectional actors and stereotypical assumptions can be subjected to the increased threshold of accountability and monitoring. Gender issues should be seen as a priority within the firm and thereby allowing the inculcation of best practices which promote fairness and inclusion in law firms. Such minor, yet collective interventions can cause the butterfly effect, thus enforcing significant changes to bring women lawyers at an equal footing. These measures will change the politics of law firms that can be extended to further demand LGBTQ rights within these firms. The decision-makers of law firms can participate in the butterfly effect, because the wing flap will increase the magnitude of the change by manifolds.

Reference List

  1. MacKinnon, C. (2017) Butterfly Politics. Harvard University Press, 2019.

  2. Ballakrishnen, S. (2013) Why Is Gender a Form of Diversity? : Rising Advantages for Women in Global Indian Law Firms. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies.


Niyati is a law student at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. She is an intersectional feminist and aspires to pursue her career in social laws. Her Instagram handle is @ex.why.zii.