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Monday, April 19, 2021

To level the playing field at work, start by levelling it at home (Hindustan Times)

By Shyel Trehan

On April 15, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, while hearing a case on judicial appointments, remarked that the time had come for a woman CJI. But, he said, chief justices of high courts stated that women lawyers have often refrained from taking up judgeship citing domestic and parental responsibilities. After the initial outrage wore off, I looked at the statement again.

It is true that women in all professions disproportionately bear the responsibility of being a primary parent to their children.

Yes, women can multi-task, yes, they can have it all, and yes, they can reach the pinnacles of their chosen careers. Many women on the Bench today have raised children, been caregivers to ailing family members, yet shown how it’s done professionally.

But the statement still hurt. A lot. I convinced myself it doesn’t apply to me. I play ball with the boys. While I am a mother, and the primary parent to my son and daughter, I believe I work as hard as my male counterparts. I convinced myself it doesn’t apply to me because my husband fills in parenting gaps with pleasure when my career requires him to. Thinking back, however, reminded me how that wasn’t exactly true.

I thought back to my first pregnancy, which was over a decade ago. Visibly pregnant at eight-and-a-half months, standing in a crowded court room in the Supreme Court for several hours. I never asked anyone for a chair, because I believe that if you want to be treated as genderless, you must treat yourself as exactly that. Nor was any chair ever offered.

I thought back to a few months after that, and the sight of a female colleague walking out of a Supreme Court courtroom in tears. She had delivered a baby three weeks earlier, and the presiding judge said he would like to hear the matter after he was done with all the other cases. She explained her situation, baby in the parking lot waiting for her, in his grandmother’s arms. Still, the court did not think it appropriate to adjourn the matter for a few weeks at her request.

I thought back to the time a senior counsel retorted, “that is the most ridiculous excuse I have heard” when a female colleague told a judge that she could not stay beyond 4.30pm as she had to breastfeed her newborn baby.

Today those days feel like a different life. My children are older and my career more established. But those were the years in your career when a woman is not fungible with her spouse in carrying and feeding a baby. Those are years when you need the system to support you, in order to stay in the system.

While we look today at the minuscule number of female judges and designated senior counsel, we should recognise that these women did it despite the odds. The system did not make it easy for them or support them through the difficult years. These are the ones that made it through. I am now on to the next phase, a phase where both parents are equally equipped to parent. The CJI cited Class 12 Board exams. There is no reason why parenting cannot be an equal partnership at that stage.

I am fortunate to practice in perhaps the most gender-neutral environment of any court in the country. Today, the Delhi High Court is not a “boys club”, either at the bar or the bench, but this is not true of courts in other cities and states. We need to change that.

Historically, parenting, care-giving and domestic activities finding mention in work life was perceived to be weak or unprofessional. That’s because someone outside the workplace was performing them. Women are not asking for special treatment at the workplace. Barring the few sensitive years of childbearing, they don’t need it, if they simply receive equal treatment at home.

Shyel Trehan is a graduate of NLSIU, Bangalore and Columbia Law School. She is a counsel practising in the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court.

Courtesy - Hindustan Times.

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