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

By Swethaa S.Ballakrishnen UC Irvine School of Law

“Look, we have equal number of male and female partners. A thought like [gender discrimination] doesn’t even arise…the culture is just different here.”

In India, elite law firms are a limited – and surprising – oasis within a hostile, predominantly male industry. About (and, by some accounts[SB1] , 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.

Adding to scholarship that engages with this question by exploring mechanisms at the individual level (e.g. socialization[SB2] ) and the interactional level (e.g. relationships with clients[SB3] ), 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 [SB4] 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.

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 [SB5] 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.

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