[Ed Note: Over the next few days, we will run a book discussion on Swethaa Ballakrishnen’s Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite. This is the introductory post by Nicholas Robinson]
In a pathbreaking new book Swethaa Ballakrishnen takes on a surprising aspect of India’s legal profession: that there is striking gender parity in elite Indian corporate law firms that frequently surpasses that found in corporate law firms in the West. The book, Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite (Princeton Univ. Press, 2021), contrasts this relative gender parity in Indian corporate law firms with two other professional workplaces in India, namely traditional litigation practice and international management consulting firms based in India.
Using a wide set of data and over 130 in-depth interviews, Ballakrishnen argues that elite Indian corporate law firms ended up doing gender quite differently, creating an environment where women were both recruited and rose to leadership positions in roughly equal numbers as men. Strikingly though this result was largely “accidental”. The book explores several potential causes of this outcome. These include a new professional landscape that emerged post-economic liberalization that did not have built in assumptions about who a corporate lawyer should be; a desire by Indian firms to mimic perceived gender relations in international law firms; a demand by clients for women lawyers; and the emergence of the national law schools that had a more egalitarian gender dynamic and that fed students into these firms at a younger age allowing women to more easily attain leadership positions before having families.
Professor Ballakrishnen asks whether it matters if this gender parity was “accidental”. Certainly, in other areas, feminist breakthroughs have come about because of concerted and conscientious campaigning, often by generations of women. How does the “accidental” nature of gender parity in elite Indian corporate law firms shape how gender works at these organizations? Does it matter for how gender roles may develop in the future in these firms? What are the implications for feminism when one of the most prominent success stories in India’s highly gendered labor market was “accidental”?
Swethaa Ballakrishnen is an Assistant Professor at UC Irvine Law School. Their research examines the intersections between law, globalization and stratification from a critical feminist perspective. They have a PhD in Sociology from Stanford University, a LL.M from Harvard Law School, and a BA, BL (Hons) from NALSAR-Hyderabad.
We are pleased that the following leading scholars will contribute to this book round-table on Accidental Feminism, which will be followed by a response from Professor Ballakrishnen:
We are also extremely grateful to Prof. Rohit De for his time and assistance in helping us put together this Book Discussion.