Swethaa Ballakrishnen’s Accidental Feminism: Review by Nida Kirmani

[Ed Note: As part of our blog round-table book discussion on Professor Swethaa Ballakrishnen’s Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite, this is the review by Dr. Nida Kirmani. The introductory post and the links for the other reviews (Akshaya Kamalnath, Hemangini Gupta) can be found here.]

Swethaa Ballakrishnen’s recent book, Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility among India’s Professional Elite, presents the reader with an intriguing puzzle: can institutions that have not deliberately strived for gender equality and which have no explicit commitment to feminism actually be spaces of feminist possibility? And can liberalization, with all of its dark sides, also open up new opportunities for previously-marginalized groups, namely women? At the heart of their book is the question, what do we as feminists do with the accidental? Ballakrishnen begins the book by asking these questions, which intrigued them when they themselves accidentally discovered that elite law firms in Mumbai seemed to actually be practicing gender parity. The author tells us in the Introduction that women made up 70% of the partnership cohort in elite law firms in the year before the author  began their fieldwork. This number would be high in any part of the world, but it is particularly surprising in the Indian context where the legal profession is notorious for being male-dominated. For example, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, women made up only 3% of the bar councils of their respective states, and in other similarly-placed firms, such as management consultancies, women rarely were able to rise to the top of their fields both because of institutional sexism and because of eventual family pressures. However, Ballakrishnen found the opposite situation in elite law firms; women were rising to the top and rarely, if ever, complained of facing gender-based discrimination in their workplaces, and neither did they seem to be facing any pressure from their families. Also, these women were not claiming to be feminist themselves, and nor did they see their success as being the result of any feminist movement. Rather, they argued that their achievements were based on their own hard work and ability, in other words, their merit. And these ideas were echoed by the men working in their firms as well, who seemed perfectly happy to give up their place or at least share it with the women in their law firms, even if these women were also their wives.

The next six chapters then carefully unpack this puzzle. Ballakrishnen’s methodology is robust; they conducted 139 semi-structured interviews over the course of four years with women and men working in three types of organisations: traditional legal practices, transactional law firms (the ‘elite law firms’ that form the core of the study), and international banks and consulting firms. While most of the respondents were women, and understandably so, the author also importantly included men in their study (approximately 25% of total interviewees). In this way, their study takes a relational approach to understanding the construction of gender, something very few empirical studies actually manage to do successfully.

In terms of findings, Ballakrishnen found that there were a set of coincidences that converged to create the conditions for these law firms to practice gender parity. The first factor was that the vast majority of those employed by these elite law firms across genders were from the elite national law schools, which were established beginning in the late 1980s with the National Law School of India University in Bangalore and subsequently established in major cities across the country. These law schools purportedly created a culture around the idea of ‘genderless’ merit and instilled this in their male and female students who carried this ideology with them to their places of employment. The women who subsequently went onto join these elite law firms were not necessarily from elite families. Rather they were generally middle class and were able to move into the elite because of their educational opportunities and the establishment of a different kind of law firm, one that was styled around an imagined ‘global ideal’ and was also globally-facing. These corporate law firms were a direct product of liberalization, which began in the 1990s and has been steadily increasing in India ever since. Hence, these spaces came into existence almost at the exact time that the graduates from these new national law schools were looking for employment. Rather than valuing aggression and competitiveness—typically thought to be male traits—these globally-oriented law firms actually valued ‘feminine’ qualities of cooperation and calmness. They also actively worked to create an impression that they imagined was ‘modern’ and cosmopolitan by placing women in leadership positions, which they thought would mimic firms in the contexts in which their clients were based—namely, Europe and the United States, and attract more clients.

However, as ‘friendly’ as these firms were to their female employees, interestingly they did not have any explicitly feminist policies in terms of parental leave, flexible hours, or in-house childcare. Hence, another major puzzle was how these women managed to rise to the top even if they were married or had children. For the other cases Ballakrishnen studied, traditional law firms and consultancies, these factors were the major reason why women were held back in their careers and often eventually dropped out altogether. The elite law firms, however, seemed to accidentally be allowing women to balance their work and the families with seemingly little stress and only occasional guilt. Yes, a few mentioned that their husbands actually equally-shared domestic responsibilities with them, and this too was attributed to the fact that they were also graduates of the ‘gender neutral’ national law schools, but this was not always the case. Rather, what Ballakrishnen found was that a combination of factors allowed these women to manage their work and families smoothly. Firstly, most of these women rapidly progressed in their careers by the time they reached their thirties, and hence they had more bargaining power in their firms by the time they had children, so were able to negotiate better deals for themselves. They also had more money than their parents, significantly more, which allowed them to pay for domestic help from the large pool of lower-caste, lower-class women looking for employment in Mumbai. Finally, almost all either lived with their mothers-in-law or near their mothers or in-laws, who were able to help considerably in terms of childcare. Hence, these women were living through a fortuitous moment of social change where they still had access to the benefits of the traditional family structure while also having access to professional opportunities that their mothers never had.

Therefore, the women in elite law firms were benefiting from a convergence of favorable factors, all of which took place in the period following India’s liberalization. These changes accidentally created the conditions that have allowed this relatively small, but still significant, group of women to excel in their careers. Two questions follow from this; are these changes actually sustainable and can they be considered feminist even if they have not come about through explicit feminist activism? To the first question, Ballakrishnen argues that these changes are likely not sustainable for a few reasons. Firstly, these firms are relatively new and small. This newness allows for the creation of new frames, but these may not be replicable as firms get older and grow, especially given the wider highly-patriarchal context in which they exist. Furthermore, many of the structural advantages these women enjoy will not last for long. For example, when their own daughters join the workforce, they will not be available in the way their mothers and mothers-in-law have been for them to help take on their childcare responsibilities. Yes, their daughters will probably still have the money to afford domestic help, and sadly, lower-caste and lower-class will still be looking for low-paid work to sustain themselves, but these women also rely on parents for a particular kind of class reproduction that domestic help would not be able to provide. Hence, in years to come, without a change in overall gender relations, women in elite law firms too will feel increasing pressure to drop out of the workforce in order to raise their children.

This brings us to the final question, one that I feel Ballakrishnen has not sufficiently answered in their book, and for me, the question that is the most interesting; can these accidental changes actually be labeled ‘feminist’. While the author seems to see these elite law firms as unexpected spaces of potential and feminist hope, I would argue that, despite their apparent progressiveness when it comes to gender, they actually are not. While a few women seem to be benefitting from the fruits of liberalization, as is generally the case with liberal models, these changes have not actually done much to change the overall power structure either in terms of gender or in terms of class/caste. As mentioned earlier, aside from some exceptions, very few men actually changed their behavior apart from being more ‘tolerant’ to having women working side-by-side with them at their firms. Rather, the unpaid labor these women would previously have been expected to perform was only transferred to other women, either their mothers/mothers-in-law or to lower-caste domestic workers. Hence, neither were overall gender relations challenged and nor were class/caste relations altered in any way. Yes, a relatedly small group of women were able to change their own class positions and challenge gender roles in their own lives, but liberalization does make space for limited change without challenging the overall power structure. That is how it works, and that is why liberal feminism has been relatively more palatable. Hence, I do not share the hopefulness that Ballakrishnen ends the book with that these changes can be replicated and sustained with more deliberate policy changes. Unless, the wider structure of gender, class and caste relations is challenged, these relatively small openings will remain small and the costs will continue to be borne by other women—women with less power. This may be liberal feminism, but it certainly is not transformative feminism.

Finally, a minor disagreement I had with the author was related to the point about these changes being somehow accidental and not the result of any deliberate feminist movement. I would argue that, despite the limited nature of the feminist changes that are described in the book, they were not entirely accidental. In particular, the culture that was created at the national law schools and the shift in thinking about gender can be directly linked with the hard work of women’s movements and feminists over the previous decades. This very deliberate work has created the space for this change in mindsets, even if the women and men who are the focus of this study do not identify themselves as feminists. There is no accident in this, and credit should be given where it is due. However, it also demonstrates how much work is left to be done by feminists and women’s movements to push for transformative structural changes—changes that do not rely on the exploitation of other women and that actually transform gender, class, and caste hierarchies.


Written by
Dr. Nida Kirmani
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