Thinking with ‘Accidental Feminism’

[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 Hemangini Gupta. The introductory post and the links for the other reviews (Akshaya Kamalnath, Dr. Nida Kirmani) can be found here.]

A couple of months ago, I presented my ethnographic research on gender in startups to an audience in Chennai. Someone listening was also involved with advising startups in A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). “Tell me,” he said, “how come most of the senior management in the startups I work with happen to be women? Women do remarkably well and do not seem to hit a glass ceiling.” He advises startups to hire more women in senior management. How would I explain this? I said something about the nature of feminized labor—that I thought women were doing a certain kind of job that required negotiating between different personalities and that’s what found them success. If I had read Swethaa Balakrishnen’s book I might have explained we need to look at the ideologies of the institutions where employees were trained, how they interact with global clients, family support networks, and the changing nature of the work.

Swethaa Balakrishnen’s book raised several provocative questions for me as it did my other interlocutors on this forum. I initially read the book wanting to know: can feminism be accidental? I agree with Nida Kirmani that feminism cannot be accidental; if we hold close Audre Lorde, who appeared in the very first page of the book, “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.” Kirmani points out that not much has changed with regard to power structure in these firms: the inclusion of more women and more of them in senior positions does not necessarily alter the dynamics of caste and class at play. This might be liberal feminism, Kirmani writes, but it is not transformative feminism. In another blog post, Akshaya Kamalnath called this “free market feminism.” It seems as though we are agreed that for feminism to be transformative it needs to be willful; “The word willfullness surrounds us when we become feminists” to quote Sara Ahmed, another author from page one.

The book cleaves in a particular way: the brief preface asks: “can feminism be accidental?” and the rest of the book offers a solid sociological analysis of the experiences of lawyers in elite law firms, consultants, and litigators. If we agree that feminism cannot be accidental, perhaps we can ask the different question that Balakrishnen brings up in the preface: what do we do with the accidental? Our theories of gender identity now acknowledge that gender is shaped by environment, desire, history and not by intention alone. If we bring this poststructuralist frame to an analysis of law firms, what does Accidental Feminism help us see differently? Let me read the book with the spirit of the preface to address what the book helps us think anew.

1.The book helps us see gender differently.

Much of the rich sociological literature on elite workspaces in India has focused on Information Technology. For instance, Smitha Radhakrishnan’s work in Appropriately Indian suggests that I.T. has a distinctively upper-caste, South-Indian ethos that reproduces Brahmanical domestic arrangements. Women in I.T. have privileged family over work and consumed as responsible and moral middle-class subjects. Despite entering the workforce in highly visibilized and celebrated ways, sociologists of labor argue that women in I.T. can go just so far and no further, burdened by the expectations that they will place their heteronormative families over work ambitions. Thus, its upper caste basis restricts the possibilities for women in I.T. Balakrishnen’s work shows quite the opposite: middle class and upper caste women lawyers do well and are encouraged in their ambitions. Thus, their research shows that, in fact, gender is not an isolatable frame. We cannot know gender on its own. Gender, class, and caste coincide in specific ways with specific histories to achieve specific results (here, it is unexpected gender parity).

2. The book helps us see feminized labor differently

Balakrishnen writes in the introduction that elite transactional law is neither feminized labor nor low-paying (p.2) in the conventional sense of some management literature. Their research powerfully shows how feminized work is valued in elite transactions: clients and lawyers prefer women, feeling that “the matter will be taken care of,” or that the “work will be done well” (p. 62). Here’s an unexpected situation in which the feminized attributes of care, attention to detail, ability to sense and respond to others’ emotions and needs (in a client meeting, for instance) are valued even in a high-pressure environment. Kathi Weeks, the well-known political theorist, argues that one of the remarkable features of the contemporary post-Fordist economy is that “women’s work” now characterizes many different kinds of employment. What Balakrishnen shows us is how this shift is enacted at material sites. The literature on neoliberalism tells us that workers are increasingly seen as entrepreneurs—fused with their work—but Balakrishnen’s work suggests that corporate capitalism still manages to parse valued labor from worker bodies so that even as feminized labor is valued, the ideal worker is still male.  

3. The book helps us understand futures: speculative postcolonial ones

Transactional law firms want to signal that they are “just like global firms.” Balakrishnen understands this as “speculative isomorphism” meaning it leads them to mimic the firms they want to be like without actually having a formal relationship with them. Posh offices, fine stationery: these are not the frills of a rich office but the performative gestures through which firms signal their belonging within modern, meritocratic scripts. Gender assumes significance in this bid to claim modernity. Articulate, ambitious, middle class women lawyers become significant sites at which firms demonstrate gender parity and, thus, their rightful belonging in a globalized landscape. Their clothing, ability to navigate transnational interactions, and value within the firm all solidify the firm’s global cache. The investments in gendered modernity to be “just like an international law firm” seems to me a specifically postcolonial one (globally, Balakrishnen notes, women are scarce in prestigious workforces). I would be interested to hear more analysis of how the firms’ positioning in the postcolonial South shapes the imagination of both the global law firm and the place of women in them.

4. The book helps us understand caste as networks

Caste appears in Balakrishnen’s book as a form of identity-derived labor but in fact it could also be read as an animating principle of the book. In “Being Brahmin, Being Modern,” the sociologist Ramesh Bairy shows us the investment that the contemporary Brahmin community was able to invest in the structures and institutions of modernity: money set aside for a modern education, a consolidated presence in cities through the social, cultural, economic networks to sustain this, and a conversion of these same networks into access to livelihood. This is a useful way to think of caste more broadly as operating through networks. I think of all the elite law school graduates I know so well— of the abiding networks maintained through college and work life via large friend groups, the intimacy of knowing and retaining someone’s “law school name,” marrying classmates, and joining firms where seniors were already partners. Going on to an elite master’s degree in the U.K. or U.S. was to extend these networks and further solidify them. To stay with Bairy: “is caste contextual or is it an enduring structure that withstands the ever-renewing contexts that it finds itself in?” Balakrishnen’s book offers us new contexts to revisit this question.


Written by
Hemangini Gupta
Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.