A discussion hosted by the Indian Law Institute, Kerala and the Kerala Federation of Women's Lawyers (KFWL) to mark the occasion of International Women's Day saw Telangana High Court Chief Justice Hima Kohli, Justice Anu Sivaraman of the Kerala High Court and advocate Geetha Ramaseshan discuss the challenges faced by women in law.The welcome address for the event was rendered by KFWL President, Advocate SK Devi, who remembered late Justice KK Usha. ."In 1975, when I started practice as a lawyer, only ten or twelve women lawyers were in the High Court. Justice Usha was there extending help to all women lawyers. She is the first lady advocate elevated to the Bench and she is the first woman Chief Justice of Kerala High Court…Today she is not with us. On behalf of the entire women lawyers of Kerala, pranamam to our Usha chechi," she said..The ensuing panel discussion on Women in the Legal Profession, Triumphs and Challenges was moderated by advocate Ninni Susan Thomas. The vote of thanks for the event was rendered by Advocate Krishna. .Watch the full discussion here.On women entering the legal profession.Chief Justice Kohli recalled that she chose law even though she knew no one in the profession. She added that it was with her mother's support that she entered the legal profession. In her early days of practice, in the mid-80s, she pointed out that there were no law firms like there are today.."Those were the days when one had to join a senior to be able to even enter courts and get some work. Nobody would give a youngster any work and I can't blame them because their entire litigation depended on the performance of the lawyer...I was blessed, I had excellent seniors, generous with their time and kind enough to give opportunities," she said..Chief Justice Kohli was also prompted to underscore that after a point, even for a lawyer, the satisfaction lay not in collecting a fee, but rather on being able to do a case well and get relief for the client. .Even for a lawyer, the satisfaction is not of getting the fee after a point. It is about being able to do a case well and managing to get the relief for your client.Chief Justice Hima Kohli.To drive home the point, she spoke of how she does not remember clients who have paid her well. Rather, her memory goes back to a woman with her "little case in the heart of Delhi relating to a landlord-tenant dispute", who couldn't afford to pay her fee. Chief Justice Kohli went on to recollect why this woman's case still remains an emotional one. "I continued with the matter. The lady (a seamstress) had the dignity of watching me and one day coming up and saying that she would like to starch my saris and return the courtesy ('we wear white saris, as you all know.. starched white'). That is what got me so emotional. That is what I remember even now," she said. .Justice Sivaraman observed that it is a matter of perception and stereotype that certain areas of law are not safe for women practitioners. .These are just perceptions, matters of stereotypes that we encounter at every stage of our lives.Justice Anu Sivaraman, on areas of that are "unsafe" for women.While systemic changes may be required to address such issues, she emphasised that it is up to the women lawyers to go past such perceptions. "It's up to us as lawyers, women to chart out our paths and to walk that way without worrying about what the world says about us, what is perceived as the 'correct niche' for the woman," she said..In doing so, she also paid tribute to women who were pioneers in law, from Justice Anna Chandy to Justice Fathima Beevi and Justice KK Usha, among others. "It is because of them we are here today; our place in the sun, we owe to them," Justice Sivaraman said. .Advocate Ramaseshan commented that while there may have been reluctance in the past to take on women juniors, the situation has changed today and women lawyers are sought after for their merit. "When I enrolled at the Bar, there were many senior lawyers who would not take a woman lawyer as a junior. Today, I find the position reversed so much that many seniors are wanting a woman junior," she said. .Important to have a support network for women.Chief Justice Kohli opined that it is important to have a support mechanism for women lawyers. She recalled that during her years of practice, she and other like-minded lawyers brought out an initiative dubbed Women in Law and Litigation (WILL).Justice Sivaraman remarked that there has always been an informal support system among women lawyers at the Kerala High Court, even before the new High Court building was put in place. "I enrolled in 1991, and we did have a room... the informal system of mentoring, I felt, has always been there...I am hoping that youngsters coming into the profession will take this forward," she added..Cannot underestimate the sensitivity of male judges on issues concerning women.The discussion also branched out to how much of a difference it would make if more women were on the Bench in terms of sensitivity to cases concerning women."I found that the sensitivity of my bench partners who are males on issues relating to women was surprisingly far more than I would have expected my own self or a woman colleague on the bench to have," Chief Justice Kohli said..She went on to recall beautifully written family court judgments which she had come across when they were challenged in the High Court, which were authored by a male judge in the subordinate court. "It came as such a pleasant surprise... it made all that difference. Because you, as a woman, have a take that comes naturally...but for a man to take that extra step to react to the same situation with more, if not equal sensitivity, was a pleasant surprise...", she added. .She went on to underscore that there are no cliches or straightjacket formulae in such matters."...in fact, a woman may be sometimes more conservative vis a vis a male", she remarked. .She opined that male judges have become more sensitive. She observed that the full credit for this should go to their upbringing, "just as it is our upbringing, male or female, that puts that little seed in the heart." "That seed shows results when the judgments are written," she added. .Justice Sivaraman agreed with Chief Justice Kohli, adding, "I feel we are underestimating our men and their sensitivity. It has been really refreshing because...in several situations, it has been the male partner of the bench who has understood the situation and been more sensitive than I have been. Kudos to them.".Advocate Ramaseshan also agreed, although she noted that sometimes, women lawyers may feel more encouraged and less hesitant if they appear before women judges. All the same, she added,"But whether judgments are going to be different on the basis of your gender - I don't think so.".On women dropping out of law.Responding to a question on how to tackle the issue of women dropping out of legal practice, Chief Justice Kohli recalled that the landscape in the 80s and 90s was such that a woman practitioner was often made to choose between her career and marriage in the early years of her practice. This was so, particularly in view of the notion that it is difficult for a woman practicing law to get married. ."So many of the young girls, with all their enthusiasm and who wanted to practice, would suddenly find that they had to choose between marriage and practice," she said..Those who married within the profession had the advantage of the husband taking over the reins while the woman was busy setting up the family, she added. Or if the woman was a second-generation lawyer, her father or brother would help so there would be a running practice to come back to. .On the other hand, Chief Justice Kohli pointed out, this would not be the case for a standalone woman practitioner who got married and had to set up a family. "She (standalone woman lawyer) would have to drop everything and by the time that critical period of 4-5 years to bring the child up enough for the baby to go to a school...(the woman) invariably would sacrifice the career for the male to continue running the house.".Things had started to change after law firms came into the picture, she added. She remarked that women are more focused, not in choosing between the profession and marriage, but in wanting to merge the two. .Of course, the biological clock is ticking and the woman also knows...But that's not a deterrent.Chief Justice Hima Kohli.The age of taking a decision to get married has also shifted to the late 20s and more closer to the 30s, she noted. ."Of course the biological clock is ticking and the woman also knows that if she wants to marry and set up a family, there are timelines attached to it. But that's not a deterrent. She is willing to go that extra mile and do that work and still continue to carry that decision of tying the knot and getting on with setting up a family. I would say things have improved over what it was," Chief Justice Kohli said. .Justice Sivaraman opined that the biggest challenge that women face in continuing their legal practice has to do with maternity leave and childcare."I have also noticed that once you take a break and the break goes on long enough, even when you come back, you are not really as serious as a lawyer who stayed in the profession. I think it is up to us to find out how this issue of child care can be addressed," she said. .The singular most challenge to women continuing with the practice of law is the issue of childcare.Justice Sivaraman.On the issue of women taking a break for maternity leave, she opined that maternity leave is a necessity and that it is not the case that a woman has taken a break because she is 'not serious about her profession.'.Ramaseshan noted that with more and more working women choosing not to take a break from work after having a child, external systems of child care are likely to keep developing. "From '82 to today, there is a larger number of women in other sectors who are also not taking a break. Therefore, there is a different child care system that has developed...other systems are developing in terms of external child care systems etc. It is going to go that way. It is not just lawyers. Women may want to continue in their careers and may not take much of a break," she said. .On sexual harassment in the profession.On the issue of sexual harassment within the legal profession, Advocate Ramaeshan observed, "Sexual harassment is a problem. It is there in the profession, we cannot deny it. It is there among lawyers. There can be no denial of the fact that it is a problem and I don't think anybody wants to deny that.".Justice Sivaraman noted that on the one hand, there is an issue of discerning whether or not a complaint is genuine. She also observed that victims are reluctant to come forward with complaints. A related issue she flagged was how competent the system in place is to deal with the complaint. "We need much more discussion on this...and see that a woman who raises a genuine complaint feels protected in the system. This requires much more work. I don't have any glib suggestion to make," Justice Sivaraman added. .Chief Justice Kohli underscored that whenever someone has the courage to come to a sexual harassment committee and complain, "it is the duty of the committee to make sure she is comfortable enough to continue with the complaint and has the backing of knowing that if something goes wrong, the committee is there.".She added,"The message should go that the committees are active and will not take any such bullying by the man once the woman has made a complaint.".Ramaseshan pointed out another dimension to sexual harassment cases when the allegation is made by one lawyer against another. In such a case, it may be difficult when the workspace is the lawyers' home. "Then sometimes, the only option left with the young woman lawyer is to go to the police, which if she does, sometimes there would be a lawyers' group that would prevent her from doing so," she added. .She further noted that a complainant may also become afraid that she will become unpopular with no other lawyer's office wanting to take her on as a junior once she has alleged sexual harassment against another lawyer. .As the discussion drew to a close, Chief Justice Kohli remarked, "..,when we talk of 'challenge' and 'challenge to status quo', I hope to live the day when there is an International Men's Day, celebrated with the same gusto as we are doing on International Women's Day. That would validate everything that we have all discussed.".Justice Sivaraman said, "Please don't forget the pioneers. And please don't forget that in some respects, you are pioneers as well. The only thing standing in the way of you and complete success is the limitations you put on yourselves.".Geetha Ramaseshan added, "To the young lawyers, I want to say it is a very adventurous profession. It is exhilarating, frustrating, but never boring. So always step into it and take the challenge and take the connectivity with your seniors and enter the profession bravely."