Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Amanda M. Fisher to our pages.
Prior to COVID-19, women entered law school at equal or higher rates than men but did not achieve the same level of professional success as men. Women constitute 38% of the profession and earn salaries that are 76% of male attorneys’ salaries. Male equity partners still make 27% more than female equity partners. These numbers are telling, but the day-to-day experiences of women in the profession are staggering. Imagine being financially penalized for taking maternity leave as allowed by firm policy despite meeting every obligation before and after your leave, or being told by an employer that you do not need a raise because you got married and now have two incomes. But we actually don’t have to imagine because these stories are real and they are recent.
Why do women lag behind men in the profession? The simplest answer is that the legal profession is resistant to change. A greedy institution is an institution that requires total commitment by its members. A common example is the military — by joining, you give up individual freedoms. Law is also a greedy institution. Not surprisingly, so is family, particularly for women because of traditional social expectations. For women in law, this often translates into a tug-of-war between family and career.
Law is steeped in tradition, but COVID-19 ravaged several pillars to which the legal profession was moored. For example, time at the office was the highest currency before the pandemic, despite many lawyers, often parents — usually mothers — requesting flexible schedules and remote options. Yet during COVID-19, employers were forced to reassess whether time in the office is worth more than the safety of their employees. So, if we can make changes to keep the profession running during a pandemic, we can also reimagine the profession in a less-gendered way. Here are five ideas to advance gender equity in the profession:
(1) Show compassion. Be flexible with schedules when you can, both in person and remotely. Understand that even when working from home parents may need to turn off cameras during meetings particularly when children are present. If there is a way to accommodate caretakers that does not affect their work performance, just allow it. Most people are working very hard to keep up with professional and personal obligations.
(2) Commiserate. Be vocal about your struggles with juggling everything during these strange times. Others who may not be dealing with the same struggles may be able to benefit from seeing what working parents handle. We can all develop more empathy for one another. When all of this began, I did my best to pretend that my son was not home with me. This meant I never turned on my camera for meetings because I was afraid he would come into the frame. I rarely spoke up about anything because I was afraid he would be heard in the background and my colleagues would be annoyed. I tried to schedule meetings during his nap-time or when he would be occupied by my spouse during his lunch break. This was unrealistic. Once I let the curtain fall, I found support from colleagues who have children, and empathy from those who do not, about what life looks like for me right now.
(3) Be creative. Encourage your employees to come to you with problems so you can work together to forge a solution. I was recently interviewing a male firm partner for my dissertation. We were discussing why women seem to be behind in the profession, and he surmised that women miss out on experience when they are out of the workforce for caretaking obligations. I pressed him on this slightly, asking about whether women cultivate skills while on leave that would be beneficial in a firm environment. After a moment of reflection and some creative thinking, he then decided that yes, that was true. He told me about how his wife developed marketable skills from her time at home with their children, and if a potential employee cited those skills on a resume or in an interview, he would consider that to be more favorable than an unexplained gap. Allowing space to consider new ideas will help form creative solutions to complex problems, such as gender equality in the profession.
(4) Continue to challenge the status quo. I am not sure anyone believes we will “go back to normal” in the future, but we will settle into a new normal. Everyone, particularly people in positions of power and authority, should consistently reassess how their work environment can be improved.
(5) Put it in writing. Commit to your employees by putting policies in writing. For example, if your firm does not have a policy on parental leave and on how annual billable hours requirements, raises, and bonuses will be affected by an employee taking parental leave, then it is a perfect time to brainstorm the best fit for your workplace.
COVID-19 destroyed the profession’s cognitive scaffolding — truths we once knew are no longer valid. Now it is up to us to rebuild by shifting expectations out of tradition and into a more equal reality for current and future attorneys.
Amanda M. Fisher is a California attorney and a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Irvine in Criminology, Law & Society. She is researching gendered stigma in the legal profession in the southern United States. Amanda is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at WMU-Cooley Law School in Tampa, Florida. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her via email at [email protected]