Women lawyers are not equal — at least not in the private sector. Plain and simple. I know that you do not expect to hear this from me nor do you want to hear this from me, but it is true.
Equality is defined as “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” If you compare private sector female lawyers to private sector male lawyers on issues of status and opportunities, you begin to see the inequality. (“Rights” are derived from constitutional law and legislation and are not addressed here. But, if you want a history of women’s rights in America, watch RBG.) So, let’s talk status and opportunities:
- On status: Women have the babies, and tradition and implicit bias too often drive the conclusion that it is the woman’s responsibility to be the primary care taker of her children. As the result of health considerations for women and their newborns, women lawyers typically take the maximum allowable maternity leave after childbirth. More likely than not, when she returns to work, the woman lawyer is treated differently from her male colleagues because implicit bias drives the further conclusion that young mothers are no longer dedicated to, committed to, and serious about their jobs. And because this attitude prevails, many young women lawyers are denied equal consideration for partnership, thereby doing irreparable damage to their professional status.
- On opportunities: Repeat the above. Once law firm management and leadership presumptively conclude that a young mother/attorney lacks dedication and commitment to her career, the opportunities for advancement dissolve.
So, what can be done about it? A lot, according to a recent article in The American Lawyer. This article is a group effort of the young lawyers editorial team at the magazine, and it is very ambitious in terms of the recommendations to law firms. However, it includes some excellent starting points for firms to consider and implement. Although I do not realistically expect that firms will implement all of the recommendations at once, most of them are possible over time.
Law firms need to take these issues very seriously for some very good reasons. In fact, the title of the article, “Law Firms Benefit by Showing Attorneys that Family Matters” implies benefits to law firms from instituting the recommended policies. Benefits not only for reasons of retention of talent, competition in the market place, and related self-serving profit motives, but, more importantly, because we are a profession that was founded on issues of fairness, respect and honorable behavior.
Simply stated, it is not nice to punish women professionals for having babies.