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Family-Friendliness? Oui. Promotions? Non!

Vivia Chen

July 29, 2013

Paris_by_Ekaterina-Pokrovsky_Fotolia(1)Is it a truth or a truism that American women aren't reaching the top of the career ladder because of the dearth of family-friendly policies? How often do you hear that what we need are more part-time options, subsidized childcare, and job security for working mothers? If only those measures were in place, women would be succeeding on all levels, goes the logic.

Well, you can add this to the "Be-careful-what-you wish-for" file. That's essentially the sentiment of  Claire Lundberg, an American now living in Paris. Lundberg writes in Slate about how enthralled she was at first by France's family-friendly job policies—"a four-month-long maternity leave, inexpensive health care for all, five weeks of vacation a year, and many quality and affordable full-time day care options."

After having a baby, Lundberg embarks on her own job search—and that's where theory meets reality. When she interviews with a female-owned business in Paris, she's appalled that she's asked about her plans for more children. (She dodges the issue and still hasn't heard back from the prospective employer.) The upshot is that she starts to rethink all those wonderful safety nets for women:

Some of the government protections and incentives offered to mothers in France may in fact make their advancement in the workplace more difficult. Paid maternity leave increases with the number of children, from 16 weeks for one or two children to 26 weeks for three or more. (In contrast, paternity leave stays fixed at 11 days.) This much guaranteed leave can make employers nervous to hire and promote women.

Digging deeper, Lundberg gets even more discouraged. She discovers that France fares poorly in workplace gender equality, ranking a "shocking 57th, behind most other European countries, the United States (too low at No. 22), Jamaica, and Russia," according to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index.

In Foreign Policy, Kay Hymowitz (author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, which details how men have been following behind) tackles similar issues. She writes:

While family-friendly policies may make many women—in particular those in lower—and mid-wage jobs—happier and perhaps even more productive and their children healthier, there is a growing body of evidence that they also inadvertently create a "mommy track." In fact, more generous leave policies partly explain the glass ceilings, as well as stubbornly large wage gaps in more progressive countries.

There it is—the progeny of family-friendly policies: the mommy track. Depending on the conversation, it's either something women dread or secretly wish for.

Personally, I am all in favor of having options for everyone—men and women. Who can argue with part-time or flextime work arrangements? Or paid maternity leaves or extended unpaid leaves? If they make you happier or your life more manageable—and you can afford it—why not avail yourself to those offerings?

That said, there's a hidden price to be paid for some of those goodies. As I've written before, many firms and companies frequently listed as the "most family friendly" or "best for women" also have poor records for promoting women (click here and here). On the flip side, my research indicates that blue chip, one-tier firms—where the odds of becoming partner are daunting for everyone—have some of the best female equity partner rates in the legal profession. (Remember, women at single-tier firms make up 17.6 percent of equity partners; at two-tier firms, women account for only 14.7 percent of equity partners.)

Why are women doing better in high-powered all-equity firms rather than firms that offer a variety of career options (like nonequity partner)? My theory is that if they don't have the option to opt out, they have no choice but to go for it.

Gee, I hope the conclusion isn't that women will succeed only if they are forced to.

Related post: Les Femmes Fatiguees

Hat tip: The New York Times  


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As a lawyer right now working in France, I would like to clarify some one the points of the articles. Some of the benefits mentioned in the article are not available to French lawyers, as all lawyers in France work under a solo practionner type of status, even when working for a big firm (this basically means that the labor law protections and benefits of French employees do not apply to lawyers). As a result, paid maternity leave is shorter than for French women employed by a company and job security inexistent (you can really get fired from one day to the other). As for affordable daycare, it exists but there is a painful admission process and your chances to get your kid admitted are not that high, which means you will most likely end up paying an expensive nanny.

As for advancement for women in the workplace, it is indeed very hard. I heard many stories of women having kids having been fired afterwards (especially lawyers), and being asked what are your plans with respect to having kids is an acceptable question during an interview. The work environment itself is very guy-friendly (no to say machist): Believe it or not, but sexist jokes in the workplace are still perfectly admissible!

In France I have seen many French women giving up their careers once they had kids and going with less ambitious (and less paid) but more balanced jobs. They always present it as a choice, but who knows if it was really the case?

This issue seems to get more complex not less, unfortunately. I began working in a para-professional position thinking I better think about my plans for family (my employer was not). I progress along (to a point), then think the professional track would offer more opportunity for work/life balance. It seems, still, the worker has to look out for their own needs and adjust their family requirements accordingly. I look forward to the balancing act. Thanks, as usual, Vivia!

This article suggests that the "Mommy Track" may have gotten a bad rap. In America, too many women stoo working because the worplace is intolerant. If they had anither option, I bet they would take it. If the working women in France are happier and their kids are healthier, whi are we to judge? I'd be interested in learning whether the French women are lamenting their lack of promotions or laughing all the way to the playground. They are able to build their retirements, contribute to their families and set a good exampke for their kids. It might just be a win/win. Of course, I 'm not advocating for a forced track. I'm suggesting that everyone benefits when workers are able to incorporate work and families into their lives.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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