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Millennials Want Gender Equality? Not Really.

Vivia Chen

June 5, 2017


Women lawyers are such optimists. Why else would they say that millennials are leading the charge for gender equality and that there's progress on that front? Women swear that this next generation will bridge the gap between the sexes because it values diversity, demands work/life balance and won't put up with their fathers' B.S.

I'd love to drink the millennial Kool-Aid. But I'm not sure this is the group that I'd pin my hopes on.

In fact, there are troubling signs that millennials have reactionary tendencies. The latest example: A study released by Council on Contemporary Families that finds that a notable majority—58 percent—believe that the man should be the primary breadwinner in the family. (The study polled high school seniors in 2014, comparing the responses over a 20 year period.) That's a big step backwards for feminism, considering that only 42 percent expressed those views back in 1994.

Also disconcerting: Male authority is enjoying a renaissance. In 1976, 59 percent of respondents disagreed that “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family.” By 1994, 71 percent disagreed. In 2014, only 63 percent had problems with this return to patriarchy.

But here's the paradox: Despite the conservative trend on the home front, millennials strongly support job equality—or so they claim. Since 1994, 91 percent of high school seniors have agreed that "women should be considered as seriously as men for jobs as executives or politician,” and 89 percent said that “a woman should have exactly the same job opportunities as a man.”

In a nutshell: Millennials believe in equality at the office—but, increasingly, not necessarily in their own homes.

The report's authors (Joanna Pepin of University of Maryland and David Cotter of Union College) theorize that the preference for male breadwinners is a reaction to the logistical difficulties of having two working parents and men's loss of status in the current economy. As for the male decider stuff—the "resurgence in beliefs about men’s dominance over women in the home"—they're stymied.

Whatever the reason, none of this bodes well for women. If the Father-Knows-Best model is what prevails at home, what are the chances that the cult of male superiority won't spill into the office too—particularly in competitive, testosterone-fueled  professions like law?

Unfortunately, women have been absorbing that message too, foregoing high stakes careers and following a "female" route. Not only do few women make it into the top ranks of Big Law (they represent barely 18 percent of all equity partners), few are even putting their hat into the ring. Instead, many land on the "mommy track" or what I call the "Pink Ghetto"—jobs that offer predictable hours but few opportunities for career advancement or practice areas with little prestige or money. Women are well-represented in low-luster areas like education, family law, health care, immigration and labor and employment, but scarce in high-profile areas like M&A and big litigation, according to ALM Intelligence.

Whether women are opting for these practices out of choice or societal pressure is hard to pinpoint. That said, our continuing ambivalence and distaste about women holding power—economic and personal—certainly don't create the right conditions for female ambition.

Pepin, one of the co-authors, tells me that gender equality peaked over 20 years: "Other metrics also show a stall starting in the mid 1990s—increases in the female labor force participation, the pace of closing the gender pay gap, time gap in time spent doing housework."

Looking for a silver lining in this conservative trend? Pepin offers this little morsel: "The youth whose mothers were employed while they were growing up were more progressive than their peers."

That means having a working mom is a valuable role model. (And what a relief that kids with working moms aren't holding it against them!)

But Pepin warns that the shift toward traditional gender roles means stagnation. If millennials see no reason to change family dynamics, she says, "it is unclear how social changes for women to make progress might come about."

Women reaching the 50 percent mark of equity partners in law firms by 2020 or 2025? Dream on.





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"Low-luster areas of law." How rude is that? Choice is what women should have. Not judgment if they don't have interest in "high-profile" areas of law that you or anyone else thinks they should have selected. Anyone who has been exposed to this knows that being a partner at a Big Law firm (in general) makes for a rich but shitty, one dimensional life.

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About The Careerist

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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