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Making Babies (In Your Head)

Vivia Chen

January 8, 2011


For my money, the recent video of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, should be mandatory viewing for all women and girls. (Hat tip: Slate‚Äôs XX Factor blog.) Polished yet self-deprecating, Sandberg is absolutely spot-on in her remarks about the dearth of women in leadership positions, and what women should do to fix the problem. 

Sandberg highlights three factors that derail women's careers. You probably know the first two already:

1. Women don't sit at the table--quite literally. Instead of taking a central seat at the conference table, women often sit on the sidelines. To succeed, she says, women need to be prominent--and, more importantly, feel they deserve it.

2. Marriages are not true partnerships. Working women do most of the housework and childcare. Men, she says, need to assume more responsibility on the home front, and society should support them in that endeavor.

But it was Sandberg's third point that really stopped me in my tracks: Women sabotage their own careers because they consciously or unconsciously put the brakes on their jobs. Often young women are so concerned about balancing work and family that they pull back from challenging work--even at the starting gate.

Sandberg recounts how a young woman in her office cornered her to talk about juggling work and children. "She looked a bit young," recalls Sandberg. After a bit of discussion, it turned out that the woman wasn't close to having kids: She was unmarried and didn't even have a boyfriend. Sandberg told her: "You're thinking about this way too early." Her advice: Don't leave before you leave--in other words, don't take yourself out of the game prematurely.

Are young women in law as anxious about balancing work and family as that woman in Sandberg's office? I think so. In the ten years that I've been covering women in the law, I've noticed an increasing concern (maybe obsession) about the issue. This comes not only from associates but also law students. For instance, leaders of Yale Law Women (a student organization that issues its own list of family-friendly firms) tell me that the availability of part-time work is a major factor in their choice of law firms.

Maybe it's a generational shift. When I was a law student in the eighties, the women in my class were preoccupied about landing the most prestigious, highest-paying job they could get--which, more often than not, meant taking positions with high-powered sweatshops. Babies were not on our radar.

Of course, many of us who graduated in the 1980s through the early 1990s didn't stick around those pressure-cooker firms, or have dropped out of law entirely. So arguably, today's young women law students and lawyers are much more savvy about life's realities.

Still, isn't there something a bit kooky about designing careers based on hypothetical conflicts posed by hypothetical children? What do you think?


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..thinking ahead and having women ahead of me who actually made it with children and husbands...the two are not mutually exclusive (Meryl Streep, Gwen Pacarro) and a few women attorney's I know. Your husband must be "on board" with your career choice (not consciously or subconsciously sabotaging your efforts). Through all professions, team work is paramount,

Why is researching these issues any different than any other things that we type-A female lawyers would research before we jumped in? Isn't it wise to know as many alternatives as possible before making choices?

I think the point is really not to sacrifice your dream job for something that isn't here now and may or may not come.

I think it is a HUGE mistake not to plan a career around the potential of having children in the future. If you don't consider the lifestyle you may want to have when you become a parent it will hit you like a ton of bricks when you find yourself stuck in a sweatshop law firm with no energy at the end of your 12-hour day to make yourself a meal, let alone care for another human being. Failing to employ some foresight leads you into a certain trap.

In this day and age, women should not be criticized for considering different options and opportunities. Not too long ago, women were expected to be stay-at-home mothers and quit their jobs, while men were the breadwinners. Now, women have many of the same career opportunities as men. Women have choices. Whether a woman chooses to think about balancing work and having a family early in her career or to put her career first, she should be encouraged to do whatever is her priority. If thinking about having a family at age 25 is career suicide, then maybe we have not come as far as we thought. We are still having these debates and there are groups that discuss these issues all the time, demonstrating that we still have a long way to go.

Something that frustrates me is that others assume I will have children and the associated responsibilities. I am an early 30s biglaw litigation associate. My husband is also a biglaw litigation associate. We have zero desire to have children.....ever. However, I am constantly asked of such plans by co-workers. Even during interviews, people would inform me of part-time programs, etc. Needless to say, this does/did not happen to my husband.

Also, some men are not intimidated by, and actually prefer, smart, successful women. You just need to find the right type of guy.

I guess the only way to know for sure is to run out and have some kids or else stfu.

Because it's code for plain old balance, but you're not "allowed" to want that unless you have kids.

I completely disagree that young women are wrong to plan ahead for children and marriage, even when they are not "close" to either of those life changes. A single, 25 year old woman has about 15 years to find a partner and have children. She has about 40 (or more) years to find career fulfillment. To suggest that those personal goals just happen along the way is utterly false. Single, female big law associates don't have the time or energy to meet someone, and, frankly, men aren't attracted to so-called "powerful" lawyers who are chained to their desks. They'd rather date a teacher or a nurse. (Anecdotally, my two friends who actually managed to meet someone and get married while big law associates were both laid off the year they met their husbands. I don't think they got laid off because they got married - rather, they were slow at work and actually had time to forge a relationship. By contrast, dozen or so other female friends I have and myself - all mid-30s at big firms in DC - are perpetually, hopelessly single.) Meanwhile, those who are married (usually to someone they met before they started working full-time) have greater challenges conceiving and maintaining pregnancies than other women. I know two women at my firm who kept miscarrying and their doctors ordered them to stop working or reduce hours because the miscarriages were due to stress. Immediately after quitting, they had healthy pregancies.

As other people have put more eloquently, no one puts that they were a "lawyer" on their tombstone. But wife and mother often make the cut. It's only smart for women to prioritize at the top of the list those things that are most important, and which they have the least amount of time to accomplish.

Finally, why not focus on helping 40-something women enter or re-enter the workforce, rather than criticize younger women for making a rational choice? I hate most everything Sarah Palin stands for, but I'm inspired by her career emergence as a 40-something.

I generally agree with the comments above that you can't plan for everything. However, I think it's wise to consider whether you can really be successful in a career before you dump $100k into law school, three years of your life, plus some grueling time as a young associate.

You can't plan for everything. I expected to be a stay-at-home mom after working a few years at a law firm. 15 years later, I'm a biglaw partner and my husband is a stay-at-home dad and part-time professor who does loads of charity work and is a great father to my boys. If I had counted myself out from the get-go, our family could never have gotten to this great spot.

Umm, yes and no. Thinking ahead is good, but you really can't plan for everything in life. Some women work because they have to, but really can't wait to be stay-at-home moms and wives.

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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: [email protected]

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