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Blame the Babies

Vivia Chen

August 3, 2011

Woman:baby How many kids does it take to kill a woman's career? Sorry to make those little darlings culprits, but that's the question that  Anna Zhu, a research associate at the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre, asks in a recently released study. Zhu's conclusion: Three kids, and your career is toast.

"The study found that women with three or more children are more than 10 percent less likely to work than mothers with just two kids, even after their kids become teenagers," reports Rachel Emma Silverman at The Wall Street Journal. "Some 68 percent of Australian mothers with two children work, but only 55 percent of mothers with three or more kids are employed, according to the analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics Data for 13,000 women."

Frankly, I'm amazed that even 55 percent of moms with three or more kids are still in the workforce in Australia. (According to Karen Sumberg, a senior vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, the second child is the "tipping point" for women in the U.S., reports The Huffington Post.)

My hunch is that the number is probably even lower in certain professions like law, where the pace is unforgiving. So what's the tipping point for women lawyers in America--one-and-a-half children?

I'm not aware of any studies on this point, but from what I've seen, most women lawyers seem to hang in there with two kids--for a while, at least. Many will huff and puff at the firm or go in-house for a few years, then drop out of the legal profession.

But here's the dirty little secret: Not all of them drop out because of the difficulties of juggling home and work. Truth is, some--perhaps many--just get sick and tired of law and want out. And let's fact it--saying that you're quitting work for the sake of the children, the sanctity of the home, is a perfectly acceptable, even laudatory, excuse.

I'm not condemning anyone--male or female--for wanting out. I totally get it. When I was a miserable little first-year associate (working under a cold, horrific--am I allowed to add the adjective "bitchy"?--associate a year or two senior to me), I would have kidnapped the first baby on the street if that could have been my ticket out of the firm.

But let's not forget the flip side: There are also high-achieving women with three or more kids who somehow make it work. What makes them different is that they actually like being a lawyer. I'm not saying there are many of them, or that they have an easy time--but they are definitely out there. (High-powered lawyer-moms with four kids include Jones Day partner Corinne Ball and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Barbara Becker; many more belong to the three-kids club, including Cravath, Swaine & Moore partner Karin DeMasi and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner Sarah Cogan. The record, though, seems to belong to Wendy Hufford, deputy general counsel at ITT Corporation, who has eight kids.)

So back to my original question: How many kids is too many for a woman lawyer to keep chugging away at her job? If she really loves what she's doing (and has a supportive spouse or lots of help), I don't think there's an automatic cutoff. But if she hates her job, the first sign of morning sickness or indigestion would suffice.

Correction: Wendy Hufford currently works for ITT. The original post identified her company as Cardinal Health. We regret the error.

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Way to be sarcastic, Winick. There is a reality that keeping a home and a career going just takes more actual hours than are in a day. If you can farm out housework, then maybe you should.

Why do women have to be the same? Why not celebrate the career woman who decides to not have children? Why not respect and honor the underpaid and overworked stay at home mom? Why do we have to stick with agrarian based assumptions about gender and roles? Just a confused guy asking questions.....

About a decade ago I attended what was meant to be an insirational meeting of Mayer Brown women lawyers (at the time, I was not a partner, but was counsel and the senior woman in my department as well as the senior representative from my office at the meeting. These women partners who boasted of having it all actually had great careers, and paid other people to live significant parts of their lives -- two nannies, gardener, cleaning lady, and "housekeeper,' who I learned was a combination mom, caregiver, caretaker, overseer, organizer, errand runner for the whole family. I wondered if they also paid someone to attend to their husbands' needs...

I'm with you, Vivia! For many years, I thought that many of my peers who opted out of the firms when the kids come along did so because firm life sucked, and (for those women who can afford it) there was a built in, socially acceptable excuse for dropping out. Which, of course, left those of us who CAN'T afford it (because we were the primary breadwinners) to feel resentful toward those who escaped. Especially when the (suspected) escapees exhibited a "holier than thou" attitude about their commitment to their families and the sacrifices they were making to rear the next generation.

I also think it placed a much harder burden on their husbands, who might have wanted to move on but had to maintain the lifestyle.

I left the work force after my second child was born, but I went back seven years later. I work in house and it's manageable but exhausting. I can't even imagine working in a firm.

Life is about choices - always has been, always will be. We all have numerous interests competing for our time - professional and personal (spouse, parent, child, etc.).

In my case, I spent the first 13 years of my legal career globe trotting my way to a reputation that has me highly ranked in just about any survey you can name. I woke up one day and realized that I hardly knew my children and that my time was limited. I have spent the last 13 years putting family first, while maintaining a partnership at an AmLaw 100 firm.

I now have a relationship with my children and spouse (of 29 years) that is the envy of most of my colleagues. Along the way I chose not to take on the assignments that would take me away from home for extended periods of time. While I was always well compensated, I began to see my comp lag those who put in more time at work. In many cases they needed the money to fund alimony payments and English tutors for their children who had ben raised by the Spanish speaking nanny. I have no doubt that their time ar the office contributed to their troubles at home.

I made my choices and would not change a thing, but I recognized long ago that the notion that you "can have it all" is just not true.

By the way, I am a male in my 50's - this is not just a woman's issue.

Work is not the problem as much as the support at home...

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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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