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Will Gen Y "Feminize" Big Law?

Vivia Chen

December 10, 2012

© Ruslan Kudrin - Fotolia.comRemember my warning about not pinning too much hope on men to lead the work/life balance brigade? I'd like to report that I was wrong—that younger men are really much more progressive than the old roosters crowing at the office.

But sadly it looks like my original instinct was on target. Despite findings that Gen Y is generally more open about gender roles and want more balance in their lives, those attitudes aren't shared by the next crop of corporate elites. More distressing, the women in this group seem just as accepting of existing gender roles.

According to the Harvard Business Review Blog, first year MBA candidates (male and female) at Harvard and MIT business schools "hold more traditional attitudes about gender roles in the workplace than the rest of their Gen Y cohort." While both men and women start out with similar expectations about their work and personal lives, they have strikingly different expectations about the future. Here's how Erica Dhawan, a researcher at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, describes her findings in the HBR blog:

    - Women expect more home demands; men expect more work. "Women expect to have a greater amount of responsibility at home in 10 years, while men expect partners to give more on this front."

    - Women are planning work/life balance strategies now—but not the men. The women MBA candidates are considering "choosing workplaces known for good work/life policies, having kids later to be more stable financially, living close to family members, and managing flextime effectively." In contrast, Gen Y men "had vague strategies for balancing work and family."

    - Women do not expect spouses to be the primary caregiver at home. "Surprisingly, none of the women mentioned a scenario in which their spouse stayed home with the children."

    - But men assume that their wife will take care of the home front. "They did not assume their partner would have a heavy workload, nor did they mention the possibility that their partner would be the breadwinner in the family. Most envisioned spouses who would work part-time, work at home, or simply be at home. Most of the men assumed that their spouses would take care of the children when a work conflict arises."

I know these are MBAs rather than J.D.s, but I fear that these attitudes extend to both sectors. While the world of high finance is even more male-dominated than that of Big Law, I wouldn't be surprised if you get similar results from J.D. candidates at the top law schools. (I mean, look around you—which sex usually attends those talks on work/life balance?)

So the upshot is that these smart men and women start out in the same place, but somehow expect (and accept) that they will end up in traditional gender roles—Tarzan as breadwinner/leader and Jane as the helpmate/follower—10 years down the road.

How depressing is that? Didn't you expect Gen Y to have loftier goals?


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Maybe after thousands of years, every civilization in the world that survived to the present didn't end up with the same results as far as gender roles by coincidence.

Thank you for this thought-provoking article! Perhaps these efforts will just take more time, effort and awareness. As an established attorney recruiter, I found this particularly interesting because in recent years I do see change. At this point, the change is primarily in "conversation" and "intention" as male attorney candidates increasingly make decisions based on a desire to achieve more balance. Additionally, a challenging economy has often limited the ability to implement changes to the extent that both men and women would like. I agree with Kate that women still face a tremendous uphill battle when returning to work after a maternity leave or break for child-rearing.

Oh no!!! Please tell me that this is a hoax and that all we've worked for the past three decades isn't consigned to the dust bin of history. How much effect do you think the hellacious job market has on these results? When times get tough one doesn't demand fairness and equal treatment, one is grateful for whatever crumbs fall one's way. Rising inequality will wreak havoc in the lives of the next couple of generations unless deliberately addressed. But i don't see the flame being extinguished, just the fire being delayed.

Disappointing results. I would have expected a fair number of these Gen Y students to have seen their mothers' struggle to achieve balance. Perhaps education about the uphill battle of women with professional degrees to step back into the workplace after a time-out for child-rearing will open their eyes. I hope The Careerist will address that issue.

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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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