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Motherhood Is the Culprit. Really?

Vivia Chen

July 10, 2018


Enough with nuance and complicated explanations. In three words or less, tell me the reason women lag behind men in attaining equity partnership and status in Big Law.

In my experience, men—almost always—blame "motherhood" or "work/life balance" as the problem. And women? They point the finger at "Bro-culture" or simply "Men."

So while women are telling men that the culture overall needs fixing, men are essentially saying that biology is destiny. "The work is incredibly demanding, and it's damn hard when you're also a mom," explains a male litigator about the dearth of female star trial lawyers. He adds, "And I have the utmost respect for mothers. It's the coolest job in the world!"

It's nice he thinks being a mommy is cool but that attitude isn't helping women's careers. Yet, the belief that women prioritize family more than men persists, reports The Harvard Business Review ("What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women" by Catherine Tinsley and Robin Ely), though "research simply does not support that notion." The result is that women's careers get stunted. "Mothers are often expected, indeed encouraged, to ratchet back at work," reports HBR, and "are rerouted into less taxing roles and given less 'demanding' (read: lower-status, less career-enhancing) clients."

But isn't it true that women with demanding careers and children have it extra hard? And don't some women want alternatives to the partnership track? Absolutely. That said, women say the bigger problem is the male ethos of the workplace. 

"Men who think they are being sympathetic by lightening the load of pregnant women and new moms are doing them a huge disservice," says a female partner at an AmLaw 100 firm. "I see it all the time. Sometimes it's unconscious, but more often it's deliberate."

Some women resent that they're cast as mommies first. "It's a myth that all women are so focused on their families that they are putting their careers in the back seat," says a senior in-house counsel. "Most women I know are not complaining about children. They are complaining about title, advancement and pay." She adds, "I have full-time nannies and housekeepers round the clock. I don't know where the vacuum cleaner is. I've racked up thousands of frequent flyer miles because I go anywhere, any time, for work. And I don't feel guilty!"

The focus on juggling home and family obfuscates systemic prejudices. "I have extraordinarily talented and productive female partners who have never married and have no kids and are not rewarded to the same extent as men with similarly-situated practices," says the AmLaw 100 partner.

Entrenched beliefs about gender roles are as old as the hills, says Roberta Kaplan, who garnered fame for arguing U.S. v Windsor, the Supreme Court case that helped legalize gay marriage. "It's not isolated only to the legal profession," says Kaplan. "For the same reasons that far too many men–and women—have a hard time seeing a woman as president, they have difficulty seeing women as running law firms, trial or deal teams."   

Emphasizing differences between the sexes, warns the HBR article, results in "well-meaning but largely ineffectual interventions," focused on " 'fixing' women or accommodating them"—which, I think, describes some of the Band-Aid programs at firms (e.g., mommy career tracks, assertiveness training and work/life balance coaching). Not that there's anything wrong with any of that, it's just that they largely miss the mark on curing gender inequity.
The solution, of course, is complicated. The HBR article says institutions need "to fix the conditions that undermine women and reinforce gender stereotypes." It advocates "questioning assumptions and proactively changing conditions" so that women have the opportunity to shine.
All fine suggestions, but how many firms will start digging into their corporate soul to lift women? "Leadership fails them," says Kirkland & Ellis partner Michael Williams, one of the few men to voice that opinion. "Leadership needs to do more to recognize and invest in their trajectories." 
In the meantime, let me make a suggestion to the men out there: Stop telling women how daunting it must be to be both a lawyer and a mom. How much male sensitivity can a girl take?


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Yes, it is culture that holds women back at Big Law. After I made partner, I saw the "bro" factor again and again as I sat in associate review meetings. Once I had a child, my commitment became a question for the firm, but not me. I was asked in my annual review if I still had "the fire in the belly." I called BS and left to become general counsel of a Fortune 500 company.

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Vivian.

Gender inequity is deep rooted. Because of it, there's a perception that the only things that causes someone to "take the gas off of the pedal" career wise are pregnancy and mothering young children. The truth is, life happens to everyone. Men experience illness, addiction, and affairs that drive them to distraction. They train for triathalons, marathons, and have hobbies. However, nobody judges the men harshly or determines that they're "not committed" or "lack the horsepower" because of those things. Somehow it's become acceptable to judge female attorneys for having children and to conclude that they have made a "lifestyle choice" because of it. The diversity and inclusion teams at firms need to tackle this issue, hard.

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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: [email protected]

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