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Equal Parental Leave For Men and Women Is Inevitable. Embrace It.

Vivia Chen

October 4, 2019

13941972617449If women want to stake a claim to equal rights, I’m afraid we’re going to have to share some of our hard-earned privileges with men.

I know it seems unfair that men are always jumping onto our wagon after we’ve made things nice and cozy. But in this situation I think we have no choice but to let them in.

I’m talking about those generous maternity leaves—18 weeks of paid leave is no longer unusual—that are now standard in Big Law. Like me, you probably never thought there was anything wrong with giving women more lengthy leaves than men.

That’s likely because lawyers didn’t seem to take paternity leave seriously until 10 years ago or so. Now, not only do men expect paid time off to bond with their babies, some are demanding the same deal that new moms get.

What’s bringing all this to the fore is the challenge brought by Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff, two former Jones Day associates who are suing the firm. The married couple asserts in their complaint against the firm that its policy “discriminates on the basis of sex and imposes archaic gender roles by giving eight more weeks of leave to all women than to men.” (The firm gives women 18 weeks of paid leave, which includes eight weeks of “disability,” while men get 10 weeks of paid leave.)

At first, I thought the suit was a bit quixotic. (Click here for my Q&A with Savignac and Sheketoff.) How quaint of Savignac to insist that he should get the same status as new moms because he wanted to be an equal co-parent. That just shows how brainwashed I myself was. Guess I assumed women should be entitled to more time because, well, they’re moms.

But as the complaint points out, not every mother needs those eight extra weeks to recover from childbirth. The­ ­result, according to the complaint, is a discriminatory policy that ­reflects and reinforces sex-based stereotypes: “men are breadwinners and women are caretakers.”

“I’m not surprised [by Jones Day’s policy] because stereotyping is so ingrained,” says Peter Romer-Friedman, counsel at Outten & Golden who focuses on employee benefits and discrimination. “But I’m disappointed here because the law is so clear on this point,” he says, citing cases brought by male employees at CNN and JPMorgan Chase that ended with settlements enforcing gender-neutral policies. “This is a simple case, unlike situations about why women aren’t getting ahead at a firm,” he adds. (Jones Day recently filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that its leave policy is legal. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.)

Romer-Friedman says “on its face, the policy violates Title VII” because the extra time for women is designed for bonding and not recovery. Uniform leave policies for male and female employees are critical, he says. “It should mean equal hardship for the firm to have someone out for a few months; at a certain point, it’ll stop being seen as a hardship, like disability leave or sick leave,” he says.

It’s hard to argue with that logic, but some women are wary. “I am conflicted here,” admits Kamee Verdrager, a mother of four who sued Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo for gender discrimination in 2009 (the case settled in 2016). Though she applauds the co-parenting goals of the Jones Day plaintiffs, Verdrager says she’s worried that women’s rights to disability coverage after birth might come under attack in the process. “No new mother should have to deal with the stress of fighting for benefits and having to prove medical need immediately following childbirth,” she says.

Still, I think it’s inevitable that men and women will get the same leave coverage. If you believe in gender equality at work and home, there’s no justification for the sexes to be treated differently on this issue. And if your firm isn’t there yet (most still give women more leave), get with the program or you’ll be left in the cold.

Or facing a lawsuit.

 

Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter @lawcareerist.

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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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