Thursday, July 19, 2007

High Powered Law Career + Motherhood = Impossible?




Antigone reader Maayan gave me the heads up about a CBC Podcast ref25 (it is about halfway down the page and entitled The Sunday Editon: June 17) about the troubles that women face as high powered lawyers trying to balance motherhood and a career. What the podcast shows is how female lawyers are particularly caught between motherhood and their career ambitions because the nature of their job often necessitates that they choose between the two. This archaic attitude towards the work/life balance is particularly explored within the feature which I have (loosely) transcribed for you here:


These are great times for women in the law aren’t they? In the bad old days when future Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson decided she wanted to go to law school, the Dean at Dalhousie told her to go home and crochet. But over the last few decades women have been flooding into the profession. Four out of nine judges in Canada’s highest court are women. 55% of law school grad are women. At University of Montreal 67%. In 2006 every medal at U of T went to a women. Many of these grad walk right out of their law schools and into the countries greatest law firms.

But look behind these numbers and you’ll find another story. Some people call it the retention crisis. It turns out that life in the legal fastlane and motherhood are almost impossible to combine, so women are leaving the legal profession in droves.

After graduatijng from law school at the top of her class, Gina was hired by one of the most prestigious law firms. She wizzes up the ladder. She was made partner at an almost unheard of young age. She was a star. She was a star that is, until she became pregnant. And that was when her dream began to unravel. A few years after she gave birth to her second child, she became a statistic, one fo the many women lawyers hightailing it out of the big firms. No one fired her. She quit. But she felt that she had no choice.

“I was quite devastated. It was a very difficult thing for me to resign. The irony is that as I was going though this there was a huge initiative in these firms with people trying to address these issues. Right at the heart of it there was a disconnect between them wanting to address it and what was actually going on.

The bind begins for women before the baby is even born. “For men it is a good thing. A sign of a well-roundedness to be able to add fatherhood to your curriculum vitae. And usually the assumption is that there will be a wife and mother there. But I certainly talk to women who describe the most incredible responses from partners. One woman said that the first child they said congratulations, the second child not quite as warm a reception and THEN the third child came along it was outright hostility. She knew then that this was a no-no. She would not remain as a visible member of the firm.

As soon as you’re pregnant and approaching a maternity leave you’re not really the first choice for incoming work. Your workload can start to go down. That also affects your hours.

In law billable hours are everything. Lawyers are expected to log every six minutes a day. So much of a lawyer’s work depends on that. It decides on compensation and survival.

Says one woman: “If these firms understood what a mother does to make it through a working week. If they understood the marathon we ran, I think they would be shocked. I think it is demoralizing that after you run the marathon you are treated as not in the same camp as the superstars. I’m running a marathon and coming in third.”

That definitely a problem, but then we must ask – where are the male partners in this story? Where are the fathers-in-laws? Well... let's just say 'equality' in marriage is still not achieved... at least in this marriage:
My husband is an example in his firm of being a superstar. But we can’t do that, both of us cannot do that and have a semblance of a family life. There are lots of time when I am expressing my views and issues that face me as a woman and he takes the management angle or the male version of it and that frustrates me.

Says another interview subject:
This isn’t about women and I think as long as we continue to talk about it we’re only exasperating the problem. It’s not just the job of women to raise children in this society. It is talked about as a women’s issue and in all intents and purposes it is a women’s issue. Even today women struggle with it in a way that men are not. Why is it that men continue to find it easier to prioritize their careers over the family? This is a much, much larger issue about parenting and about children.

The context though in which these women’s desigions are made though is very interesting. They do not see their own decsicion as part of a system that continues to keep women down and wanat to make changes within it in order to create

Am I doing enough… not just for me… but am I doing enough for the women behind me

I wonder if being implicated in the issue would have career related implications. But what matters most is that I have two daughters and I care about what type of world they grow up in. So, on balance, I would rather speak.
Wow. Powerful stuff! I think its incredibly telling how these women are trying to balance their own desires with the needs of their families and yet they still have time to think about how their actions will help or hinder future women! They are indeed superstars running marathons!
What is perhaps particularly interesting is how many of them talked about how the law profession was particularly trying to retain female lawyers, even while they were having these very problems. This is obviously a severe disconnect!
So what are some tangible ways the law profession could change then to make things more accommodating to mothers and to fathers? Any ideas?

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