There is no shortage of articles, papers, blog posts, and even hashtags, asking the question “Why are women leaving law?”
We need to stop this.
We need to stop asking why are women leaving. Instead, we need to start asking why is the legal profession forcing women out?
You may see this as a distinction without a difference, but I disagree. Words matter. With the rise of sexual assault reports in the news, some have noted that we should stop talking about women being assaulted or women being harassed as this ignores the perpetrators entirely. We should be talking about men assaulting women or men harassing women. In the same vein, when asking “why are women leaving?”, we are putting the emphasis on the women’s actions, and the question ignores the actions or role that law firms or legal departments play in the gender inequality that plagues our profession.
Also, by saying that women are leaving implies that they have a choice in the matter. On the surface, it may appear that these women are “choosing” to leave. But how much of it is an actual choice and how much of it involves factors completely out of their control?
Women of all ages and stages are being forced out of law. It is not just women of child bearing years trying to “balance it all”. Women are being pushed out in their 40s and 50s too. We are trickling out “by a few percentage points per year of age”. We all know that women are graduating law school at equal or greater numbers than our male counterparts and have been for a number of years. Something is happening once we become lawyers. We get tired. Women get worn down, sick of having to play the game, putting up with the inequality, the discrimination . . . Slowly but surely it just becomes too much.
And sometimes the reason is much more overt. I know several women who have left firms, in-house legal departments, or the law entirely, and their “official” story is that they were making a choice that they felt was right for them or their families. But when I’ve spoken to these women in private, or more likely after a glass of wine or two, the whole truth emerges. They didn’t want to leave, they were told to. Or, they were advised that it was a good idea to explore their “options”. In other words, try and find a new job, you have no future here. There was no formal termination of their employment but the proverbial “writing was on the wall”.
I understand why firms or legal departments take this tactic. Management claims that it is in the best interests of the lawyer to give them the option to leave. They are giving the lawyer a better chance to find a new job, to ‘save face’, and not have to admit they were “let go”. You would have to be extremely naïve to believe that firms do this solely out of concern for the lawyer. How bad would it look if firms and legal departments were actively letting go women lawyers? I’ve had at least half a dozen women tell me this same story. I can only imagine the number out there who remain silent. No one wants that stigma attached to their legal careers.
Whether subtle or overt actions are pushing women out, the numbers are clear: there is still a major issue with the retention and promotion of women in law. By asking why are women leaving, we can dismiss it as a “women’s issue”; one that women must fix. Instead, we should be explicitly acknowledging the role that law firms and legal departments play. Let’s start asking why is the legal profession forcing women out? And when is it going to stop?
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.