I attend a lot of events for women lawyers hosted by a variety of law associations and organizations. It is important that we network, support, and learn from each other. I’ve noticed an underlying theme at some programs that makes me uncomfortable. There is an oft-repeated assumption that we, as women lawyers (particularly those of us who are mothers), have more obligations at home or outside the office (I will call them “life obligations”) than our male colleagues. I have heard: “Well, this is a woman’s event so I would be remiss to not speak about our extra challenges with home life”; “As women we have so many more responsibilities than our male partners”; or, “Of course we must talk about balancing our home obligations with work as women lawyers”.
So you might be thinking “Why does this bother you, it’s the truth, isn’t it?” Well it does bother me and here’s why:
First, is it true? Yes, I’ve seen the studies that say women are still doing more of the unpaid work in the home than men, even when both partners have full time jobs. I won’t argue with that. But, these studies are not saying that all women do more work at home than men. There are still a good number of women who are part of an equal partnership with respect to child rearing and household chores or who may even do less than their partner or spouse.
More importantly, if this assumption (that women lawyers have more life obligations) is true, should it be? Here’s what bothers me the most: it appears that there is a general acceptance that because we are women we will always have more life obligations than our male counterparts. This makes no sense to me. If we simply accept that these life obligations are, and always will be, a woman’s responsibility, how can we ever expect that to change? How do we ever expect to be truly equal in the legal profession when everyone assumes that we do more at home? There will never be gender equality in the workplace without gender equality at home. There will never be gender equality at home if we keep reinforcing the belief that women have more responsibilities outside the office.
Speaking from personal experience, after the birth of my first child I was more than ready and willing to get back to work after my maternity leave. I remember trying to join a sub-group in my practice area thinking it could help expand potential business development opportunities. However, I was told by a senior partner that perhaps joining this group was not a good idea at that time, after all, I had just had a kid and life was going to be busy enough. Perhaps this was said with the best of intentions, but this partner did not even consider the fact that I had a supportive husband, had hired a superb caregiver, and had dedicated time to focus on my career. All of this did not matter, as they simply assumed that as a mother I now had more life obligations which would detract from my work obligations. I doubt the same assumption was made of my fellow male associate who also just had a child with his wife. By placing this assumption front and center at women’s programs, it gives licence to others to make decisions for us under the guise of lessening the “burden” on women lawyers.
Also, some may feel that there is a shaming factor in place for women lawyers who choose not to take on extra life obligations. It’s almost as if they are not living up to the expectation of what they should be: the struggling woman lawyer trying to do it all.
On the flip side, think about how this false belief affects male lawyers or our male partners and spouses. If the message is that women are responsible for obligations at home or are better at life ‘stuff’, or that men are ill-equipped to manage a household the way a woman can, why would men ever step up and do more? Or for those men who do step up and are just as involved at home as their spouses or partners, it may be incorrectly assumed that they do not need (or want) to be home for dinner or bedtime because they have a spouse who will be.
We are never going to level the playing field for women in law by teaching women how to balance our life obligations with our work obligations. Law firms are going to level the playing field by allowing our male counterparts to take significant paternity or parental leave, supporting them when they take an active role in their home life, and encouraging them to be comfortable with these choices. Women do not have a monopoly on life obligations.
I know some may not agree with me and I would love to hear your opinions. I also know I am writing this through a very specific and privileged lens. However, I just cannot go to another event aimed at keeping women in the legal profession and have it start with this (false) premise. Instead of helping us, I believe it is hurting us even more.
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.