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Women lawyers already pay enough, and upward mobility isn't their problem.

mariel
Dev. I love dogs, cookies, and learning new things.
・4 min read

Moving on up isn't a "focus" problem

Upward mobility in an organization is - or should be - equally an effort of the employer and employee. Ideally, the employer trains the employee and supports their professional development, and the employee fulfills their duties and continues to develop and maintain skills that help them perform well.

But systemically? The lack of upward mobility of women attorneys isn't the fault of any one woman or firm. In 2018, Census.gov published a piece that showed women make up about 38% of those in the profession. It discusses varying reasons that contribute to an earning disparity between men and women - amount of time worked, working for the government versus a private firm, working for someone else versus being self-employed. Women also face dealing with "old boys networks" and another Census.gov piece states, "Caretaking contributed to mothers' decisions to work part-time or take unpaid leave but it played an even bigger role in deciding whether to work."

In addition to those demands, a 2018 survey of 2,827 attorneys found women are "more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted, to be mistaken for non-lawyers, to do more office housework, and to have less access to prime job assignments.

A reason for a lack of mobility that isn't there? That "very busy women lawyers . . . lose focus" after becoming mothers.


The problem is that stereotypes just won't die

In her piece, 'Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility?', Susan Smith Blakely "applaud[s] lawyer moms for their best efforts" but assumes they "liv[e] only in the moment" and don't take the long view of career development into account as often as they should. There are several paragraphs of opinions about what motherhood does to women - they "cannot easily find time in their days to assist others" and "many of them do not take lunch breaks or have many conversations with colleagues." Mothers allegedly also "lose interest in promoting new work for the law firm," among other things. If there are statistics or studies to support these statements, they're certainly hard to find and are not cited in Smith Blakely's piece.

The only study I found saying working mothers are less devoted to their work is one that found this opinion too broadly held. Seventy-seven percent of the 2,000 survey respondents believed working dads "are better able to manage their responsibilities without being stretched." Sixty-six percent said it's "easier for men to manage working parent responsibilities than women." This attitude is reflected in the Smith Blakely's unsupported statements about working attorney mothers.

However, that same study found "the vast majority of respondents said that being a mother helps women prepare for the challenges they'll face as business leaders and that moms are better listeners, are calmer in crisis, more diplomatic and better team players as compared to working fathers" or those without children.


Moms work enough - our bias needs to work less

So why the disparity? Why are moms believed to be such great leaders and coworkers but make up only about one quarter of law firm partners? Why do blog posts like Smith Blakely's begin by praising women lawyers but claim mothers "lose focus" and don't help others? How can these women be superheroes and simultaneously unable to handle being both a mother and an employee?

It has more to do with our own bias than it does with any single mother, and no amount of focus by mothers will fix that. Women lawyers pay every day - pay attention to how they are perceived by colleagues and managers, pay attention to how they handle themselves lest they be "aggressive" or "demanding." We know women pay for having children and in some offices pay for stepping too far outside traditional gender roles. We know they pay for being vocal about work conditions and sexual harassment. Women pay enough and work hard enough. It's employers and colleagues that need to step up.

Smith Blakely's piece concludes by providing bland and oft-repeated advice about career advancement: be a good leader, be a good manager and mentor, have a growth mindset. It was possible to give that advice without saying that mothers are selfish, closed-off, and uninterested employees.


Note:

I'm not a practicing lawyer, I'm a software engineer. I got my J.D. in 2012 and I'm licensed in both TX (2012) and Maryland (2015). I did 2 years at a busy district attorney's office and 5 at a DC lobbying firm. I started working as a software engineer in late 2020. This piece isn't about the tech industry, but women in tech - a similarly male-dominated industry - face similar biases and penalties for having families.

The surveys and studies cited in my post are what I (easily) found via Google. Anecdotally, the mothers I have worked with, both in tech and not, have almost universally been incredibly hard working and generous. Perpetuating unfounded stereotypes, even in the service of "career advice" is harmful and 🤷🏻‍♀️ I happened to have time today.

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