Gender disparities in law firms

As with any aspect of our society, the legal fraternity is plagued with gender disparities that ought to be addressed and which are often either ignored or are paid lip service.  As I have mentioned before, most law firms rely on billable hours both as a source of income and also as a measure of performance.  I’m not going to get into the merits of billable hours again (I have looked at at a couple times recently – you can find posts here, here and here) but I do have a few thoughts on these gender disparities in a law firm environment.

Given the pressure to get ahead in many law firms, women encounter the same challenges they have been encountering in business.  Women are expected to work like men if they have any hopes of getting ahead.  I was told once that a major firm will not promote women to partnership if they intend having a family.  I was shocked when I heard this and what shocked me more is that some of the women I spoke to accepted this position.

Of course this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to South Africa.  According to NZLawyer:

While women compromise over a third of all law practitioners, they significantly lag behind at partnership level, according to the New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2006.

Overall, less than 20 per cent of partners are female. The gender discrepancy could be linked to the average longer practising time of male lawyers, according to the New Zealand Women’s Consultative Group’s 2005 survey of male and female practitioners.

The survey found that hours of work and a firm’s commitment to family friendliness were the two most pressing issues for women lawyers with dependants under the age of 18. Lesley Brook, convener of the Otago Women Lawyers’ Society, said most working women are still also their children’s "primary caregiver". Brook suggested women tend to have children around the time they might be expected to attain partnership. In order to attract and retain women partners, law firms must evolve to achieve work-life balance at partnership level.

Mounting pressures involved with trying to meet work and family responsibilities can cause women to opt out of law. Flexible work practices help address these pressures.

Many women partners find it "simply too difficult" to meet expectations at partnership level when juggling the demands of family life. Partners can be expected to do about eight chargeable hours per day at large law firms, which, combined with time supervising and mentoring staff, and participating in managing a firm, can mean partners are working a 15-hour day.

Granted I probably have an exaggerated sense of how women should be valued in our society given that women bear and often raise our children in addition to working and doing all those other things men tend to miss while at the office, I just have this notion that allowances should be made for a woman who chooses to have a baby and who still wishes to keep working.  This proved to be a controversial opinion when I raised it with some of my female colleagues.  The point they made was that women don’t want to be treated differently.  It seems to me that since men are incapable of bearing children and that raising children is often left up to women that women should be accommodated and, in the process, treated differently.

Perhaps it is a bit like the affirmative action programs we have in place in South Africa in terms of which historically disadvantaged employees are afforded greater opportunities in the workplace on the basis of race, gender and disability.  Yes they are being treated differently where the ideal is that we all be treated equally but this is being done to rectify an imbalance that existed for decades.  Similarly we should perhaps consider a policy in terms of which women are not blocked from promotion simply because they choose to have a family.  This factor alone should not count against them.  Instead evaluate women on their work performance when considering whether to promote them, not the fact that they are women who choose to behave like women.

Different treatment need not take the form of accepting drastically reduced working hours and promoting women simply because they have children.  Women can be accommodated through flexible working hours; home offices and assessing lawyers’ contribution to the firm’s team effort rather than focusing slavishly on billable hours as a measure of success. 

In fact, many of these so-called ‘accommodations’ may have a place across the board.  Work-life balance is a linked issue that also comes under fire with attorneys preferring to maintain some form of balance being regarded as not being committed enough to the firm and marginalised.

As Carolyn at MyShingle suggests:

Maybe it’s time we look to see what other countries are doing to address gender disparity here.

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