Providing Child-Care Could Alleviate Gender Inequity in Law Firms

Providing Child-Care Could Alleviate Gender Inequity in Law Firms


The demands of the billable hour disadvantage female and mother-lawyers and prevent them from becoming partners. In many ways, the gender roles of female and mother-lawyers are in direct conflict with the billable hour requirements of law firms. Hagan and Kay (1995) quote Liefland (1986) as remarking, "Women lawyers who choose to have children are caught between society's delegation of child care to women and a career structure that does not accommodate the family." In short, mother- lawyers are forced to choose between their families and the partnership track because of the strenuous amounts of time law firms require of their staff. Hagan and Kay refer to this dilemma as role conflict. Role conflict is "the extent to which a person experiences pressures within one role (lawyer) that are incompatible with the pressures that arise within another role (mother)" (Hagan & Kay 1995). Mother-lawyers face two sets of responsibilities - labor and family - that, because of the time required for each, are highly incompatible. In fact, "Liefland's study of lawyers (1986) revealed that family responsibilities were the primary reason given by women lawyers for working part-time or for not working in the paid labor force" (Hagan & Kay 1995). Raising children as a lawyer is often much more of a burden for women than it is for men because "spouses of female lawyers are more likely to be high-status professionals than are the spouses of male lawyers. The spouses of female lawyers may therefore be less willing to make career sacrifices in order to share child care responsibilities" (Hagan & Kay 1995). So while father-lawyers may be able to rely on their wives to handle issues surrounding child care, mother-lawyers are often not afforded the same luxury. Thus, mothers are forced to face the demands of their work and family roles - a juxtaposition through which many women find impossible to navigate while trying to reach partnership in their law firms.

Along with the pressures from the billable hour, law firms actively contribute to the struggle of female and mother-lawyers through their discriminatory ideologies and subsequent practices. One way that firms discriminate against mothers is by paying them less than non-mothers or men with children. Correll et al. (2007) found that while men sometimes benefited from being a parent, "mothers were penalized on a host of measures, including perceived competence and recommended starting salary" Additionally, "mothers earn approximately 5% less per child than other workers, over and above any gender wage penalty" (Correll et al. 2007). A second and more relevant way in which law firms discriminate against mother-lawyers is through the use of stereotypes and preconceived notions about the work ethic and focus of mothers. Hagan and Kay (1995) argue that firms use "stereotypes about women's abilities to balance responsibilities at work and home" that hamper the upward mobility of mothers in law firms. The researchers assert that women in law have to battle sexual discrimination and "grapple with long-held assumptions about parenting, inferring that women eventually abandon their careers in order to take care of home and children" (Hagan & Kay 1995). The aforementioned assumptions cause the workers within law firms to undermine the efforts of mothers. In an informative passage from Gender in Practice, Hagan and Kay (1995) detail the effects that these stereotypes have in pushing women and mothers off of the partnership track:

"employers often perceive women with children to be less reliable workers because they are assumed to have excessive demands from home. Employers may also assume that women will leave work at some pint (for an extended period of time) so that it is unprofitable to invest in their career development. Similarly, some women lawyers are assigned less desirable and less lucrative clients because firms assume that they will not be available over the long term, for similar reasons women may be trained as "permanent associates" and removed from the partnership track. Epstein (1970) has suggested that the discrimination that women face at work is similar to that faced by minority groups, but that it is compounded by the way in which women are 'inexorably seen in relation to their childbearing functions and...the delegation of family roles to them'." (Hagan & Kay 1995).

Due to the stereotypes that members within law firms have about the expected childbearing functions of women, women and mother-lawyers often stop receiving the good, juicy cases that eventually lead lawyers to partnership. With this type of sexual discriminatory treatment, there is no wonder why so many women and mothers leave law firms or accept permanent non-partnership positions. By combining the effects of these female childbearing stereotypes with the pressures of the billable hour, law firms create a systematic bias that prevents mothers from occupationally succeeding in law firms.

On-site child care is a means through which law firms can curve the negative impact that the billable hour and discriminatory stereotypes have on mother's partnership prospects. Mothers have a strong need for on-site child care and the lack of these services in law firms creates significant issues for them in law firms. In a 2007 study to find the best law firms for women, researchers at Working Mother magazine and Flex-Time Lawyers LLC used a self-selected applicant pool of law firms and found that "mothers represent: 23% of associates; 56% of counsel; 67% of non-equity partners; and 71% of equity partners," but only "28% of firms offer on-site or near-site childcare" (Owens). With such large number of mothers in law firms, it does not make sense that law firms would not provide a crucial service that would remove large weights from the shoulders of their mother-lawyers. Hagan and Kay (1995) report that "a woman lawyer with limited or unstable child care arrangements is more likely to experience role conflict than a woman lawyer in a setting that provides adequate child care facilities" (Hagan & Kay 1995). When a mother does not have to worry about their children's arrangements, they are more likely to focus on their billable hour requirements and to be less affected by the sexual discrimination from their co-workers. Research has found that, rather than using diversity trainings to reduce racial and gender discrimination and disparities in the workplace, firms should put mechanisms in place that actively combat structural biases. In a 2006 study entitled "Best Practices or Best Guesses?: Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies," Kalev et. al (2006) found that "although inequality in attainment at work may be rooted in managerial bias and the social isolation of women and minorities, the best hope for remedying it may lie in practices that assign organizational responsibility for change." On-site child care has been shown to be an effective organizational mechanism and tool for reducing some of the stress felt by mothers in law firms. In 1995, Arnold & Porter was the first law firm in the nation to establish an in-house center for child care. And as I will discuss later in the paper, Arnold & Porter and other firms have benefited both socially and economically from their on-site child care programs. In a article detailing the types of group daycare, Carla Snuggs quotes Ann Douglas, the author of The Unofficial Guide to Childcare, and reports that "providing onsite daycare is not only a nice benefit for employees but makes good business sense. Employers that provide daycare find they improve employee morale, productivity and retention" (Snuggs). In this way, on-site child care in law firms has the potential to reduce the gender discrimination that privileges the work, careers, and earning power of men and to cut the attrition rate of female attorneys, all while leading to increases in revenue.


Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at

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