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May 01, 2024 Feature

Motherhood Comes at a Price: Findings in Parenthood Report Mirror National Workforce Trends

By Kristy P. Kennedy

In 2005, Amy Wigmore was at a point in her career where she felt it was essential to put a good foot forward and impress. She was a new partner with exciting job opportunities as a litigator just as her firm was undergoing a merger.

Wigmore also happened to be pregnant.

“I remember being nervous about how it all was going to work—how I was going to be able to keep doing what I had been doing with a little baby at home,” she says, noting that there weren’t many women in the firm juggling litigation and motherhood.

Before giving birth to her son, Wigmore received a call from a lawyer she regarded as a legend. “I remember him calling me and saying he’d heard the news, and he was thrilled for me,” she says.

The lawyer told her that family is the most important thing. Then, he said that WilmerHale would make her situation work and had made it work for others. “It was the most encouraging message,” she says.

That type of support is not the norm.

In a first-of-its-kind study looking at the career experiences of lawyers with children, mothers reported being told they were distracted, their children were a distraction, they should make work a priority, or they should take a step back to give their children more attention. The report, Legal Careers of Parents and Child Caregivers: Results And Best Practices From A National Study Of The Legal Profession, was recently published by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession (CWP). It found that more than 60 percent of mothers working as lawyers in all types of roles received demeaning comments about being a working parent and felt they were perceived as less committed to their careers than their childless peers or fathers with children.

What’s more, in the study, mothers reported being taken off challenging cases even if they didn’t want to be, or receiving fewer work-related travel assignments even if they did not want to cut back. Or they switched to less demanding careers to have more time to take care of child-rearing and household duties, which largely fell to them.

The study comes on the heels of another ABA study, Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice, that looked at why the same numbers of men and women enter the legal profession, but women are more likely to leave, often after years of working when they should be achieving senior-level positions. In that report, childcare responsibilities were a top reason women left their careers. The Legal Careers report then found that women often considered the future trajectory of their careers just as they were thinking about starting a family or having children. If they sensed their careers weren’t progressing successfully, they likely left the legal profession. The report dug into the “why” for those who leave and those who stay.

The challenges of being a working mother are not new. “I don’t think any of this comes as a surprise to professionals who are mothers. They are living it,” says Michelle J. Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has testified before Congress on discrimination faced by working women.

Many people assume mothers’ choices cause disparities. Working mothers often take a “hit” called the motherhood gap, in both advancement and pay for work experience lost to time spent on leave to care for children. Mothers also face an additional penalty, called the motherhood penalty, an inexplicable pay gap. Meanwhile, fathers frequently get a bump in pay for having children who live with them.

The motherhood penalty could be caused by things such as the biases a workplace has against a working mother. For instance, a mother is given a less demanding case because of the assumption that she doesn’t have the bandwidth to do a good job and be a mother at the same time. That can equate to a woman’s lost experience.

“Employers think that they are supporting new mothers by putting them on a mommy track when, in fact, a lot of the women lawyers I’ve spoken with didn’t want to be tracked that way,” Budig says. “I think a lot of women think they will escape that bias by working for themselves or in a smaller firm, but that just contributes to lower pay as well.”

Budig has found that young women about to enter the workforce tend to think these issues are reserved for older generations and that they won’t be affected in their own careers. “I would say that since the 1960s, women have changed a ton while men haven’t changed as much with respect to work patterns and gender and who is responsible for care within the household,” she says.

The Legal Careers report confirmed that the legal profession is not immune to the motherhood penalty, wrote project co-chairs Michelle Browning Coughlin and Juanita Harris. “Rather, the biases, directed at mothers, and to some extent all caregivers, [are] seen in all types of legal workplaces throughout our nation, and the economic and social impact is spilling over into our families and businesses.” The study, which surveyed more than 8,000 lawyers (77 percent of them women and 63 percent of them parents with a minor child at home), included 10 nationwide focus groups and contains a section on best practices to support mothers and caregivers.

A number of those best practices are already used by the law firms that make the lists of the best places for women to work. Since 2007, Washington, D.C.–based Seramount (formerly Working Mother Media) has created such a list for law firms with 50 or more lawyers. The professional services company looks at benefits like maternity and paternity leave, coverage for in vitro fertilization and surrogacy expenses, childcare benefits, flexible work policies, criteria for partnership including whether part-time lawyers have access, programs and policies to address bias, and mentorship programs for women.

Seramount then looks at the effectiveness of these policies and programs. “We’re asking firms: Do you offer these programs? Who is taking advantage of them? What has been the result of people going through these programs? Do they actually progress in their careers?” says Subha V. Barry, Seramount president. “The usage piece is important. You can offer it, but if nobody takes it, then the culture in an organization doesn’t support people using it.”

WilmerHale, a global firm co-headquartered in Boston and Washington, D.C., has been included on Seramount’s list since its inception. It offers benefits like backup daycare to help with childcare emergencies. Policies allow people to work from home if they need to or reduce their work schedule. After having her son in 2005, Wigmore found WilmerHale was a supportive place to work as a mother in a demanding career full of travel. “I’ve had periods in my career where it was very stressful, and I asked myself whether I could continue,” Wigmore notes.

She adds that she’s taken work calls while shopping on Christmas Eve and noted that lawyers at her firm pick up the slack for each other when family matters arise. She’s made it to her son’s school performances over the years and attended his graduation last year as her coworkers handled a work emergency.

Women at WilmerHale also have visible leadership positions on compensation and management committees and are the majority of legal department chairs. Mentoring circles pull groups together to talk about issues. “To allow women to reach those levels, you need to have policies that make it possible so that women don’t have to choose between a family and a career,” Wigmore says.

It’s difficult to get around the fact that some legal careers are very demanding, just as in other careers, says Beth Forsythe, a partner at Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney LLP. She waited to have children until she had established her reputation in the firm as someone who always said yes to work and followed through.

“I think the biggest challenge for mothers in legal professional services is that there really isn’t a distinction between personal and professional lives,” Forsythe says. “The reality is that client demands sometimes mean that personal life has to take a backseat, and it’s a challenge to figure out how much of that you’re willing to tolerate.”

Forsythe, who serves on the firm’s management committee, is passionate about her career and her firm, which has made the Seramount best list every year. The firm has flexible work arrangements, part-time partner options, and a sabbatical program with reduced pay. It also has a system to reduce bias through blind work allocation, ensuring that all associates have opportunities to do meaningful work. A woman lawyer resource group meets regularly to allow for connections and support.

There’s even a movement through the firm to explain how perimenopause and menopause impact women in the office. “It’s a ‘personal thing,’ but it’s not like it turns off when you’re at the office,” Forsyth says. One lawyer shared how stress would trigger hot flashes in the middle of intense negotiations. Women sharing their challenges normalize them, Forsythe notes.

Beth D. Newton, a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell LLP’s litigation group, says her firm’s culture of fostering a supportive community for women lawyers attracts women to the firm. The Women’s Initiative Committee she co-heads holds professional development programs and facilitates networking and mentoring opportunities.

Based in New York, the worldwide firm offers programs for mothers and caregivers. Working parents’ events have featured speakers addressing issues like tackling your toddler’s sleep troubles. And there’s an onboarding program for women returning from leave after having a baby.

“We want to make sure we’re really communicating with new working moms to make sure they have what they need to feel good about coming back to the office,” Newton says. “We don’t want people to feel they have to make a choice to give up a career that they are passionate about,” she says.

In 2023, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP received two top firm awards—for advancement and for compensation—from Yale Law Women+. The firm stood out for having a robust feedback system “for associates to challenge performance reviews, to provide upward feedback,” and for a “lockstep compensation model for associates, a competitive base salary for associates, and no billable hour requirement.” The firm also noted that it offers caregiver leave for family members with disabilities and illnesses as well as 18 weeks of parental leave for childbirth and adoption.

At the international level, Scandinavian countries like Sweden have seen the greatest success in keeping workforce parity and raising fertility rates, Budig says. They have high-quality, low-cost childcare for babies and toddlers, highly funded maternity leaves, and paternity leaves that can’t be transferred to the mother. Nearly all fathers take paternity breaks. In countries where men commonly take paternity leave, working women are likely to have a second child, Budig says. “It suggests that it is taking some of the burden off women and making them more willing to continue combining work with family and having a second child,” she adds.

A shift toward family-friendly policies like offering leave to both parents is a trend Seramount has seen in law firms and corporate America. More fathers, even in the legal profession, are taking paternal leave, which is a good thing, Barry notes.

“Winning firms have cultures that encourage this notion of shared childcare responsibilities because very often those are the derailing years for women,” she says. “When turnover is disproportionately in a category that is 50 percent of the population, it’s a matter of being able to retain them once they come into your firm, which benefits the bottom line of your business.”

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By Kristy P. Kennedy

Kristy P. Kennedy is a Chicago area freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications.