“Sorry, I can’t do that because of childcare issues”—said no man ever to his boss. Ok, a slight exaggeration to make a point, but for many male professionals it is entirely accurate. Indeed, a 2018 Ball University study supported this point when it revealed that while nearly 47 percent of men support parental leave, a mere 14 percent of dads actually take more than two weeks. Case and point closer to home: One day recently when I was out of the “home office,” my husband called his mother to pick our son up from school (a maximum 15 minute round trip task), rather than advise his boss that he was unavailable for an impromptu meeting. Not particularly surprising until you consider that my mother-in-law lives 70 miles away.
And this behavior is not an aberration. In 2019, my husband travelled to three different countries in a span of two months, leaving me to handle all childcare issues—including taking our son to and from our child care facility located on my husband’s job site, a location not anywhere near my office in New York City. Still, while I begged and pleaded for him to at least try to limit the travel, he refused. He just could not utter those words I so longed to hear—“I can’t do that, I have childcare issues.”
And herein lies the problem ladies. According the 2020 Law360 Glass Ceiling report, the number of female attorneys at major law firms has grown slightly over recent years, but their representation among equity partners in particular remains disproportionately low. The report further reveals that, although women make up more than half of law school students, they make up less than 40 percent of attorneys in firms and only about 22 percent of equity partners. This suggests that women are less likely than their male counterparts to be promoted and move up the firm ranks. And the reason for this, according to this report, is lack of retention. One of the primary reasons women leave firms is not because they choose to be stay at home mothers and give up their career, but because they are unable to achieve the work/life balance that so many strive for—a balance much harder to achieve for women. This is, in large part, due to women taking the requisite time to handle childcare issues and men not doing the same, whether because they don’t want to or feel firm management won’t stand for it.
And there is no question that the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. Indeed, the latest evidence reveals that working mothers have borne the brunt of the burden associated with school and childcare closures related to COVID-19. Specifically, working mothers have reduced their total work hours four to five times more than working fathers, which has doubled the gap between the number of hours worked by women and by men.
So how can we improve the situation? How can we as a society ensure that women don’t lose decades of workplace progress made since the days pre-Ruth Bader Ginsburg? For starters, when it comes to childcare, men need to understand that their commitment to their job and professional success does not outweigh that of their wives. And the companies that employ these men need to promote this narrative. These companies, law firms included, need to communicate to their employees, men and women alike, that they will not be ostracized nor their career hindered if, on occasion, they need to leave early, reduce their work hours, or yes, even decline a business trip. In other words, men need to feel they are in a “safe space” to say the words every working mother wants their husband to say, “Sorry, I can’t, I have childcare issues.” Only then can women progress on a path parallel to men and truly succeed.