No Limits

Unconscious Bias Awaits Attorney Mothers After Maternity Leave

Indira K. Sharma
An adequate space for a mother to pump may seem like a small accommodation, but it can make a huge difference in their productivity.

An adequate space for a mother to pump may seem like a small accommodation, but it can make a huge difference in their productivity.

I am thirteen years into my legal career—all of which was spent at the same large firm—and I am now a partner in the litigation department there. I worked part-time for about eight of those years as I navigated the challenges of having three children (now ages 9, 7 and 5), going out on maternity leave and returning to work each time.

I chair our firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee and was on the steering committee that formed the firm’s Women’s Development Initiative. I care deeply about the advancement and retention of women attorneys at the firm and I know first-hand that the way a firm treats its women attorneys around issues concerning maternity leave and family as well as the firm’s culture on flexibility and the advancement of women attorneys is critical to retaining talented women lawyers.

My journey definitely was not easy and I think any working mom attorney will tell you that it is not easy. Our firm has three months of paid parental leave for any parent regardless of gender and has been flexible with those who want additional time after the period with pay ends. Many new parents at my firm have taken up to six months of leave from work. For my first child, due to a health issue, I ended up taking three months of time before my daughter Karishma was born and then four months of leave after.

The three months before having Karishma gave me time to not only prioritize my health but to also get my home ready for a new baby. I recall being very ready for Karishma to arrive and feeling incredibly accomplished as this was probably the first and only time in my life when I had crossed everything off my to-do list. As a brand new parent, I found the flexibility around extended leave to be very helpful in preparing me mentally and physically for transitioning back to work.

Our firm has a part-time flexible arrangement policy. At the end of my first maternity leave, I decided to take advantage of the policy and return to work on a part-time reduced hours schedule with my salary being reduced proportionally. I remained on a part-time schedule for about eight years, while having two more children—my sons Kishore and Rakesh.

Initially, I attempted to carve out two full days during the week when I was at home so I could focus fully on my children and home. Quite frankly, that does not work especially for a litigator because filing deadlines and court appearances happen every day of the week.

In addition, it was important for attorneys and clients to feel like they could reach me every day. Initially, I was very frustrated that I could not protect my time but then I learned that I needed to be flexible and that flexibility has it benefits both ways! I decided to work every day of the week and just work less hours. I generally would not stay late unless there was a deadline or I was preparing for a deposition, hearing or trial but I would always respond to calls and emails if I could do so quickly. Basically, I worked as hard as I needed to work and as many hours as I needed to work to finish what must be done.

On the flip side, when work was slower or when there was nothing that required my physical presence in the office, I did not hesitate to work from home or take days off to chaperone a field trip with my kids or volunteer at their schools. My husband Hemant is a physician with demanding obligations as chief of his allergy and immunology division at the hospital, which makes it hard for him to be available but one of us had to be. I wanted that person to be me and was committed to finding a way while still maintaining my career.

The wonderful thing about being an attorney at a law firm is that you eventually grow into becoming your own boss and with that comes a great deal of responsibility but a great deal of flexibility. I learned that as long as you do excellent work, are responsive to colleagues, opposing counsel and clients, and stay busy which equates to financial productivity for the firm, then you can maintain flexibility in your work schedule.

When I became a partner in January 2018, I decided to return to a full-time schedule. I still have a tremendous amount of flexibility at the firm which helps me remain just as involved as I was before at home. I still work the same way that I did before. When I was a junior attorney, I felt it was important to have peace of mind during the time I was with my children without feeling guilty for not working. I took a pay cut for that peace of mind but it was worth it at the time. I have no regrets and my children will be the first to say that mommy is there for everything.

With all of my three children, I was able to maintain breastfeeding for a full year for each of them. I believe I was the first mom attorney at the firm to request that a lock be placed on the office door. I also put a blind up that covered the translucent window facing the hallway and I put a small fridge in my office. Initially, the firm wanted me to use the breastfeeding room on the ninth floor but I explained that it was not practical and I would be more productive if I could pump at my desk on the eighth floor because I could still respond to emails or review documents at my desk during that time. I have since passed that door lock and fridge around to several other attorney moms who came after me. It may seem like a small accommodation, but it made a huge difference in my ability to keep up with the breastfeed for a full year.

Despite years of progress in the legal profession for women attorneys and improved policies and accommodation around maternity leave, unconscious bias still exists against women attorneys who also are mothers. Women returning from maternity leave may find that attorneys who previously worked with them no longer have an interest it working with them or that they are no longer staffed on important matters.

The bias is that mom attorneys are no longer committed to their careers or that they do not have the ability to put in the hours required for certain matters. The bias is that when the mom attorney is absent from the office that she must be at home taking care of some family obligation when, in fact, some moms (like me) are out of the office frequently because they are chairing a board meeting or engaging in business development because civic engagement and building a book of business are important to them too. All of the bias makes it difficult for new mom attorneys returning from leave to stay busy with high quality work necessary for career advancement.

In addition, the emotional turmoil that comes with trying to balance home and work while feeling as though you are doing a bad job in both places cannot be understated. I experienced all of this but was still able to advance at the firm—albeit at a slightly slower pace than I would have liked. I was promoted to counsel for two years before being promoted to partner while my summer classmates were promoted to partner before me. In retrospect, I believe what sustained me was being proactive about my career. I actively countered the bias by communicating directly at every opportunity my strong interest in being a partner at the firm and doing whatever was necessary to get there.

I also became mature in my thinking as I learned that politics is part of the process and that you cannot fight it. I learned that it was not my place to challenge the system (yet) but to learn the rules of the game. I finally embraced the politics and learned to move through it. I realized that I could not change the system until I was in a position of power to do so and one of the reasons that I wanted to be elected partner at my firm was to have influence someday.

I also believe that what sustained me through the most challenging years of my career was my ability to stay grounded in my faith and personal wellness. I meditate and workout daily. I learned that once I took care of myself mentally and physically, then I would be fully equipped to handle any challenge of the day. Finally, I practice gratefulness and maintain a positive mindset about the progress we are making as a profession. Working in the diversity and inclusion space can be depressing if you focus on the negative but I choose to focus on the progress that we have made as a profession and to believe that we will continue to move the needle for diverse attorneys, including women attorneys. I choose to recognize the good intentions behind what may seem like a bad decision. Practicing gratefulness in all aspects of your life can transform your attitude into one that will carry you through the most trying times.

So, here I am—a working mom attorney who not only survived three maternity leaves and transitions back to work but who climbed the ladder along the way and is happy about where she is today.

Indira K. Sharma

Indira K. Sharma is a oartner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, LLP and is Co-Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee.