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October 25, 2023

ABA Commission on Women report highlights effects of parenting on law careers

CHICAGO, Oct. 25, 2023 — A new report published by the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession,Legal Careers of Parents and Child Caregivers,” sheds light on how parenting impacts the legal careers of mothers and fathers.

The report, based on survey responses from more than 8,000 lawyers nationwide in various work settings (including in-house) and a dozen focus group interviews, reveals that many parents feel having children had a negative impact on their careers and more than half of working mothers felt they were perceived as less committed and less competent by their employers. The data reveals that this is not just a law firm problem but a legal profession problem that is impacting caregivers of children in all work settings.

Among the findings:

  • Women are overwhelmingly responsible for what’s happening at home, from arranging child care (65% of mothers vs. 7% of fathers) and scheduling doctor appointments (71% of mothers vs. 9% of fathers) to helping with homework (41% of mothers vs. 12% of fathers).
  • Women who are single and caregivers of dependent children experience more disadvantages than any other cohort, no matter what sector of the legal industry they work in.
  • A much higher percentage of mothers compared to fathers experience demeaning comments about being a working parent (61% of mothers vs. 26% of fathers in law firms; 60% of mothers vs. 30% of fathers in other settings).

“The legal profession is not immune to the ‘motherhood penalty,’” said ABA President Mary Smith. “Research consistently shows it impacts career opportunities, compensation and advancement in this male-dominated field that demands long hours and constant availability. Our profession should be — and can be — the gold standard for achieving workplace equity and equality for the betterment of our families, businesses and society in general. This illuminating study is a road map for solutions, including flexible work arrangements, more inclusive job descriptions and on-ramp programs for returning to work, which have been shown to support women lawyers with children and enable them to thrive in their careers.”

The research project, co-chaired by Michelle Browning Coughlin and Juanita Harris, was conducted by former commission chairs Roberta Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf of the Red Bee Group and former ABA President Paulette Brown of MindSetPower.

Their research confirms that “a substantial percentage of mothers in the profession have been subjected to unfounded criticisms and stereotypes, implicit biases and many adverse day-to-day experiences in the workplace that impede their advancement and ability to balance their professional and family obligations, thus leading to a continuing high rate of attrition,” the authors said.

“The data from the survey and focus groups is compelling, and we are hopeful that the implementation of the best practices and policies set forth in the report will disrupt the paradigm and help create a level playing field for women with children in all practice settings.”

The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.