The legal industry has seen droves of women entering the field since the 1980s as strides have been made — both through legislation and cultural pressure — towards eliminating gender discrimination. Women now represent about 45 percent of those entering private practice.
The problem is, many of them don’t stay. At the equity partner level, the number of women drops to just 17 percent.
Why they leave has been the topic of much debate and discussion. Surveys have cited concerns about everything from compensation to work culture and work-life balance (issues that have also come up in other male-dominated industries like tech). Add it up and the result is that many female associates feel it’s impossible to have a family and stay on the partner track.
I thought I’d be different. In over a decade, I had never once been called “honey” or “emotional” or been privy to any awkward, sexist verbal harassment. I considered myself fortunate. As a young associate, I was granted the best assignments and increased responsibility based on my hard work and efficiency — and I was paid accordingly.
However, as I climbed the ranks — and ultimately, when I became a mother — the unconscious bias towards women affected me in ways I could not have imagined when I began my career.
When we began planning a family, I finally left my firm for an in-house counsel position, anticipating fewer hours and a more flexible schedule than the one I’d suffered through as an ambitious new associate — working six days a week and juggling multiple client demands at the traditional law firm. My new position delivered on all counts and went above and beyond with unlimited pumping breaks allowing me to breastfeed beyond the first year.
I thought I was set. And then I had my second child.
Having built a reputation with the company, I felt comfortable approaching my male boss — who had five children himself — and telling him I had a hard time juggling the demands of an infant and a toddler and the full-time position. I promised that I could maintain my existing workload during a four-day work week — and I was willing to take a paycut to make it happen. I desperately needed that extra day to run errands and take care of the household without sacrificing the family time we had on the weekends.
Although it wasn’t verbally expressed, I got the feeling that the decision makers within that small company thought they knew best — that perhaps I belonged at home because I was such a hands-on mom and wanted to keep it that way rather than delegating more to other caregivers.
However, that wasn’t what I asked for. I was attempting to carve out the time to excel both in my personal and professional worlds.