Friday, September 3, 2021
Pandemic Practice - The Disparate Impact on Female Attorneys
Liane Jackson, How Pandemic Practice Left Lawyer-moms Facing Burnout, ABA Journal, August/September Issue (2021).
This article explores the pandemic’s effect on the “participation gap in the labor market” between women and men, and posits that “hard-won gains are disappearing,” “the gap is widening,” and experts posit that the effects “will be felt in the legal industry for years to come.”
It will come as no surprise that “women are America’s default social safety net” and have therefore “taken on the lion’s share of pandemic parenting,” as numerous studies have already shown. This is due to a number of social pressures and norms, which this article addresses. Of particular note is the “idealized version of intensive motherhood” which sets a standard by which “women are expected to sacrifice their careers, their well-being, their sleep, [and] their mental health for the good of their children.” Competing with this social construct, is another equally pervasive standard to which female lawyers are held “of total commitment . . . this ideal worker norm that says you’re supposed to sacrifice everything for your job.” It is no wonder, in this zero sum game, that increased drinking, stress, desire to leave the profession, and mental health issues are being reported in higher percentages of women than men as a result of a pandemic which left parents with few childcare options and a lead role in their children’s education. “The pandemic has disproportionately affected women and minority attorneys, with female lawyers of color feeling increased isolation and stress.”
So what can we do to alleviate the disadvantage experienced by female attorneys as we begin to return from pandemic-induced remote work environments? Liane Jackson argues that flexible work options need to be accompanied by a genuine commitment to not allowing those options to come with a conscious or unconscious institutional/advancement penalty. This requires a “recognizing that family has a value, households have a value and people have a value outside the workplace.” To do otherwise will “continue to threaten retention rates.” We must be intentional as we begin to emerge from this pandemic to not penalize female attorneys whose "productivity" (as traditionally measured) may have fallen below that of male counterparts due to the unequal sharing of pandemic pressures discussed above. Employers should focus on retention and advancement standards that are equitable to female attorneys who continue to be marginalized by disparate and competing social pressures. “Women are still being marginalized, and they don’t always have the power base to fight back.” We must do better.