Last year, the Law Society of British Columbia published a report called Women in the Legal Profession. It showed that women lawyers have been leaving the profession in far greater proportions than men. The attrition rate for women called to the bar from 1974 to 1988 was 23 percent, versus only 13 percent for men.
The survey also showed that women lawyers perceived significant bias against them in matters such as hiring, career advancement and attaining partnership.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do women leave the profession in droves because they are being systematically denied the opportunity to advance, or do law firms deliberately avoid hiring and promoting female lawyers because men believe the women will soon be quitting anyhow?
Both ways of looking at the issue probably have some truth to them. There is a vicious circle here. The question is how to break the loop.
Whether the cause is biological or cultural, women are on average more willing to sacrifice their careers to family duties than men are. The B.C. survey questions concerning lawyers' reasons for dropping out confirmed this.
This preference puts women in conflict with the primary goal of certain (but not all) law firms, which is to maximize profits. For firms with this objective, the most desirable employees are those who consider the job their overriding commitment and are willing to work long hours. On average, men will meet those criteria more often than women.
Some women quoted in the survey seethe over this state of affairs. Said one: "We all have a responsibility to ensure that children are brought up properly--and that means that family commitments must be recognized as the number one priority for all workers, female and male--without penalizing those carrying most of the burden."
Clearly, that woman's hierarchy of values has children at the top and career lower down. Lots of people may feel that way, but not everyone. What's the justification for imposing one person's value ranking on the whole profession?
As a deliberately child-free person, I don't feel any sense of responsibility for that woman's children. She doesn't send them over to my place to say cute things or kiss me goodnight. She collects all those benefits. Why should I have to share the burdens?
The recommendations of the B.C. Law Society, however, demonstrate exactly this kind of thinking. Law firms, they say, should "recognize the competing claims of career and family obligations." Why?
Those lawyers who hold the philosophy that everyone should share the burden of everyone else's kids can form their own firms and put these principles into practice. But to impose this on all lawyers is to transform every law firm into a socialist microcosm, which like other socialist communities large and small will become a breeding ground of discontentment.
It may turn out, when we all cash in our chips, that the lawyers who didn't docket 1,700 billable hours a year, who spent evenings and weekends at home rather than at the office, and who treated law as a job rather than an all-consuming obsession had much happier lives. We'll never know; it's impossible to compare degrees of happiness between different people. We can almost guarantee, however, that they won't have earned as much money.
This is what really seems to vex so many women lawyers. Over and over, we read statistics showing that women lawyers earn less than men. Most of this gap can be explained by the fact that women have on average fewer years of experience, work shorter hours and tend to cluster in less lucrative fields of law. Yet the griping goes on.
If women are making financial sacrifices for the sakes of their families, it is to their families, not their employers, that they should turn for restitution. If the emotional rewards aren't sufficient to offset the financial losses, they should reconsider their choices.
What the legal profession must do to maximize satisfaction among all its members is to create conditions that will allow lawyers to sort themselves out into firms that best match up with their own wishes. Ideally, employees should not be forced into a mold that does not suit them, nor should law firms be required to implement policies which benefit a few at the expense of the many.
The problem is, we are all hamstrung in this sorting process by the bugaboo of sexual discrimination charges. Employers can't question prospective employees about their intentions to stay home with children or to follow a spouse on a career transfer; that would violate the human rights laws.
The result is the confounding of two different groups of women, with destructive results for everyone. Women who place their families first will sometimes be hired by firms with contrary expectations. Women who place their careers first will sometimes be passed over by like-minded recruiters, who have no information to rely on except the published statistics which tell them that this candidate, being female, is more likely than a man to drop out.
solution is to encourage the exploration of these issues during job interviews,
not to forbid it.