Female lawyers face unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Print

working from home


Liane JacksonLiane Jackson

Out of the many uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, what we do know is that it is deadly, pernicious and unpredictable. In the course of months, the virus sickened millions, crippled industries and reversed hard-won economic gains.

The legal landscape, like many other sectors, has changed and continues to evolve with the challenges of a global pandemic. There has been downsizing and recalibration, hard looks at the bottom line and a shift to remote work.

Female lawyers face unique work-from-home issues, compounding well-documented attrition and promotion challenges. Virtual work makes it harder to establish relationships with mentors and sponsors, and fractionalization can happen.

“I’ve heard stories about Zoom happy hours ‘just for our friends’ consisting of guess who?” says Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and founding director of its Center for WorkLife Law. “Telework can systematically disadvantage women and people of color in terms of getting good work and enough hours that they aren’t let go. And unless firms are very actively managing the telework environment, they are going to end up driving mothers out.”

Diversity advocates are concerned that COVID-19 could negatively impact the number of women at firms, and particularly women of color, further exacerbating retention rates. Despite the fact women graduate from law school at roughly the same rate as men, as they progress through law careers, the drop-off is dramatic. According to National Association for Law Placement data, the percentage of Black and female associates at law firms never rebounded after losses that occurred during the Great Recession. As it stands, representation of women at the equity partner level has stagnated at 20% for years, and only 2% of equity partners are women of color, according to the 2020 ABA report Left Out and Left Behind.

Since COVID-19 began, women generally have been exiting the workforce at higher rates than men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And whether a woman has children can further exacerbate the pandemic work-life imbalance.

“Different groups of women lawyers are being impacted differently,” Williams explains. “I do think we risk facing a generational wipeout of mothers’ careers if we don’t handle this properly.”

Not my problem

Most women in this country feel culturally obligated to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, assuming the roles of primary caregiver, homemaker and corporate ladder-climber.

This has meant burning the candle at both ends, with the equality promise of the feminist movement both a lure and an immolation.

Unlike most wealthy industrialized nations, in the U.S., caregiving—for children or the elderly—is considered a private responsibility to be managed by families (i.e., women)—not policymakers or employers. Women are disproportionately impacted by the virus because of these traditional gender roles and overrepresentation in frontline careers such nursing, professional caregiving and retail.

Opening economies and requiring parents to put in full workweeks without schools being open or provisions for adequate child care options is a crisis with no imminent remedy. Before the coronavirus, the U.S. child care system and support for working parents was arguably the most abysmal in the Western world; COVID-19 has destroyed any pretext that it’s possible to successfully parent and excel in a demanding career without a crash and burn.

Williams, along with some policymakers, is calling for nationally financed, neighborhood-based child care for working parents to replace the “patched-together Rube Goldberg machine that just broke.”

Protect and serve

The de facto conscription of America’s parents into home-school teacher service is the latest destabilizing twist in the coronavirus saga. As districts across the country canceled in-person learning and turned to remote school, traumatic memories of the spring e-learning season have had parents scrambling for solutions and sanity.

Teaching kids during the day, juggling client calls and emails in between, and doing the more challenging legal work at night was how some lawyer parents say they made it through the last school year. But women are taking on the lion’s share of home-schooling, according to a New York Times poll.

Still, lawyer moms are better positioned during this crisis than low-wage earners, many of whom face the devastating choice of either going in to work to support their families or quitting so they can care for their children. It’s a choice no one should have to make.

What’s missing from public discourse is a greater push for codified, blanket protections for parents, and for working mothers specifically, along with nationally funded child care to ensure the productivity and health of employees at every level. The current patchwork of laws—including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—that provide for family or pregnancy leave, paid sick leave or subsidized day care, have been insufficient in the best of times.

But there has been some positive news: With many bosses and workers facing the same stay-at-home challenges, some employers have learned to be more flexible, empathetic and supportive of working families. And parents have learned to be increasingly unapologetic and straightforward about their child care responsibilities and child care needs.

This story was originally published in the October-November 2020 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Remote Work and Inclusion: Female lawyers face pandemic challenges.”

Intersection is a column that explores issues of race, gender and law across America’s criminal and social justice landscape.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.