Women in the Law

There's an 'urgent need' to support female lawyers with children, new ABA report shows

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Working mother at a laptop with a baby

“The new and unique research presented here demonstrates an urgent need to change the paradigm,” according to a new report by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Image from Shutterstock.

Mothers are far more likely than fathers to encounter negative experiences at work, including disparaging comments, lower compensation and fewer advancement opportunities, according to a new ABA report released Wednesday that assesses how the motherhood penalty and other caregiver bias impacts female lawyers.

Legal Careers of Parents and Child Caregivers: Results and Best Practices From a National Study of the Legal Profession, published by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, is based on a survey of more than 8,000 lawyers in law firms, corporate law departments and other practice settings in 2022. It focused on how lawyers with children—especially mothers—develop their careers and what legal employers can do to ensure that they obtain meaningful opportunities.

The report also includes information about the experiences of mothers in the legal profession gathered from 10 focus groups hosted virtually and in person around the country in late 2022 and early 2023.

“The new and unique research presented here demonstrates an urgent need to change the paradigm,” the report says. “Indeed, if law firms, corporations, government agencies and other legal employers do not meaningfully address the unique challenges that have long impeded the retention and advancement of women lawyers with children, they will continue to lose out in the war for talent and find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the legal marketplace.”

According to the report, 61% of mothers vs. 26% of fathers in firms have experienced demeaning comments about being a working parent. Meanwhile, 60% of mothers vs. 30% of fathers have encountered these types of comments in other practice settings.

The report shows that 60% of mothers and only 25% of fathers in firms and 59% of mothers and only 30% of fathers in other settings noted feeling that they were perceived as less committed to their careers.

Additionally, higher percentages of mothers said they lacked access to business development opportunities and salary increases or bonuses. Specifically, 43% of mothers vs. 20% of fathers in firms reported receiving fewer business development opportunities, while 37% of mothers vs. 22% of fathers in firms said they were denied additional compensation.

Other significant findings in the Commission on Women in the Profession’s report include:

  • Mothers were more than twice as likely as fathers—48% vs. 21%—to feel that having children had a negative impact on their legal career.

  • Nearly half of all female lawyers and only about a quarter of male lawyers reported waiting to have children because of concerns about their career.

  • Mothers are far more likely to handle family responsibilities. Sixty-five percent of mothers reported arranging for child care, and 47% of mothers said they leave work for their children’s needs. Only 7% and 17%, respectively, of fathers said they take on these responsibilities.

  • Among lawyers in firms, 70% of mothers said they almost always or often feel overwhelmed by everything they have to do. Conversely, 41% of fathers said they feel this way.

  • More women than men—42% vs. 29%—do not think that their income is commensurate with their education and experience. This opinion was shared by women with and without children and by women who are parents of younger and older children.

How can legal employers retain and advance women with children?

In its report, the Commission on Women in the Profession offers best practices and policies that firms, corporate law departments, state and local bar associations and other organizations can implement to better support female lawyers with children.

Among them, employers should provide more part-time, flextime and remote work opportunities; offer comprehensive family health insurance, parental leave policies and child care resources; and improve wellness and mental health resources, such as counseling services and mothers-only affinity groups.

The commission suggests that employers seek direct input from parents in their organizations about what they think will help them succeed. They should also consider switching to compensation models that evaluate performance broadly and establish specific training and development programs, including mentoring programs for women with children and written policies that help move more women into leadership roles.

“In the absence of effective family-friendly written policies and practices by legal employers, women lawyers with children will continue to struggle in attempting to balance their careers and their family responsibilities, and presented with this seemingly binary choice, many will continue to vote with their feet by leaving their jobs,” the report says.

Stephanie Scharf and Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg, principals with the Chicago-based Red Bee Group, and past ABA President Paulette Brown co-authored the commission’s report.

An ABA news release with additional information is here. For complete results, visit the Commission on Women in the Profession’s website.

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