Will COVID-19 Spur Gender Diversity in Law?

gender diversity in law

According to my social media feed, lawyers have had two types of responses to the work from home edicts of the past year. There are those who love remote work and say theyll never go back to an office and then there are the parents of school-aged children.  

While the legal profession has spent years spinning initiatives—and its wheels—to address the lack of gender diversity in law, many fear that women will suffer further setbacks as a result of the pandemic. On the other hand, some say that changes wrought by the pandemic will level the playing field, spurring further gender equity in law firms. 

COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Women 

Since COVID-19 began, women have generally been experiencing more negative effects of the recession than men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The crisis has disproportionately hit industries with large female populations (e.g., restaurants, hospitality, retail, and healthcare) and as school districts canceled in-person learning and daycare centers shut down, schooling and caring for kids at home made it even harder for parents (especially mothers who tend to provide the majority of childcare) to keep working. Research from McKinsey and LeanIn.org shows that a quarter of working women are currently considering scaling back their career ambitions or leaving the workforce entirely. 

NPR has recently been airing the podcast series “Enough Already: How the Pandemic Is Breaking Women.” In an interview on December 1, Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice program at New America, said that the pandemic will have significant negative repercussions on women’s place and pay in the labor market, which will be largely dependent upon their socioeconomic class. It’s unclearSchulte says, whether women will be set back “five years, ten years, or a generation.”  

COVID-19 and Female Lawyers 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion experts worry that COVID-19 could negatively impact gender diversity in law firms. Although women graduate from law school at roughly the same rate as men, they often leave the law earlier in their careers.   

According to data from the National Association for Law Placement, it took a decade for the number of female associates at law firms to rebound after heavy losses during the 2008 Great Recession. And these gains were only minimal. At the partner level, the number of women equity partners has been stagnant at 20% for years and only 2% of equity partners are women of color, according to data from the American Bar Association. 

Lawyers enjoy higher financial rewards than most working women and are more likely to retain their employment and to work remotely. Howeverfemale lawyers suffer from the same disproportionate burden of childcare and schooling as the general female population. And supervising kids’ remote learning during the day, juggling client calls and emails in between, and attempting to focus on challenging legal work at night while cutting into sleep isn’t a strategy for longterm success.  

“My identity is very much wrapped up in being a top performer, but now I feel like a complete failure as a lawyer and as a mother,” a BigLaw lawyer was quoted as saying in a recent articleParents, especially mothers, are stressed out by burning the candle at both ends. “I do think we risk facing a generational wipeout of mothers’ careers if we don’t handle this properly,” said Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and founding director of its Center for WorkLife Law.  

Opportunities for Gender Equity and Inclusion in Law 

At the same time, some changes brought about by the pandemic may end up positively affecting gender diversity, equity, and inclusion in law. First, there has been a shift in mindset and a recognition that working from home is really working. Before the pandemic, women lawyers could be viewed with suspicion or considered to take their career less seriously if they asked for flex time to care for children or family members. Now that men have been thrust into the home environment as well, they’re witnessing first-hand the challenges and opportunities of juggling work, childcare, elder care, and schooling. 

Second, some report that remote technology is giving women more access and power. “There’s lots more access to senior meetings, you’ve got a seat at the table,” said Jennifer Suarez Jankesdirector and associate general counsel for Citi’s Institutional Client Group, during a Florida Bar Association webinar devoted to opportunities for women during the pandemic.  

Videoconferencing provides psychological and physical leveling as well. “I’m 4-11. I’m very petite,” explained Jenay Iurato, owner of Iurato Law Firm, P.L. “I love and embrace Zoom because it has made attorneys and judges focus on me, on my face, and what I say.” 

Finally, multitasking plays to women’s strong suit. Jennifer Compton, managing partner for Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, notes that because women have been delegated to the role of caregiver, they were better equipped to transition to remote work. “No matter if you are a mom or a caregiver, women in general are good at multitasking…working until three in the morning,” she said. “I think that if you survey people, you would find that, by and large, women in the workplace have done better at adapting and succeeding in this area than their male counterparts.” 

Takeaways for Legal Organizations  

Although we all hope that the coronavirus gets under control soon, the industry will remain profoundly changed. Those organizations that absorb the lessons were living during the crisis will prosper and retain the talent of their mid and seniorlevel female lawyers. Here are three tips emerging from the pandemic that organizations can use to improve gender diversityequity, and inclusion in law during the pandemic and beyond: 

  1. Keep and enhance flexible work arrangements. Female lawyers have benefited from flexible work patternsResearch shows that many women will leave their firms if these patterns aren’t continued. In a profession that previously set a premium on in-person “face time,” flexibility as to where and when legal work is performed is a welcome change for many. In a recent survey, 38% of Americans reported workplace flexibility (including flexible hours, the option to work remotely on an ongoing basis, and commuter benefits) is the most motivating perk offered by employers. Workplace flexibility is particularly important for women (43%) and single people (47%).  According to 17%, the ability to work remotely is the one perk that would convince them to stay at a company.
  2. Connect women with senior organizational leaders. Delphine O’Rourke, a healthcare attorney and Forum of Executive Women board membersays remote technology offers opportunities to facilitate coffee chats or quick conversations between junior associates and the more senior members of the firm, no matter where theyre located. These conversations should be formally scheduled, similar to a remote mentoring session, so that the burden isn’t on the junior person to initiate the interaction.  
  3. Ensure that teams are gender-balanced. A report by consulting firm Acritas, now part of Thomson Reuters, showed that as a retention strategy, actively ensuring a balance of men and women on teams was more effective than genderblind work allocation. Ensuring a representative balance of men and women on all pitches, RFPs, and working teams is easier to accomplish when the mindset and reality are that everyone meets remotely. 

Even more attractive about the above strategies is that they work equally well for men. As stated in Acritas’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Global Report, women’s initiatives often reinforce the “erroneous perception that female lawyers are fundamentally different than male lawyers and therefore require special treatment.”  

One thing that the pandemic has highlighted is that many of us have families and responsibilities related to caring for others of one kind or another. To increase gender diversity in law, we need organizations to recognize and appreciate the richness and challenges of our family lives. Only then can we be more productive in our professional lives.  

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