Skip to Main Content
by Mary Kate Sheridan | February 13, 2019


woman laptop looking out window

Last week, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Lisa Damour titled “Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office.” In the article, Damour notes that while girls do better than boys in school, men fill almost all of the “top positions” at the biggest companies. She posits that hyper-conscientiousness puts girls ahead in school but may harm them in the work force. She also suggests that the school environment may build confidence for boys but not for girls.

Just as interesting as the article are the comments in response to it, some of which propose that motherhood hinders women’s careers.

One commenter shared (after remarking on partnership at a law firm), “It's just that the pool of women willing to grind out 80-hour weeks is much smaller than the pool of men.”

Another commenter indicated, “Women choose their children over greater work responsibilities or promotions time and time again. This is very acceptable in our culture. Men, on the other hand, choose to let their wives take over the main responsibility of the care of their children time and time again as they climb the corporate ladder.”

Responses to these comments brought to light additional viewpoints, including the notions that (1) gendered family roles are ingrained in our society and that (2) this issue isn’t limited to mothers, as childless women face obstacles rising the corporate ladder as well.

The article and comments offer interesting insights into a situation that exists across many industries—including the legal field—wherein women are far less represented in senior and top positions. Indeed, according the the National Association of Women Lawyers' ("NAWL) 2018 Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, while 47 percent of law firm associates are female, only 20 percent of equity partners are female and only 30 percent of nonequity partners are female. And the numbers are growing at a slow pace, per NAWL: "The likelihood that women will become equity partners remains on a sluggish upward trajectory over the last 12 years, with the data reflecting an increase from 15 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2018."

Reading this article and data made me wonder what female associates at BigLaw firms think about career advancement for women, including the effect of having children. As part of Vault’s Annual Associate Survey, we ask associates to comment on their firm’s diversity with respect to women, minorities, LGBT individuals, and individuals with disabilities. I looked through more than 1,000 of these comments from female associates and noticed several themes, including the impact of female role models, leave for fathers, and a supportive workplace.

Below are eight takeaways from the comments from Vault’s survey, as well as a sampling of these associate quotes.

Issues with retention and promotion of female lawyers are, at least partially, a larger societal issue.

  • “If men could get pregnant, every single firm would have an extremely transparent leave policy for those humans who need to give birth and recover. For example, if I hit 80 percent of my annual billables target before taking leave, am I eligible to receive 80 percent of my bonus? This is a black hole of frustrating, sexist misery. I would also venture to guess that if men were viewed as caretakers, every firm would offer some form of child care as a benefit. My frustrations on these topics are not [firm]-specific. I think [my firm] fails on this front as do its peers. [My firm] has made concerted, successful efforts to be inclusive of women and minorities in terms of its hiring practices, but the challenge remains to actually be INCLUSIVE by shifting policy to allow everyone to succeed. This means, among other things, acknowledging that giving birth is necessary for the human race to continue [and] is a major medical event that requires recovery and shouldn't result in you getting a smaller bonus at year end.”
  • “The firm has an issue hiring and retaining women, but I don't believe that is a problem solely with my firm. I think it is an industry-wide problem that we all need to work on. I've been in several meetings in the last year where we are looking at [a] number of original applicants that are male vs. female, then a break down of diversity on call backs, etc. ... And fewer women are applying for jobs. Several committees I belong to are brain storming on how we can increase the number of women and diverse applicants.”
  • “This is a place where we (and the whole industry really) need to improve. While I don't think it's for lack of trying, we simply do not have adequate representation, particularly at senior levels, of women and minorities. There is a positive to being self-aware about this, but awareness is not enough, and I am glad to see actions being taken to address these issues.”

Some believe women with families are held back in their careers at the firm.

  • “Over the years, I've seen women who could have become partners who have chosen, on their own, to take themselves off the partner track for personal reasons or to leave because they wanted to spend more time with their children. That's not the firm's fault. Other women have become partner even while raising families, and the firm is really good about a part-time policy for associates and partners alike.”
  • “Women are held back for having young children. The expectation to make partner continues to be a white male with a non-working spouse at home.”
  • “Women make partner at a FAR lower rate than men. I think part is a result of the inescapable consequences of having children and taking maternity leave. Reincorporation into the firm is limited—if you come back part time for even a short period, you are off [the] partner track (it appears), and it is rare for women who take leave to make partner. Only women who postpone having children end up making partner it seems. Totally unacceptable.”

Role models are critical.

  • “I've found the firm to be incredibly supportive of female attorneys. Notably, I would say 90 percent of the attorneys I've worked under so far have been women, and most of them are wives and mothers. The female attorneys are very supportive and encouraging of young women.”
  • “One of my favorite things about this firm is how many female partners there are. As a young female associate, I feel very supported and like I can progress through the firm.”
  • “We have a ton of women in positions of power and leadership at [my firm]. ...  A few years ago, I was on a trial where the entire team, including lead counsel, were all women except for one partner and a paralegal. That's basically unheard of anywhere else, but it wasn't even the first time that's happened at [this firm] in recent memory. I feel completely uninhibited being open about my experience as a working mom because so many of my supervisors and colleagues have been or are in my same shoes.”

And lack of female attorneys at the top can have a big impact.

  • “We still live in a world where female mentors are very hard to come by, particular[ly] female mother mentors in partnership roles. I have never felt discriminated against by anyone within [my firm] (although clients, consultants, and other firms are a different story), but the lack of role models is nonetheless problematic.”  
  • “I think the firm is making an effort to hire more women and diverse attorneys, but there is an ongoing issue with representation at the partner level. In my group, there is only one female partner and at least six-to-seven male partners. None of those partners are otherwise diverse. This makes mentoring more challenging for women attorneys, since the men tend to stick together.”
  • “We have all the benefits that firms of our size are supposed to have. But the biggest impediment to solving the diversity problem is how few and far between women and minority partners [are] (or, in some practice areas, women/diverse lawyers).”

Female associates feel gender-based leave policies have a negative effect.

  • “The firm offers very little leave for ‘secondary parents,’ [who are] typically men at the firm in heterosexual relationships. This perpetuates a division in leave-takers along traditional gender lines, which I think is generally harmful to women's advancement.”
  • “The one problem is that while we have a technically gender-neutral parental leave policy, it requires a new parent to declare as a primary or secondary caregiver (12-week difference in leave time), and men in heterosexual relationships almost invariably choose secondary caregiver, even when they will be the only parent home with the new baby while on leave. There seems to be an expectation that men will take the shorter leave, and so they do not feel appropriate declaring themselves as primary caregiver, even when they will be.”
  • “Paternity leave is permitted, but depending upon the lead partner, [it is] discouraged or limited.”

And they recognize the benefits of firms supporting parental leave for fathers.

  • “We have generous maternity and paternity policies, and the introduction of the paternity policy has made children less of a ‘women’ issue and more of a ‘parent’ issue, which I think has been a positive change for women in the firm.”
  • “Child care, parental leave, and mentoring are wonderful. One of the most important facts to know about parental leave at [the firm] is that men take the full leave. As such, it is not at all looked down on when women take it. Additionally, this shows the healthy regard people have toward leave in general. Also, people get promoted while on leave—even to partner.”
  • “Women are well represented in associate and partnership ranks. Most partners (women and men) have children, and everyone who has had a baby in the past few years (women and men, associates and partners) has taken parental leave.”

Being in a supportive environment can make a tremendous difference in a women’s career path.

  • “The firm recently extended its maternity leave to 18 weeks and offers 60 days of (optional) part-time schedule following the return from maternity leave to ramp back up without the need to seek approval for part-time work. There are a number of working mothers at the firm (one of whom was just promoted to partner while on maternity leave), and many of us take advantage of a part-time schedule (really, a lower billables target). Many individuals in our office are parents, and both mothers’ and fathers' parenting obligations are generally respected—moms certainly are not the only ones rushing out to pick up their kids on time. I do not feel ‘mommy-tracked’ for being part time and, indeed, have gotten my most challenging assignments and opportunities after returning from my first maternity leave.”
  • “I work in a group where 7 out of 10 partners are women, and there are many, many women who have been at the firm over 20 years and have kids and a successful career. Not something I would have said at [my prior firm], where I was told that either I or my husband would have to give up work, [and] that partnership at [the prior firm] was not compatible with a husband with a career. Excellent back-up child care [is] available, and [maternity] leave is highly competitive.”
  • “If anything, I think the attention and mentorship I received from partners increased after I became a parent—they are really trying to make it easier for working mothers to stay.”  

But you must look beyond the marketing material to find truly supportive firms.

  • “Our firm represents that we have a modern view on required face-time and that we have flexible working hours, but there is a heavy stigma associated with utilizing either of those benefits.”
  • “There is a generous maternity leave at the firm, but you will pay for it in reputation and experience. People routinely stop staffing associates on cases for months before and even after maternity leave, putting women associates who have children well behind the other associates at the firm.”
  • “Like every big law firm, [my firm] pays a lot of lip service to diversity. They do offer women part-time positions, but going part time is highly discouraged. One associate who went 60 percent was told that it was only a temporary solution, and she couldn't tell clients about her part-time status. Also, at firm training event, a female [attorney] who was part time asked about how her compensation would be affected should she fulfill the normal full-time billing requirement despite her part-time status, and the [senior attorney’s] response was, ‘I would tell her to go full time then.’ There is a just an utter disconnect between what is written on paper with regard to part-time status and people actually supporting it or respecting it.”

When it comes to gender inequality in the legal world, it seems a host of factors contribute. By the same token, a variety of initiatives and cultural changes may combat the imbalance in opportunities.

Ultimately, the most important takeaway may be the last one above—look beyond the glossy brochures that tout innovative diversity programs and impressive perks and dig until you uncover what it is really like. A firm may have notable promotion numbers, an established part-time program, or benefits galore, but the true test is whether the firm truly supports these ideas in practice. Use your connections—friends, classmates, career services, LinkedIn, etc.—to contact female associates at the firm who can give you the real scoop. Determine what factors will be critical for you to succeed in your career and ask questions that will help you decide if the particular firm offers the culture that will help you thrive.