Contrary to a widely held belief, work-life balance isn’t primarily a women’s issue, according to a new Canadian study on career trajectories in the legal profession.
Queen’s University professor Fiona Kay has now completed the third part of her longitudinal study that followed 1,600 Ontario lawyers across a 20-year period. Kay says she was surprised to find that although the debate around work-life balance centres on women and narrowly focuses on motherhood, men also sought workplaces that gave them greater flexibility and predicable work hours.
“It’s often cast as a women’s issue [but] it appears to be somewhat gender neutral than we originally thought,” says Kay.
“We in fact found that flexible full-time hours were something that kept men in practice more than women. Men were seeking to have some flexibility in hours. Perhaps they’d like to go watch their daughter play softball or something . . . to be able to have some kind of flexibility and not be constantly present at the firm.”
The assumption that women have a greater focus on work-life balance “really diverts attention, it casts it as individual choice rather than an organizational or institutional factor constraining careers and pushing people to other directions,” says Kay. “And that’s an experience of both men and women.”
Women lawyers, says Kay, have grown wary of attending conferences on work-life balance where only other women show up.
“Men need to have this conversation,” she says. “Clearly . . . men are paying attention, too. They may not be picking up on parental leave — very few men still take parental leave — but they do want flexibility in full-time hours. Clearly, men are seeking some enhanced work-life balance.”
When women leave the workplace after childbirth, people often see it as an individual choice to accommodate needy children, says Kay, something her research found wasn’t true.
“One thing we found that’s quite intriguing is it’s the organizations that are greedy. It wasn’t the case that there’s all these medical appointments or unstable childcare arrangements or needs for children that took lawyers out of the workplace. It was the workplace seeping into their personal lives.”
Often, the profession looks at lawyers’ choice to stay home with their children as “opting out,” a phrase Kay finds problematic. It suggests the decision was arbitrary without considering workplace circumstances that leave no other option, says Kay. But her study found that after leaving law firms, departed lawyers picked up other full-time jobs, such as work with the government, that allow more flexibility.
Kay, whose study received partial funding from the Law Society of Upper Canada, researched the factors that send lawyers out of private practice for some time and the barriers that prevent their return. Lawyers left practice for reasons such as family responsibilities, dissatisfaction with the organizational structure, the pursuit of other interests, and burnout.
Among the cohort she followed, 40 per cent left private practice at some point. “Women were more prevalent among the departed,” the report states. “About 52 per cent of women in private practice left compared to 35 per cent of men.” The exodus of women lawyers is also dramatically faster than it is for their male counterparts, according to the report.
The attrition of women lawyers is a well-known fact but an unresolved challenge within the legal profession. It continues despite efforts such as the parental leave assistance program that provides the most vulnerable lawyers, who are often women, with funds to cover their overhead while they stay home to take care of newborn children.
The program’s fate was on the line last year when the law society questioned its effectiveness and considered cutting it. A committee is now looking into whether the program is serving its purpose.
Unable to sustain their businesses while on parental leave, many women simply shut their practice down, says LSUC Bencher Beth Symes.
“The most troubling thing is that many women, in numbers far in excess in their profession, [leave] the legal profession altogether,” she says, adding that although both men and women struggle with work-life balance, it’s the latter who shoulder the greater burden.
“Both men and women indicate that they’re not happy in their current position and flexibility is one of the factors, but what [Kay] notes is that it’s the women who leave, not the men,” says Symes.
Kay’s report endorses the parental leave program. Programs like it are “absolutely crucial,” she says.
For women, the most common reason for leaving practice was raising children. Once women lawyers return to private practice, law firms challenge their loyalty more than men who also took time off, the report found. “Particularly concerning is the questioning of career commitment women lawyers experience by their colleagues and law firm management,” the report states.
“For women lawyers, (but not typically for men), having children, especially more than two children, is often perceived poorly by employers.”
Other challenges in returning to practice for both men and women lawyers include the length of time away from the firm and institutional barriers that block re-entry. Bias against a lawyer’s age and restrictions on scheduling prevented a smooth transition back into private practice, according to the report. Participants in the study made several suggestions on what would make re-entry easier. They included:
• Mentorship programs
• Educational programs, seminars, and courses to upgrade skills
• Easily accessible job banks and job postings
• Recruitment and firm matching services
• Availability of part-time and volunteer positions
• Increased availability of workplace flexibility
• Maintaining contacts during absences
• Reduced fees for memberships and insurance
• Counselling services
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