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The problem with female attorney retention has been discussed at some length in blogs, in reports sponsored by the American Bar Association, in professional association publications, in academic journals, and likely—everywhere female attorneys gather. Female attorneys leave BigLaw for many reasons but here’s a bit of research that may give insight into helping law firms retain female attorneys following childbirth or adoption.
It has long been noted that women bear the brunt of the financial/career impact related to childbirth and/or motherhood. And if you are a woman of color, the damage to income is even worse. While the research cited in this post was completed at the University of Kent, in the United Kingdom—it offers an interesting idea for law firms in the US to explore. The study results revolve around the use of flextime (which makes sense) but with an interesting twist worth investigating.
Here are the main findings:
More than half of the women in the study sample reduced their working hours after a child was born—but less than a quarter who were able to use flextime reduced their hours.
Women who were able to use flextime were only half as likely to reduce their hours after the birth of a child.
And here is the twist:
The issue was not whether new moms perceived they had access to flextime. The most important factor was the use of flextime by the woman before giving birth.
In other words, those women who had actually used flextime prior to giving birth were more likely to think they could juggle the work-life balance demands with which they were faced after giving birth. It raises the question of how ‘real’ the flextime is. If it isn’t used prior to birth, there might be cultural norms not to use it, even if it is nominally accepted. If it is seen (overtly or unconsciously) as a sign that someone is distracted, not dedicated, worn out, or otherwise not a ‘team player’–there will be a reluctance to use it, even if the alternative is to quit.
The researchers think this finding could have implications for the gender pay gap since women would not necessarily have to give up their work in order to have children. They also note it would help companies retain female employees who often tend to either leave or reduce working hours following childbirth.
From a law office management perspective, it makes sense to encourage both male and female attorneys to use flextime routinely so they can become more attuned to how flextime use can help them to balance work-life demands. For women who give birth or adopt, according to today’s highlighted research, having used flextime prior to having children may well help them juggle the challenges of having children while also retaining a rewarding and demanding career. That ‘work-life balance’ stuff is actually pretty important.
Chung, H. van der Horst, M. 2017. Women’s employment patterns after childbirth and the perceived access to and use of flextime and teleworking. Human Relations.