Let's be real — it's hard out there for a working mother

Author (and working mom) Reva Seth wants law firms to address workplace challenges head on

By Reva Seth

On Friday May 16th, 2014

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Another Mother’s Day is over. And while it’s great to have a day to celebrate the people who bring life into the world, it doesn’t change the fact that being a mother is no walk in the park — especially a mother who works. Pregnancy and motherhood are still perceived as incompatible with career and professional success, and the result is that women are still regularly penalized for their decision to become parents.

While researching my recent book The MomShift which tells stories of women navigating around this cultural bias and actually achieving greater career success after children — I still heard countless stories of female lawyers in private practice, in government and in small or mid-size firms, who had lost opportunities or faced challenges as a result of pregnancy. 

These ranged from openly hostile remarks (yes, still) to the gradual re-assignment of key files and openly voiced questions from their colleagues about their professional commitment.

It’s clear that despite collective initiatives such as the Justicia Project and in-house programs designed to support greater gender equity and leadership, the legal industry continues to struggle with how to retain and promote female talent.

So perhaps it’s time to try a new approach: most law firms recognize and invest in programs designed to promote female talent, but they rarely address the specific challenges that motherhood present to building a legal career.

And yet, this is where the opportunity for real change exists.

In our recently released corporate report, Mom’s The Word: How Organizations Can Change The Impact Of Motherhood On Long Term Career Success (PDF), my colleague Lisa Mattam and I argue that the collective reluctance of professional firms to call out the specific challenges of Motherhood are one of the reasons that the current slate of gender and diversity initiatives have yet to achieve the predicted and desired outcomes.

Contrary to how the legal industry still tends to view motherhood, it is not an impediment to professional success — but biological and sociological factors do mean that mothers frequently face circumstances or pressures that are not the same as their childless colleagues or even by fathers. 

So what can firms do to reverse the trends and help make law firms more friendly to working mothers?

1) Give mothers (and future mothers) real role models. Women want to hear less from the executive suite and more from women who they can relate with. Create forums where mothers can talk to other moms who have found professional success, to help them create their own accessible path to opportunity. 

2) See your culture through the eyes of a woman. We forget that culture trumps strategy every time. Firms should assess their office culture from the perspective of mothers. In doing so, they will have a better understanding of the challenges women face at work, and then can create strategies and policies to address these challenges. 

3) Address unconscious bias. Create an environment where women can talk about their desires and challenges associated to motherhood. A truly inclusive office is one where the concept of bias is socialized so both associates and partners can spot how to recognize and stop it.

What we have seen in our work is that when firms recognize the unique challenges that mothers face and align their initiatives to the actual needs of the women in their firms, firms have a better chance of successfully reaching the goal of truly engaging, retaining and promoting their female lawyers in greater numbers.

 


Reva Seth

Reva Seth is a lawyer and the author of the bestselling book, The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Children  (Random House: Feb 2014).