Susan Smith Blakely

Can Family-Friendly Policies Backfire on Women Lawyers?

On the heels of the announcement by Orrick of its new groundbreaking parental leave policies, as reported in an earlier blog, it seems prudent to ask where family-friendly policies are going and whether there is some downside for women lawyers.  So, I am asking, and here is what I found.

The following can happen:

  • When the law requires employers to provide women with childcare, women are paid less (as is reported in Chile);
  • When the law requires a policy to give parents of young children the right to work part-time, there is a decline in full-time, stable jobs available to all women, even those who do not want to work part-time (as is reported in Spain); and
  • Generous maternity leaves have resulted in fewer women being promoted to management levels or high-powered positions (as reported in a variety of European countries).

These are some of the unintended consequences reported recently in an article in the New York Times.  The upshot is that generous policies for work-life balance can discourage employers from hiring women and also can serve as justifications for employers to cut back on compensation and other benefits.  Keep in mind that these research results are not tailored to women lawyers.  However, they certainly are instructive.

In the United States, where the primary law mandating parental leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, research shows that women are 5 percent more likely to remain employed because of the provisions of the law but 8 percent less likely to receive promotions.  As the researcher explains, "The problem ends up being that all women, even those who do not anticipate having children or cutting back in hours, may be penalized."

Other research has confirmed these concerns.  In a study of 22 countries, researchers at Cornell University found that family-friendly policies like long maternity leaves and part-time work protections in Europe made it possible for more women to work but also more likely that the work would be in "dead-end" jobs and in positions less likely to be described as management.

So, this may lead to the conclusion that generosity is not always good.  And, if generosity is mandated, gender neutral policies may serve women better.  That is exactly what Orrick did.

For the full New York Times article, see this link.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.

Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 

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