By Ursula Furi-Perry, Esq. • October 31, 2010•Writers in Residence, Legal Academia
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays to spend with my kids. This year, Halloween weekend also fell on one of the most important days of the year in my professional life: the release of bar exam results. So, I’ve been balancing: balancing parades and trick-or-treating with the Super Mario brothers with sending congratulatory messages to former students. Both are important to me, and I want to make both work. To do so, I balance.
We’ve had no shortage of discussion about work-life balance among women lawyers. For a while, there were also countless media accounts (likely set off by Lisa Belkin’s important New York Times article) on the “opt-out phenomenon,” depicting numbers of women leaving professional positions in order to assume family responsibilities.
On 85 Broads, a website I enjoy for its interesting and inspiring stories for (and about) women, a recent Q&A with Holly Fujie, a former president of the California Bar, caught my attention. In the piece, she said: “Seeing young women lawyers drop out because they think they cannot handle practice while raising children breaks my heart. How did they lose that self confidence? And often they don’t even return to work after maternity leave to see if they can handle it. We need to help teach these women that they can in fact do this. Practicing law is hard – parenting is hard – but when you get good at both, the combination is awesome!”
I have to admit that some of the comments seemed a little condescending to me: young women aren’t necessarily opting out because “they think they cannot practice while raising children;” they are simply making a personal choice. But there is a much more important point to make here: contrary to an abundance of portraits on the “opt-out revolution,” often, the decision to leave the workforce isn’t a choice at all.
According to a thorough survey conducted by the Center for Work-Life Law at UC Hastings, we – collectively – may not quite get the true reasons behind women leaving the workforce. The survey says the media “pinpoints the pull of family life as the main reason why women quit, whereas a recent study showed that 86% of women cite workplace pushes (such as inflexible jobs) as a key reason for their decision to leave.”
In other words, the opt-out phenomenon may be largely a myth.
The survey continues: “Many women quit because they encounter 'maternal wall bias:' gender bias triggered by motherhood. Such women are not freely opting out — they are being pushed out by gender discrimination… The United States cannot maintain its competitiveness if it continues to pay large sums to educate the many women who then find themselves “deskilled” — driven out of good jobs and into less good ones — by inflexible workplaces and family responsibilities discrimination.”
I tend to be very open about discussing my own choices, and I’ve written a lot about work-life balance. All of this matters to me not only from my personal perspective as a working mom, but also from a professional perspective: my students, who will enter the workforce shortly, will surely have some difficult decisions to make. I think it’s important to stress to students that while not every decision will be easy, and while some may not even entirely be their own, it can all be balanced.
The most important point about balance, I think, is that it is a subjective concept: for one person, it may mean a flexible job, balancing work emails and spending time with the family at night; for another, it may mean exiting the work force for a period of time to tend to family responsibilities. As many wise working moms would say, work-life balance cannot be measured over any particular day or even week, and it must be re-evaluated periodically. Balance can go off-kilter, and it can cause manageable stress, but at the end of the day (or month) it all works, as long as it works for you.