Women had to fight for the right to take maternity leave. We had to fight for the right to work part time. We had to fight for the right to work remotely. These issues drove women’s initiatives, conferences, and publications for years, and finally, the legal industry as a whole responded. In fact, it is safe to say that most firms have some version of these types of policies in place.
But having policies and being able to use them are two different things. The existence of the policies hasn’t cured the stigma that attaches to the women who take advantage of these policies. We know that in many firms women who exercise their “rights” are still viewed as uncommitted, not partner material, slackers, and short-timers.
But change is afoot as the Millennial Men become fathers. These men have spouses who work; were raised to believe that women and men are equals; don’t want to follow in their father’s footsteps and miss out on their children’s lives. Their expectations are different from their baby boomer fathers. They, like their women colleagues, want a more balanced life—particularly after they have children.
But they are afraid to say this out loud, because when they do, they find themselves in the same (or worse) place than women in law firms. In some sort of cosmic irony, as these men now seek to have balance, they are faced with the same issues that have plagued women for years:
- their firms don’t have policies that allow for paternity leave and, if they do, the leave time is minimal;
- a real or perceived stigma is attached to taking paternity leave;
- men who ask to work part time are viewed as less committed than those who work full time.
In short, men are feeling the pain that drove many women to leave the law: the discomfort that comes from trying to have work-life balance. While that is a bad thing for men, it is a good thing for women.
Why? Because if men start asking for work-life balance, the issues of actually implementing programs to achieve that will not be shoved off to the diversity committee or the women’s initiative for resolution. Instead, these issues will be mainstreamed and addressed as real business issues that firms will have to solve. Simply put, if men convince firms that work-life balance is required to keep them at the firm, then these “women’s issues” will become part of the conversation of the firm; not the conversation of the women.
Women have an opportunity to help themselves by helping male colleagues. We have to encourage them to push for all these “rights” and to demand change. We have to stand with them when they cry foul for the stigma attached to the man who takes three months off for paternity leave; we have to fight for the man who wants to work part time to care for his children; we have to support the man who affirmatively asks for work-life balance. We should be empowering all the men we know to ask for paternity leave policies if their firms don’t have them, and to take all the paternity leave their firms allow. We should tell these men to complain about any stigma attached to them. We should approach every man who is about to become a father and make him read the literature showing the bonding effect of being present during the first weeks of an infant’s life.
If we stand by the men in our firms, if we stand with them, we may be able to finally level the playing field on the work-life balance issue. Because at last, it won’t only be women standing on the field.
About the Author
Patricia K. Gillette is a partner in the San Francisco office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. She can be reached at 415.773.5773 or firstname.lastname@example.org.