Publication Mid-Market Report

“I can’t do that, I have child care issues”—said no man ever to his boss. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration to make a point, but for many male professionals, it is entirely accurate. Indeed, a 2018 Ball University study revealed that while nearly 47% of men support parental leave, a mere 14% of dads actually take more than two weeks off. See Conrado Tapado, Why Don’t Men Take Parental Leave Even When Its Available (May 24, 2018).

The ramifications of this phenomenon is detrimental to gender equity in the workplace. Richard Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State who analyzed several sets of data related to this study, concluded as such, stating as follows:

“The reluctance—or inability—of men to take child-care leave is often considered harmful to women, who miss opportunities for promotion when they are out of the workforce for longer periods than men. When men take longer leave, two things happen: women return to work sooner, and men become more attuned to, and less tolerant of, those opportunity costs …”

Here is a case in point, closer to home: One day recently when I was out of the “home office,” my husband called his mother to pick our son up from school (a maximum 15 minute round trip task), rather than just telling his boss that he was unavailable for an impromptu meeting. This is not particularly noteworthy until you consider that my mother-in-law lives 70 miles away.

While this particular conduct did not affect me directly, it is but one example and not an aberration. In 2019, for instance, my husband travelled to three different countries in a span of two months, leaving me to handle all child care issues—including taking our son to and from our child care facility located on my husband’s job site, a location nowhere near my office in New York City. Still, while I begged and pleaded for him to at least try to limit the travel, he declined. I could provide additional examples, but the point is made: My husband, while otherwise a great partner and father, cannot seem to utter those words I so long to hear—“I can’t do that, I have child care issues.”

And herein lies the problem; according to the 2020 Law360 Glass Ceiling report, while the number of female attorneys at major law firms has grown slightly over recent years, their representation among equity partners remains disproportionately low. The report further revealed that, although women make up more than half of law school students, they make up less than 40% of attorneys in firms, and only about 22% of equity partners.

This suggests that women are less likely than their male counterparts to be promoted and move up the firm ranks. And the reason for this, according to this report, is lack of retention. One of the primary reasons women leave firms is not because they choose to be stay-at-home mothers and give up their careers entirely, but because they are unable to achieve the work/life balance that so many strive for—a balance that is still much harder to achieve for women than men. This is due, in large part, to women taking the requisite time to handle child care issues and men not doing the same, whether because they don’t want to or feel firm management won’t stand for it.

And there is no question that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic only has exacerbated this problem. The latest evidence compiled in a collaboration between The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress revealed that working mothers have born the brunt of the burden associated with school and child care closures related to COVID-19. See Julie Kashen et al., How Covid-19 Sent Women’s Workforce Progress Backward, Center for American Progress (Oct. 30, 2020). Among many disheartening statistics, the report disclosed that:

  • Four times as many women as men dropped out of the labor force in September 2020 (roughly 865,000 women to 216,000 men).
  • In early-closure states, it was the women with school-aged children who were 20% more likely to take temporary leave and 30% more likely to leave a job compared with those in states that had not yet closed, with the difference in work hours before and after closure not as significant for men.
  • For those that stayed in the workface, mothers reduced their total work hours four to five times more than fathers, which has doubled the gap between the number of hours worked by women and by men.

Perhaps most discouraging is that the study concluded that while maternal labor force participation has been steadily increasing over time, it has been a slow progression, such that merely a 5% decline would undo the past 25 years of progress.

So how can we improve the situation? How can we as a society ensure that women don’t lose decades of workplace progress made since the days pre-RBG? For starters, when it comes to child care, men need to understand that their commitment to their job and professional success does not outweigh that of their wives. And the companies that employ these men need to promote this narrative. These companies, law firms included, need to communicate to their employees, men and women alike, that they will not be ostracized nor their career hindered if, on occasion, they need to leave early, reduce their work hours or, yes, even decline a business trip.

In other words, men need to feel they are in a “safe space” to say the words every working mother wants her husband to say … “I can’t do that, I have child care issues.” Only then can women progress on a path parallel to men and truly succeed.

Reprinted with permission from the March 22 issue of The Mid-Market Report. © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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