January 19th, 2009 | 1:00 pm

The “Mommy Penalty” in the Legal Profession

filed under Featured, Next Level

mombaby.jpgby Anna T. Collins, Esquire (Portland, Maine)

Laura Allen* had been working at a law firm in the U.S. for three years. She had always gotten excellent reviews, regular bonuses and raises, and was respected by her peers. Then, her entire legal career was stopped short. “When I had my daughter,” Laura explains “my employer began treating me differently—reassigning the bigger cases to other attorneys, cutting my raises and bonuses short and scrutinizing my absences from work.”

A new study by Neil H. Buchanan at George Washington University Law School may offer insight to Laura, as well as other women experiencing what Buchanan calls the “mommy penalty”. Using survey responses from University of Michigan Law School graduates, Buchanan found that mothers earn less than non-mothers. In fact, the study showed that fathers tend to receive a “daddy bonus” in the form of higher salaries when they have a child.

For Laura, her “mommy penalty” started when she had to return early from maternity leave due to her employer’s multiple requests. While her employer was initially supportive if she took time off to care for her ill daughter, she was soon notified that she would be terminated if she continued to take days off when her daughter was ill. Laura kept track of her days. She missed less than 10. As the only female with children in her firm, she made sure to make up for missed time by working late or on weekends. In fact, she always met her firm’s billable hour requirement and even exceeded it every year, including the year she returned to work. Then, despite her hard work, Laura received a bonus five times smaller than one received by other attorneys in her firm, as well as a smaller raise. Realizing she was being pigeon-holed into the “mommy track,” Laura eventually left her position. “I was being treated unfairly because I was a new mother,” Laura recalls “I left that firm…and opened my own firm. I work just as hard as I did before, but with a lot less stress and more flexibility to be with my daughter when she needs me.”

Laura’s story provides an illuminating example of what the “mommy penalty” identified by Buchanan looks like. It also raises important questions about its causes, especially since Laura continued to meet the billable hour requirement in her firm. Kate Green*, a mother of two who also left her position at a U.S. law firm, believes part of the answer lies in the definition of “full time” work. Many mothers she knows work “reduced hours” at their firms, “that are between full time and real part time and do combinations of work in office and work at home.” In contrast, she cannot think of any father attorneys who work less than full-time or require as much flexibility from their employers. “At major law firms income is going to hinge on billable hours,” Kate explains “if you are unwilling to work until 9 pm seven days a week, you will not be rewarded financially.”

Neil H. Buchanan’s study appears to confirm Kate’s belief regarding the inter-relationship between the “mommy penalty” and reduced hours. His analysis suggests that attorneys who take part-time status are almost entirely women who take on child-rearing duties, and they reduce their work hours by an average of approximately thirty percent. He cautions, however, that these results may be less reliable because of the small numbers of respondents who work less than full time. He also warns that there is no clear connection between work hours and the “daddy bonus,” since men receive this bonus without working additional hours.

Perhaps because men appear to be rewarded simply by the virtue of gaining the responsibility of child, some believe the “mommy penalty” may be a result of employers’ perception that mothers are a liability or the employers’ unwillingness to offer mothers the flexibility needed for success. “Many law firms treat the female attorneys who have children as if they have to make a choice between having a family or a career,” Laura states “the male attorneys are not forced to make this choice. So, why do female attorneys have to make the choice?” In other words, the sexism may not lie merely in inequitable earnings. Instead, as Kate states, the sexism is expressed when employers force mothers to choose between their careers and their families. “The fact that mothers alone are the ones who have to make this choice is where the sexism lies,” she concludes.

Neil H. Buchanan agrees that institutional factors, such as the employer’s perception and lack of flexibility, must be evaluated further to determine the cause for the “mommy penalty”. He also acknowledges that hours alone do not explain the penalty, especially since men receive their “daddy bonus” without working additional hours. Ultimately, the explanation is a complex one that requires further study. In fact, he intends to complete another study in the future, one that evaluates long-term data. While Laura and Kate were able to “beat the game” by going out on their own, not every mother has this option. Perhaps Buchanan’s further research will offer those women and their families hope.

*The names of the women attorneys who spoke in regards to this article have been changed.

1 comment

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