7.07.2006

Is the workplace structured around the idea of one parent working, with one at home?

That is an underlying premise in Lauren Stiller Rikleen's new book Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law. From this article, you learn that Ms. Rikleen is a senior partner at Bowditch & Dewey in Framingham, Massachusetts, that she is married to another attorney, and they have two teenage kids. In the article, she states "that the workplace is essentially structured around the idea of one parent working and the other at home raising children. So the challenges that two-career families face are very significant because the workplace isn’t attuned to addressing their issues."

Ms. Rikleen notes the low attrition rate among women in law firms and asserts that one of the best ways to change that is to offer "more flexibility in...schedules - either part-time, telecommuting or a combination of both."

In her book, she focuses on three factors that she believes prevent women from succeeding in law firms:
She cites a number of structural issues inherent in today’s law firms (and, by extension, other professions as well) that pose impediments to women’s success. Among them are the way work is assigned, mentoring, and the question of working part-time.
She's hit the nail on the head, as far as I'm concerned, but the ideas are nothing new. Many others have cited the same factors as being largely responsible for the lack of women at the top of the field. It's harder for women to "fit in" to the workplace--especially at law firms--before they even have kids. It's an old boys network and if you're not a boy, then forget about it.

As an entry level attorney, the playing field is fairly level, but once your success becomes dependent on bringing in the clients (and money), the once-level field is anything but flat--it becomes an insurmountable mountain.

Men can't behave the way that they'd like to when women are around. We cramp their style. So, either you insist on barging your way in to every gathering, despite the uncomfortable, and obvious efforts, by your male colleagues to "hold back" and refrain from the sexual comments, innuendos, swearing, etc., or you attend a few on occasion so as to get in some face time, but bow out gracefully after an hour, to the obvious relief of the men.

As a result, we end up missing out on the all-too-important networking opportunities after hours at the bar, at the country club, on the golf course, and in the strip clubs (yep, they network there, too). And, we fail to make the all-important connections upon which a client base is built.

And, that's all before you have kids. Once you have kids, the uphill battle becomes an all out war--one that has to be waged on limited ammunition, resources, and energy. The thought of waving that little white flag in surrender becomes all the more appealing as your career plummets into crappy-assignment oblivion.

Rikleen posits that a flex-time or part-time schedule is the solution, and she may very well be right. But she also recognizes that it's only a solution if attitudes change, as well:
And finally, on the all-important issue of part-time work, Rikleen said that women on reduced work schedules are treated as "less committed to their careers, and the ramifications are that they are just not given the same opportunities that their full-time colleagues are."
So, the task is to change that perception. But, that's the hard part, isn't it? I think it's happening, though, slowly but surely. But, it's happening. Because both women and men are seeking a better life balance. Because some of the men of our generation grew up beleiving in equality. Because law firms are starting to have very expensive attrition problems.

The good news is it's happening. The bad news is, it's a painfully slow process. I may have missed the boat. Maybe my kids will get to ride a better boat. I'll get back to you on that.

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