Flexible Work Not Presently the Answer to Gender Equity in Corporate Law Firms

Work/life balance has been described as the issue of our age, but attainment of a balance, or the ‘good life’, is increasingly elusive. This is borne out by a study of Australian male and female corporate lawyers, the findings from which are explored in my recently-published article, “Work/Life or Work/Work? Corporate Legal Practice in the Twenty-First Century.”

Following the global financial crisis, a desire for capital accumulation led to the amalgamation of many of Australia’s largest national firms with elite northern hemisphere firms. The preoccupation with profitmaking in these global firms has seen the aggressive embrace of the long-hours culture, including 24/7 availability to corporate clients in different time zones, which has significant ramifications for the lives of individual lawyers.

The typical worker of the past was able to devote [him]self unconditionally to work because [he] had an ‘economically inactive wife’. This model has been a source of frustration for women lawyers who have also been expected to undertake the preponderance of society’s caring responsibilities. However, numerical feminisation of the legal practice has caused women lawyers to become more vociferous in demanding that the reality of caring be recognised as it is incompatible with the long hours culture.

Women lawyers wanted to be able to work flexibly, both in terms of the hours of work, as well as where they work. After all, most legal work can be performed anywhere when all that is generally required is a computer and a mobile phone.

While 89 per cent of Australian law firms claim to support flexible work, my research showed that it nevertheless carries a gendered stigma with it. Women lawyers who seek to work from home for part of the working week are subject to adverse repercussions because they are not visible, apart from the stereotypical assumptions about motherhood. Indeed, a significant 50 per cent of women leave large firms within five years ─ for smaller firms, in-house positions, the public sector or elsewhere. Men may also suffer a stigma from flexible work because of its feminised associations with caring, a factor that represents a strong disincentive for them to undertake it.

Women lawyers are less affected by the flexibility stigma than their male colleagues as they are more concerned about achieving a balance in their working lives, which is why they are prepared to leave large firms and pursue alternative forms of practice to a greater extent. Male lawyers are more concerned about the stigma and choose to avoid it by not taking up flexible options.

These findings about the ramifications of flexible work put paid to the hopes of those who thought that gender equity in the legal profession would be achieved when men and women could share equally in caring responsibilities. The pressure of work/work means that this ideal end state is unlikely to be realised at any time soon. The result is that the apex of the organisational pyramid of corporate law firms, where power and wealth are concentrated, remain resolutely masculinised.

The preceding post comes to us from Margaret Thornton, Professor of Law, in the ANU College of Law at the Australian National University in Canberra. The post is based on her article, which is entitled “Work/Life or Work/Work? Corporate Legal Practice in the Twenty-First Century” forthcoming in the International Journal of the Legal Profession and available here.