Do Caretakers Receive Disparate Treatment?

Mon, August 6, 2007


Hello, folks, I’m Lawyer Mama, pinch hitting for Pundit Mom today.

Last weekend at BlogHer, I had the privilege of meeting PM and at breakfast one morning we had a fascinating discussion about the law, law firms, and balancing work and motherhood. (As you may know, PM is a recovering attorney, having wisely abandoned the law in favor of journalism.) Well, really our conversation was a rant on my part, but Joanne humored me nicely. Our talk, however, reminded me of one of Joanne’s recent posts and sparked the inspiration for my topic today

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a senior male associate in my firm, a young (first year) female associate, and a summer associate (law student). For some reason, the topic of conversation shifted to advancement to partner within the firm. My male colleague informed us that he felt women were failing to “self-market” themselves within the firm, thus hurting their ability to work with key clients and hurting their chances for making partner. His examples? The failure of many women to attend the Friday afternoon Happy Hours for attorneys at a club in our building and the firm’s yearly out of town golf event.

At first I was politely listening to his concerns, but then I was confused. I explained to my male colleague that, while I did not play golf and would never be attending such an outing, I did make it a habit to attend Happy Hours when my schedule and my family allowed. My confusion stemmed from the fact that I had never noticed a failure to obtain good work from key clients in the past and that I feel I have a good working relationship with all of the partners in my department.

Upon closer questioning, my male colleague informed us that he and other male associates felt that “the women” were hurting themselves by not hanging with the guys and that we did so at our own peril. At that point my confusion passed into anger because I realized that while he was saying “the women,” he was actually referring to “the mommies.” Moreover, he was telling these two young women with us, one an engaged law student, the other an unmarried first year associate, that they could not be mothers and partners, or even very good lawyer.

For lack of a better way to express my feelings, that pissed me off.

I brought up an incident at a Happy Hour where another male colleague had pointedly ignored his ringing cell phone because it was his stay-at-home wife (caring for toddler twins all day) calling to find out when he would be home. I would k.i.l.l. my husband if he were so cavalier about my feelings and free time. Kudos to his wife, she finally gave up and called the bar and, of course, reached her husband immediately. I guess it’s hard to get the female bartender glaring daggers at you to lie to your wife. But my point was, many of the men in our firm have wives who don’t work full time outside the home. And of those who do, guess whose career is considered more important? Guess whose free time is considered more important?

I cannot fault every male, or even every male attorney for this. I know there are exceptions to the rule. I happen to be married to one of them. But I quickly pointed out that women, even if they work, tend to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities. If the children have to be picked up from daycare by 6pm on Friday, a Happy Hour isn’t going to keep me from doing it. And it angers me to think that there is a perception that I am somehow slacking at my job because of it. Clearly, even though I make an effort to internally market in my own way, there is a perception that all of “the mommies” are either slacking off or expecting special treatment.

In a post in early July, Pundit Mom brought to my attention a little known EEOC guidance document regarding how EEOC rules apply to workers with “caregiving responsibilities.” PM talked about this guidance document in relation to the so called “opt out revolution,” with professional women leaving the work force to care for families in increasing numbers.

The EEOC guidance document and its accompanying Q&A remind employers that there are some circumstances where discrimination against a worker who is a caregiver might constitute unlawful disparate treatment under federal EEO law:

* Treating male caregivers more favorably than female caregivers: Denying women with young children an employment opportunity that is available to men with young children.

* Sex-based stereotyping of working women:

o Reassigning a woman to less desirable projects based on the assumption that, as a new mother, she will be less committed to her job.
o Reducing a female employee’s workload after she assumes full-time care of her niece and nephew based on the assumption that, as a female caregiver, she will not want to work overtime.

* Subjective decisionmaking: Lowering subjective evaluations of a female employee’s work performance after she becomes the primary caregiver of her grandchildren, despite the absence of an actual decline in work performance.

* Assumptions about pregnant workers: Limiting a pregnant worker’s job duties based on pregnancy-related stereotypes.

* Discrimination against working fathers: Denying a male caregiver leave to care for an infant under circumstances where such leave would be granted to a female caregiver.

* Discrimination against women of color: Reassigning a Latina worker to a lower-paying position after she becomes pregnant.

* Stereotyping based on association with an individual with a disability: Refusing to hire a worker who is a single parent of a child with a disability based on the assumption that caregiving responsibilities will make the worker unreliable.

* Hostile work environment affecting caregivers:

o Subjecting a female worker to severe or pervasive harassment because she is a mother with young children.
o Subjecting a female worker to severe or pervasive harassment because she is pregnant or has taken maternity leave.
o Subjecting a worker to severe or pervasive harassment because his wife has a disability.

Some of the actions listed above may seem severe or obvious violations, but some of them were a wake up call for me.

While my firm has family friendly policies and management to enforce them, not all people share the egalitarian views of the senior partners in my firm. Frankly, that scares me. The senior male associate in my firm, convinced that the mommies aren’t partner material, may one day be the managing partner. Only by making family friendly policies a fact of work life will we begin to change improper perceptions about caretakers and begin to regain some much needed balance in our lives.

What do you think? In your experience, have caretakers faced more or fewer obstacles in the professional work force?

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21 Responses to “Do Caretakers Receive Disparate Treatment?”

  1. SUEB0B Says:

    As a non-caretaker, I have also faced discrimination. I watched as a young man who had gotten his GF pregnant, then married her, was given a salary almost as large as mine when I had 14 more years experience than he did. The owner said “He has a family and needs the money.”

    So because I decided to forgo having children I knew I couldn’t support, I didn’t NEED the money?

    I have also faced situations where parents are cut all kinds of slack to attend parent-child events, but the single folk are expected to slave after hours with none of the same flexibility. I believe that parents should have this flexibility, but that everyone else should, too.

    Just the other side of the coin.

  2. Lawyer Mama Says:

    Suebob – Having been a lawyer more years as a non-parent than a parent, I see your point. But, the scenario you raised doesn’t really apply in my job. I have my clients, my cases, my professional responsibilities. There’s no one to pick up my slack. If it doesn’t get done, I get sued for malpractice.

    I realize I’m in an odd situation. I don’t punch a time clock and no one cares if I leave in the middle of the day to take my kids to the doctor. All attorneys in my firm – parents or not – have the same flexibility.

    I’m not talking about situations where someone is clearly more qualified. That’s a no brainer & what happened to you is clearly wrong. I’m talking about the gray area where you have 2 parents, 1 male, 1 female. Both do the same work equally as well, but 1 is responsible for her children and the other has a spouse at home. Is a perception that the female worker isn’t as competent fair? Of course not. But I see it happening all the time.

  3. Julie Pippert Says:

    Am having mucho trouble tonight!

    Okay awesome post with excellent points.

    In short, yes, I do think there are more obstacles. It comes from role changes and expectations. Women don’t expect to have to give up the careers they expect to have. And yet, by trying to balance the work and family, end up, as in your case with the senior associate, facing obstacles and bias against them.

    But I think men face it too, just not in the same way or as badly.

    I think men are more likely to think of family differently than women—possibly largely due to traditional role models our generation still saw.

    Which, now that women are staying home in increasing numbers, begs the question where this will go since our children now see a similar more traditional example in many cases.

    In general, if you have a family, you are thought of as a possible liability unless you prove willingness to jettison responsibility there for preference to the company.

    And that right there? is the beginning of the dysfunction in my opinion.

    Ravin’ Picture Maven

  4. jen Says:

    i am freaking applauding you over here. i was recently told at my job “that since i had to stay home when M was sick that i would never make it as a ______” i wanted to kill. but you know, i cried instead. and i almost fell for it.

    but now and after processing it i want to kick that glass ceiling in it’s ass. this is a terrific post.

  5. Moondance Says:

    I was one year from partnership when I got pregnant (but at 36, I wasn’t willing to wait). I was up front with the partners that my husband was going to be the one picking up the baby, etc., since he was self employed. I absolutely felt like they expected to get less out of me once I became a mother. However, one lawyer a year ahead of me had three kids in three years, and he spent alot of time at home with his stay at home wife after each birth. It seemsed to me that the firm was very parent friendly.

    However, one partner who became a friend did confess that if his wife did not do 90% of the housework and 80% of the childcare for two schoolage daughters, he would not be able to function at the same level in the office. So I do feel that although it was not targeted at women, there was definately a feeling that the firm required a lot from you and if you did not have help at home (whether you were the husband or the wife), you might not be able to hack it.

    But maybe I’m just projecting.

  6. PT-LawMom Says:

    I can’t believe he said that to a summer, much less to you. I hate to say it, but not only do they really believe this crap, I don’t think they even hear themselves or think they’re wrong. Maybe it’s because they *aren’t* mothers, they think that anyone can just outsource everything and make it work. They don’t seem to understand that maybe we actually want to be involved in our kids’ lives. I have worked for several male partners in my years as a legal secretary and, between their e-mail messages and their conversations, I know they say things to each other they would NEVER say to a woman.

    I see three ways in which this may change in the years to come. 1) Some of the boomer partners are going to wake up and realize the sacrifices they made and counsel the younger generation not to make the same ones; 2) the highly talented women that are diving off the tracks at these firms are going to open their own firms and find wonderful clients who appreciate their talents and could care less from where and when they get the job done as long as it gets done; or 3) the women who have worked their asses off and feel like they have paid their dues are not going to let some slimy, old school chauvinist prevent them from attaining a position they deserve – they are going to take time for their families and assert their rights (see the EEOC policy you mention).

    Fantastic post, LM. :)

  7. KC Says:

    I went to a “meet the professor” lunch at a medical conference with an accomplished female full professor of medicine (not many of those) and she advised women to make up for not being there on the golf course by being seen in other ways: eating lunch in the cafeteria, not at your desks, getting out there, giving noon lectures in the hospital, being seen. Part of being that in-group is being seen and known in the social work circle. It is political- and social.

  8. Jenny Says:

    My husband is a college professor (very flexible schedule, progressive coworkers) and has faced a lot of negativity about being a dad. Many of his childless coworkers make comments when he leaves at 2:30 to pick the girls up from the sitter; although he arrived at 6:30 and will work more at home. It hasn’t impacted his advancement, he just got tenure, but it adds a level of stress that we could certainly do without. I found it surprising from such liberal, typically open-minded folks. I guess it can happen anywhere.

  9. Lawyer Mama Says:

    KC – You’re exactly right. That’s how I self market and I encourage younger lawyers to do so also. Personally, I think I get a lot more actual quality face time with a partner if we go to lunch than we would if we were part of a foursome golfing.

  10. canape Says:

    Okay, I’m not answering your question, but I thought you might get a chuckle (or a shudder) out of this.

    After I took the LSAT, my daddy, a seersucker wearing Southern lahwyer, says to me,

    “Well I’m not paying for law school. You’ll just practice for a few years and then have kids. It’s a waste of money.”

    Bless his heart.

  11. Karianna Says:

    This sort of thing makes me so angry that I’ve written and re-written my comment.

    The assumptions and expectations of women are more stringent. I have a very difficult time being both a paid worker and a housewife/mother. I can’t imagine being able to do a Happy Hour! And yet, I know my husband does them all the time…

    Unfortunately, I do think that mothers may have a harder time meeting certain responsibilities – not because of lack of dedication, but because of lack of time since NOBODY ELSE will help. The father can brush it off, knowing his wife will take care of it. But the reverse is not true.

    I’ve heard the stuff about single folks being worked to the bone that Suebob mentions too, although not experienced it. Really, there should be a “personal time” sort of expectation that can be used in a variety of different ways. But of course, the schmuck who decides to use his “personal time” to go golf will get the leg up, and so forth!

  12. mcewen Says:

    Great post, and depressingly true from every complex angle.
    best wishes

  13. Jenn Says:

    More obstacles, definitely, I believe for the caretaker.

    Not that I don’t understand the obstacles of the non-caretaker, I do, and each side of the coin probably looks equally shiny, depends on who is holding it.

    But having been in both positions, I have to say the track that the caretaker is racing has far more hurdles.

  14. dana Says:

    This situation is way too familiar to me. I work for a company I love. I love my job and I have to admit this is the first job I really and truly wake up wanting to go to.

    However, there is an “old boys club” in my company. The owners are traditionalists as in the men are the “leaders” and the women are the “nurturers” (I kid you not, my boss actually said this.)

    All the men in the company get invited to golf outings, Brewers games and after work drinks. The women without children are invited, too, but the women with kids or families are not included (unless we actually ask to come, too).

    I have responsibilities at home, so I don’t really get that bent out of shape — but I still feel discriminated against.

    And worse, I noticed the women in the company who go to these events seem to get better promotions and/or raises. It really sucks.

    I’m not due for an evaluation or raise until December, but I’m tempted to bring this stuff up. I’m just kind of scared!

  15. moosh in indy. Says:

    Girl, as a SAHM I admire what you do, especially given the future of my husband. I see how much work it is. In thirty years it’s going to be far more important that you were there for your kids than if you were there for happy hour. As those occasions come up more and more I worry more and more because Cody does put us first and he also doesn’t drink. Because he holds himself to different standards I know damn well he is going to be given a hard time. And it sucks. Because I believe you have a very different work ethic as a parent, whether your are a lawyer or a waitress or even a SAHM.
    I’ve realized there’s always going to be someone who has a problem with what you’re doing even if you’re doing everything perfectly.
    I adore you. Mad props to my worker mom peeps.

  16. Stephanie Says:

    You have some very valid points here, and I have experienced them first-hand.

    When I was in management at a medical services company, it was absolutely expected that I attend happy hour with the executives. To declare that one had family committments was to have your loyalty and work ethic questioned and open your work up to unfair scrutiny. As I was young, single, and childless, I was able to play the game, but I always noted the disparity.

    Now, as a working mom, I have deliberately placed myself under the glass ceiling. That is, I have chosen a position from which there is very, very little opportunity for advancement. It is not that I could not handle more responsibility; it is that I want to spare myself any frustration with that corporate game.

    Now, I am comfortable with this decision as I believe it was the right one for me and for my family. But how many other women make this same decision? How much talent is the workforce deprived of because of these same workplace practices? Carol Evans addressed these topics in her book This Is How We Do It.

    It makes me sad. Our mothers and grandmothers fought so that we could have choices, and yet we are still limited.

    My husband — a doctor/scientist — has MUCH more freedom in his job to be a family man than I have EVER had in any of mine, and he doesn’t have to prove himself. It seems that women always do.

    I sincerely applaud this post of yours.

  17. the weirdgirl Says:

    My husband is a CPA and I used to hear this same sort of crap when he worked in the big accounting firms. They would flat out say things like “so-and-so working mom just blew it because she was pregnant during busy season”. It was almost if the attitude was, well if she really wanted to succeed she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant then. And there were definitely lower expectations of the moms.

    Sadly, when my husband was first out of school I think he bought into this a little, too. Now that he’s older and has worked with some great working mothers I’m happy to say he thinks the big firm policies are bullshit. He has so much more respect for those who can get their work done, than for those who spend their time schmoozing at happy hour.

    As for me, I am definitely an opt-out working mom. I work part time, mainly from home, as a contractor in marketing. You’d think it would hurt your job options, but in my field there are always people looking for good contractors and I usually get referrals or old bosses calling. I get the flexibility I need and I don’t have to deal with office politics.

  18. Lawyer Mama Says:

    Thanks for all your thoughtful comments. I’m sad to see that this is not a phenomenon limited to the law.

    All this talk about Happy Hours reminded me of another sticky working girl scenario. Me, newly pregnant and not yet wanting to announce it, sneaking over to the bar tender to get her to pretend that my Diet Coke was actually a rum & coke! The things we do to play the game….

  19. ewe are here Says:

    Great post.

    It never ceases to anger me / drive me insane to hear men justify not hiring women with children or treating such women poorly at work (by not promoting them, etc.) because they have a family. Epecially when they, too, have children, but know their wives will pick up the slack at home for them. Don’t they realize or care that their own wives are facing the same problems? Sadly, probably not.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    So glad to have found your blog… I worry that women pass judgment on other women in this area as well. I am a 30ish lawyer trying to get pregnant and agonizing about how I will spin this at work. The moms in my firm were all in their late 30s and 40s when they had their children, having dedicated a number of years to their career before starting their family. I am worried that, having paid their dues, they will be less than impressed with me for starting a family before I have paid mine.

    I am pretty sure that my husband doesn’t think starting a family will sabotage his career…

  21. PunditMom Says:

    LM, Thanks so much for this wonderful post and taking this great discussion a step further!

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