On May Day and Mat Leaves

Happy May Day all! A day for celebrating the labour movement, gathering community, and strengthening the search for greater workers’ rights everywhere.

On May Day, we celebrate and support vulnerable and embattled workers as if they are outside our profession. But we’d like to return yet again to the issue of retaining women in the legal profession, and ask why, as a profession, we are so bad at turning that critical gaze inwards. An April 2013 study commissioned by the Law Society of Upper Canada and authored by Fiona M. Kay, Stacey Alarie, and Jones Adjei of Queen’s University tells us what we already know: women are at greater risk of leaving private practice, especially when they have more than one child, while men are more likely to remain in private practice with growing families. And parental leaves remain impediments for women’s success in private practice.

The authors of the study find that women lawyers continue to have their career commitments questioned by their colleagues and law firm management. More specifically, women’s choice to have children is often perceived poorly by employers. This is certainly apparent in the conversations we are having with our big firm female colleagues about maternity leaves and prospects for advancement within their firms. Female parenting lawyers worry that taking more than one maternity leave will be poorly viewed by law firm partners as indicative of a lack of dedication or lack of commitment to their practices. And this is despite the fact that our colleagues returning from maternity leave are promised part-time hours but work full-time, are (often) paying for (expensive) child care to facilitate their work productivity, and are typically allotting one day a week for working until midnight in order to be present for their families the rest of the week. One variation of this narrative heard recently at Galldin Robertson is of a woman who stayed at her office to toil away at files until she dropped into sleep on a couch at her office; this weeknight practice had become routine and was the night that her kids simply just did not see their mother. This level of discipline, and parenting female lawyers are not committed??

Uneven criteria for partnership also works against parenting female lawyers. They are told that the time that they spent away from their practice on parental leave simply cannot count as tenure for their partnership application. So what’s the big deal about making partner a year or two after your male (or non-parenting) counterparts? Certainly, you make less money. But as a colleague explained to us, it’s not only about compensation. It’s about being affirmed as an esteemed team member who has contributed to the workplace in vast and valuable ways. Being made partner says that the loyalty that you’ve directed towards your law firm is paid back to you, by way of an invitation to join your most respected colleagues in helming the law firm’s future and being acknowledged publicly as a decision-maker within the business. Parenting female lawyers who are not treated the same as other associates in partnership matters will feel that their dignity has been impacted. There is no doubt about that. Ask anyone who works towards a goal and is subsequently told it’s not attainable – you feel singled out, judged, and demeaned compared to others who obtain that goal.

The authors of the LSUC study conclude that we need to investigate how women are treated upon return from parental leaves and whether women are held to a higher standard than their male colleagues upon their return from a parental leave.

Great. But in addition, we’d also like to see conversations about the explicitly gendered nature of child-bearing in legal workplaces, about the fact that male associates don’t take long leaves because they’re (typically) not the partner who needs to provide direct care to a newborn, and/or because they simply know and assume that their female partners will take a full year of maternity leave if available to them. We see male associates, whose (non-lawyer) partners give birth, blithely take two to four weeks of parental leave. And shortly thereafter, they are made partner.

Before you head out onto the streets to join marches, don red attire, or tweet support for better working conditions on May Day, ask yourself: is my law firm doing everything it can to support women’s longevity in practice? Am I actively questioning my biases about parenting, leaves, and entitlements to “rewards” like partnership status? And am I supporting parental leaves and healthy family lives for everyone I work with? The recent LSUC study says (like a broken record) that none of us are doing enough, and as a result, women are leaving this profession. So we’re sending our fists up for mothers in law firm practice today – this May Day’s for you.



  1. Lisa Di Valentino

    “Parenting female lawyers who are not treated the same as other associates in partnership matters will feel that their dignity has been impacted.”

    How are parenting female lawyers being treated differently from any other associate who takes an extended period of time away from the firm? Are they working on files during the time they’re on maternity leave?