Women and Burnout
Part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog post series.
Every single day it seems there are new articles coming out about working mothers being unable to cope with the stress of remote learning, work, and other responsibilities during the pandemic. I have read that working moms feel forgotten, working moms are stretched to the limit, America’s mothers are in crisis, and that 80% of the 346,000 individuals who have stopped working or looking for work in January 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic are women.
The pandemic has exposed to others what has long been the reality for working mothers: they face an unequal burden when it comes to child rearing, housework, and consequently the workplace. We’ve long known that caring for children harms women’s earning potential, but not men’s. Why? Because women do the overwhelming majority of the household chores, the school drop-offs and pickups, the doctors’ appointments, the children’s sick days, etc. Women undoubtedly pay the price of these sacrifices when it comes to salaries and promotions. Yet, women have been tasked with “leaning in,” and with questioning whether we can “have it all.” Well, we can’t have it all, and there is only so much one can lean in without help.
This gender disparity is particularly pronounced in the legal profession. Despite the fact that women comprise more than half of all US law school graduates, “[i]n large law firms, women represent about 19% of equity partners nationwide. Among corporations, women now comprise 28% of general counsel. In a study published in 2015, the ABA reported that among lawyers appearing as lead counsel in civil federal litigation, a whopping 76% were men and only 24% were women. The class action bar is even more skewed. Of the lawyers who designated themselves as lead counsel in a federal class action, 87% were male.”
It seems organizations continue to do CLEs, projects, studies, etc, to figure out why women are leaving the legal profession. The answer to me is clear. It is burnout.
The fact is that the legal profession is hostile to working parents, and to working mothers in particular, given the gender disparities in childcare responsibilities. Consider the fact that the average work week for a U.S. attorney is 66 hours per week. This can be even more pronounced in a Big Law setting with rigorous billable hours requirements.
Sixty-six hours a week averages to be more than nine hours of work times seven days. Now consider the amount of time it takes to parent, to correct the homework, to give baths, and put children to bed. It leaves hardly any time for seven hours of sleep let alone self-care. No wonder why attorney mothers feel resentful, overwhelmed, exhausted, stretched to the limit and burned out.
While working mothers bear the brunt of these untenable work requirements, the broader problem is that these requirements are a disservice to men, women, and children. I’ve heard the legal profession described as a “pie eating contest where the prize is more pie.” The billable hour requirement commodifies our extensive time in a deeply unhealthy way. Sleep deprived, overworked, and burned out attorneys are not the best attorneys. Attorney suicides, substance abuse, and mental health issues all stem from the exact same source: an untenable system.
It’s time we stop asking ourselves why the gender disparity in wages, partnerships, and judgeships persist. It’s time we stop asking ourselves why attorneys top the lists of professions most likely to commit suicide and suffer substance abuse issues. The real question is why does our profession continue to commodify human beings as though their lives outside of work do not exist?
Our profession is more than a profession. For many of us, becoming a lawyer was the manifestation of a calling to do justice in this world. It is our duty as attorneys to push back against what has become the norm. We must retake control of our schedules and our boundaries, and allow ourselves to lean into our lives more fully in a deliberate and fulfilling manner.
My hope is that what has been necessarily and unequivocally exposed by the pandemic leads to lasting change in the legal profession. Remote work and remote hearings can alleviate the burden on all of us. More importantly, we all must recognize that our work-life balance must be more than just lip service. If there’s anything we have learned from this pandemic, it is that life is too short to gorge on pie for the sake of eating pie.
AILA members may find this upcoming free video roundtable of interest on March 10, 2021 when the discussion focuses on “Inspired by Women: Creating Your Personal Vision for Success” – more information regarding registration is available via this link.