• Blog

Working from home: An opportunity for improving gender equality

  • Jessica Woodhouse
Read Jessica Woodhouse's Profile
Jessica Woodhouse

Jessica Woodhouse

Vice President

Former Vice President, LicenseLogix

There may be a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite its devastating impact both on human life and the global economy, women in the workforce may benefit from the move to remote working. This was the view of the GCs and senior in-house lawyers who participated in Burford’s 2020 Equity Project Study.

Several senior in-house lawyers interviewed for the research noted that the shift toward remote working is in many circumstances normalizing work from home arrangements and adjusting expectations in a way that levels the playing field for women. The pandemic may act as a force multiplier for gender equality in white-collar workplaces where presenteeism is still part and parcel of the culture, particularly for law firms.

Barriers to Gender Equality

The 2020 Equity Project Study is a groundbreaking report based on interviews with 77 general counsel and senior in-house lawyers. Of those interviewed, almost 60 percent cited external factors such as bias, historical inertia and work-life balance as primary obstacles to improving gender equity, particularly as it pertains to high-stakes commercial litigation.

Law firm expectations around facetime in the office and with clients creates a barrier for women lawyers, particularly as women are often still tasked with the lion’s share of domestic and caregiving responsibilities. For years, law firms have been unreceptive to working from home arrangements and the childcare needs of lawyers, both of which tend to penalize women more than men.

As a GC of a publicly traded software company put it: “People for the wrong reasons may fear that in a certain age period, a female lawyer may be less reliable because she takes parental leave… With a very outdated perspective, one might assume that men don’t face that challenge.”

The desire to balance a private life with the ideal worker paradigm—a professional who comes in early and stays late, never having to rush to pick up a sick child from school—is viewed by law firm management at some Big Law firms to mean that women lawyers are less committed to career advancement or the firm.

These unconscious biases explain why law firm management tend to favor and reward male lawyers who are more frequently physically present in the office, regardless of efficiency or value added for clients.

Equity Project Champion and White & Case partner Tara Lee describes how frustrating it is to be judged on a criteria that ultimately adds no objective value: “When I was an associate and worked in places with a facetime culture, I was definitely resentful any time my work was done but I was still unable to leave until the last partner left the building. That was torture when I would much rather have been at home for the evening with my small child.”

While there is some research to suggest women are falling behind as they take on the brunt of the domestic responsibilities, a recent survey by nonprofit Catalyst found that seven in 10 employees believed that COVID-19 will stimulate gender equity in the workplace. Moreover, eight in 10 business leaders believed the pandemic will eventually result in a more inclusive workplace for people of color. (The report, conducted in early June, surveyed 1,100 U.S. business leaders and employees).

How the Pandemic is Changing the Rules

The pandemic and the enforced government lockdowns across many parts of the world have triggered a shift in approach to remote working by companies and in particular by law firms where presenteeism is engrained in the culture.

With the ironclad rules that governed the office workspace disappearing overnight, zero facetime and fluid working hours are now part of everyday life.

Research conducted by Stanford University found that remote workers are often more productive, dedicated and engaged than their in-office counterparts, working longer hours than they would if they were in the office. As law firm management sees that lawyers can be just as productive, if not more so, outside of the office environment, this may change the perception of remote working into something more commonplace and widely accepted.

“Women have long been more equipped to deal with the high levels of efficiency required by remote work so firms will embrace those models and female professionals will earn greater rewards as a result,” commented a CLO in the 2020 Equity Project Study

In fact, our study showed that 21 percent of law firm clients perceive women litigators’ work to be more efficient when it comes to understanding budgets and business needs. Perhaps this is because women are more used to juggling work commitments with outside responsibilities.

It is important that we take the lessons learned from this time of remote working and cement changes that benefit both businesses and individuals looking for a better work-life balance. We should use this as an opportunity to make the workplace more equitable and hospitable to working parents and caregivers—accomplishing in a few months goals that have eluded us for years.

This article was originally published in the New York Law Journal and can be found here