Friday, January 25, 2008

Mommy tracks disguised as flex time?

Lisa Belkin's "Life's Work" column in the NYTimes' Thursday Fashion and Style page, "Who's Cuddly Now? Law Firms," chronicles the trend among law firms, large and small, to create flex time work options for lawyers. (It is the most emailed story this morning, a day after its publication.) Why are more firms finally taking this step? According to Belkin, it is because Gen Y'ers are essentially demanding it, and firms want to stay competitive to attract the best talent. It's just what we were discussing in class on Tuesday.

What's largely missing from this story is the gender component, which we also debated on Tuesday. The story features this anecdote, which like most of the article treats the flex time phenomenon as a work-family issue, NOT a gender issue.

A harbinger of changing times might well be the brief filed by the hard-driving white-shoe firm of Weil Gotshal & Manges of New York, asking a judge to reschedule hearings set for Dec. 18, 19, 20 and 27 of last year.

“Those dates are smack in the middle of our children’s winter breaks, which are sometimes the only times to be with our children,” the lawyers wrote.

The judge moved the hearings.

At other points, Belkin makes fleeting, almost incidental mention of gender. One of the many examples of new family-friendly policies is a law firm with longer paid parental leave times for women than for men, but the bigger point seems to be that male associates are also getting parental leave. Belkin goes on to document client demand for changes to billable structures and also the "generational component" as reasons law firms are finally budging.

Belkin's observation that women's demands alone were insufficient to bring about these changes is interesting, but I'm surprised that her mention of gender is merely in passing and that she does not mention the "mommy track." After all, Lisa Belkin is the journalist who famously brought us that NYT Magazine cover story in 2003: "The Opt-Out Generation." It depicted scores of highly educated, high-powered women opting of out their careers to stay home with their children. That story created some controversy among feminists, some of whom thought Belkin had been a bit too selective about those she featured in the story. Some thought she was too keen to prove her point and had overlooked evidence contrary to her thesis about women's choices.

Perhaps only time will tell whether this new generation of family-friendly policies will have highly gendered consequences -- that is, whether they will prove to be "mommy tracks" by another name. I am all for more options, but if many more women than men "choose" flex time (with its salary and promotion downsides), then women will continue to be economically marginalized (compared, that is, to others with similar education, within their socioeconomic stratum) and the ideal (aka male) worker will still reign in the legal profession.

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