The alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., a not-so-gentle beginning to the day. The hour of quiet work before the rest of the family awakens always seems shorter than 60 minutes.
The demands of morning tasks pile up like rush-hour traffic. Packing and labeling snacks. Making lunches. Filling water bottles for the school day. Organizing backpacks. Trying to remember where homework assignments were stashed. Figuring out which day library books are due.
Once children are safely at daycare or school, the workday continues. Responding to emails. Returning and making phone calls. Attending meetings. Researching, preparing. Desperately trying to cross one more item off the to-do list.
It’s the life of working parents, a struggle for both men and women, but especially female attorneys.
While both male and female attorneys wear multiple hats throughout the day, this article focuses on the well-being of women including gender disparities that exist within the field of law, the impact of a global pandemic, and self-care techniques to increase resiliency and help to manage day-to-day pressures.
A silver lining to the calamitous past two years has been the spotlight finally put on the importance of well-being in the legal profession. Reports indicate that lawyers suffer from anxiety, depression, stress, and substance abuse at rates higher than the general population and other high-stress professions.1 As stakeholders in the field of law begin to take the mental health of its members more seriously, it’s also becoming apparent that these difficulties may not impact men and women equally.
There are significant statistical differences in mental health and attrition rates between male and female lawyers.2 Recent research indicates that female attorneys engage in hazardous drinking in markedly greater proportions than their male counterparts in both frequency and amount of alcohol consumed.3 Women lawyers are found to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety than male attorneys.4
Perhaps most concerning, some reports cite attrition rates 150% higher for women than men5 with one-quarter of women reporting that they’ve contemplated leaving the profession due to mental health concerns.6 Interestingly, while the possibility of promotion lowered attrition rates for male attorneys, this didn’t hold true for women — just 7% of men said they’d been passed over for promotion or advancement, compared to 53% of women.7 And while men cited overcommitment to work as the biggest reason for leaving, women overwhelmingly identified the work-family conflict as the primary driver.8
For women, the hardships that come with wearing many hats — mother, wife, attorney, sister, daughter, friend — can feel overwhelming at times.
The work-family conflict can certainly result from the seemingly insurmountable pressures of daily life. Women experience pressures to match the performance of their peers in the workplace while simultaneously juggling the expectation of keeping their children not just safe, but thriving — happy, healthy, active, resilient, self-sufficient, and filled with a constant stream of magical memories. Add to that the difficulty of finding safe and reliable childcare — a task that’s become harder and more expensive during the pandemic. According to a study commissioned by the Michigan Department of Education Office of Great Start, more than half of the state’s families live in areas with limited access to licensed childcare.9 No surprise, then, that women are leaving the workforce in record numbers, with an estimated 2.3 to 3 million nationally opting out during the 12-month period between September 2020 and September 2021 — four times the rate of men.10
If gender disparities existed within the field of law prior to the pandemic, some evidence suggests they are now exacerbated.11 A recent study conducted by Morning Consult determined that 1 in 5 women moved to part-time employment during the pandemic and 28% acknowledged turning down added work responsibilities.12
Amid all this, it’s important to recognize some current struggles are temporary. Children grow up and bathe themselves, drive themselves to school and extracurricular activities, and eventually learn how to get themselves organized, relieving some of life stresses. But for mothers who are currently working, trying to put in extra hours and match the output of coworkers, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that this, too, shall pass.
Every day, we see a variety of women in different stages of life. There’s the full-time lawyer who comes straight from the courtroom to her daughter’s soccer games in a full suit. There’s the part-time employee with two small children at home, concerned she’s passing up opportunities for growth and promotion. There’s the woman feeling successful and content in her career who wonders if having children will unravel what she has worked so hard to achieve. Studies show that more male attorneys than female attorneys are married with children, another indicator that women are acutely aware of the work-family conflict.13
Wherever you are in your journey as an employee, as a woman, or as a working mother, you are not alone. Here are three practical ways women can take care of themselves while seeking personal and professional well-being.
SET HEALTHY LIMITS AND BOUNDARIES
With more employers operating virtually during the pandemic, many women acknowledged greater work flexibility; however, they said this flexibility resulted in increased work demands14 with additional responsibilities, longer workdays, and their employers’ near-constant accessibility to them as sources of stress.
As we step into a new normal, it’s more important than ever to set healthy limits. It’s been noted that many lawyers are reluctant to set work-related boundaries, with catastrophic consequences to mental and emotional health.15 While it may not be possible to totally separate work from other facets of life, setting and sticking to just one new boundary may add back valuable minutes to the day with profound results.
For example, check email three times per day instead of 30 and notify clients and colleagues when they can expect to hear back from you (and when they cannot.) Set mobile devices to “do not disturb” during dinner and other personal times. Carve out space for a daily 20-minute walk and leave your smartphones at home. To the extent possible, limit the number of overly stressful cases on your caseload. Better boundaries lead to better lawyers.16
CONNECT WITH OTHERS
Many of the struggles working women face can feel isolating. Women may avoid discussing hardships related to work-life balance for fear of being targeted as a “problem employee,”17 but it’s time to lean into our vulnerabilities and step forth with honest conversations about the realities we face. Finding others who share similar experiences can validate feelings and decrease the sense of loneliness. Connect with female colleagues, friends, and family members through a women’s lawyers association, book club, Saturday morning coffee hour — however you do it, create and foster connections.
Self-compassion is simply extending the same grace and consideration to oneself as you would to others. Instead of criticizing yourself for inadequacies and shortcomings, be kind and understanding. Legal professionals are often tasked with cultivating empathy for others and helping to alleviate their distress and witness firsthand how profound the extension of grace can be for clients. Now imagine what it can do when you extend toward yourself. Self-compassion is connected to overall well-being and mental health including greater life satisfaction, happiness, and emotional intelligence.18 It has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, stress, and the desire for perfectionism.19 There is no better time than now to extend grace to ourselves and others.
Women lawyers face intense personal and professional pressure. This article shows that very real gender disparities exist within the legal sector in terms of mental health and attrition, and a global pandemic has impacted women from all walks of life. The good news? Women are not alone, support is available, and, like most things, these current stressors will pass. Take a deep breath, find peace in the moment, and reach out to the SBM Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program to learn about additional avenues of support.