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According to merit?: Back on the career road

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Cite as: (2008) 82(10) LIJ, p. 76

While there are many ways to leave a career there are not so many ways back. It’s time to create “on ramps”.

A combination of work and family is not the ideal option for all parents and not all will choose to meet the demands of continuing to work either full-time or on a part-time juggling basis.

They choose instead to “opt out” of the workforce while their children are young.

This is not a recent phenomenon but it has been the subject of controversy in the US in recent years.

In an article published in the New York Times in 2003, Lisa Belkin drew attention to the “opt-out revolution” whereby highly educated women leave their successful professional careers after having children because they no longer define success as being on the fast track to legal partnership or conquering the world.1

Instead they are choosing to reject the workplace, give up the fight against “lingering double standards and chauvinism”, and are redefining “success”.2

While some of the women interviewed for Lisa Belkin’s article felt that they were letting the “cause” down by their decision to opt out, for most it was a pragmatic decision.

Katherine Brokaw, a litigator, had had a successful career in the law and was on the partnership track when she decided that the only reward she would gain from achieving partnership would be more money at the cost of any time with her three children.

She wished it had been possible to be both the parent she wanted to be and a partner in a law firm, but considered she had worn herself out trying to do both jobs well.3

Another female law graduate said of her decision not to work after having a family that she chose not to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight for some sister she did not even know, preferring to divert her energies at this time of her children’s life to being their mother.

One of the underlying themes to the interviews women gave for the Belkin article was their belief that this decision to be at home was not a permanent one.

“I am not a housewife. Is there still any such thing? I am doing what is right for me at the moment, not necessarily what is right for me forever.”4

Another spoke of her degree as her insurance policy for returning to work. For all the professional women interviewed in the article this was just one phase in a non-linear career and their expectations were that they would return to the workforce in the future on a part or full-time basis as the needs of their families changed.

The women were not dropping out of the profession on a permanent basis.

This was supported by the findings of a study on “on” and “off ramps” that found close to 40 per cent of women voluntarily leave their careers for some period of time.5

Not all women are motivated in this choice by the desire to have and be with their family but rather because they feel stalled in their careers, lack recognition by colleagues, and have limited control over careers and opportunities for advancement.6

The difficulty with this is that workplaces, especially the legal profession, are good at building off ramps and making it difficult for women, and men, to juggle work and family responsibilities, but are not equally successful at building on ramps.

In this context “off ramps” are the combination of circumstances that cause a woman not to work in her career of choice; whereas “on ramps” are opportunities for a woman to re-enter that career, while taking into account that she has not, for a period of time, participated in that career.7

There has been much discussion about Australia’s “brain drain”.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) estimates that there are 800,000 to 900,000 Australians living offshore on a permanent or long-term basis, including a number of lawyers.8 But there is a more significant and latent brain drain happening within the Australian legal profession with women lawyers not remaining in the profession nor assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers.

To reverse this trend we need to challenge traditional perceptions and look instead to client needs.

This involves recognition that all lawyers, unless in a corporate role, are available on a part-time basis to their clients.

Accordingly, it should be achievable to meet the needs of clients on a part-time basis.

The best mechanism for achieving this is determined by the firm in consultation with the client. This concept can be extended to incorporate situations where the lawyer is unavailable to the client not because she is meeting the needs of another client, but because she is not at work that day.

It requires flexibility on the part of the firm, the client and the lawyer – who may need to be prepared to be contactable on days when she is not in the office. It is not necessarily difficult or unachievable.

Rather than piecemeal solutions we need fundamental change in the structure of law firms towards different, practical roles which recognise and support different career tracks and different phases of employees’ working lives – on ramps.


LIZ BISHOP is a lecturer in health and human rights, Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash University. She is about to submit her SJD thesis investigating change in the position of women in the Victorian legal profession between 1996 and 2006.

1. Lisa Belkin, “The opt-out revolution”, The New York Times, 26 October 2003, see http://www.nytimes.com/2003/ 10/26/magazine/26WOMEN.html.

2. Note 1 above, p3.

3. Note 1 above, p5.

4. Tracey Van Hooser, interview in Lisa Belkin, note 1 above, p8.

5. S Hewlett, C Luce, P Shiller, S Southwell, “The hidden brain drain: off ramps and on ramps in women’s careers”, Harvard Business Review research report, (2005) Centre for Work-Life Policy, New York.

6. Ronit Dinovitzer et al, After the JD Study: First results of a national study of legal careers (2004), NALP Foundation and American Bar Foundation, see http://abfn.org/ajd.pdf.

7. Working hours that match school hours, job sharing, 48/52 work arrangements all offer “on ramp” opportunities.

8. See, http://www.dfat.gov.au/qwon/2002/qwn_020822d.html, accessed on 7 September 2007.


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