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Legal Talent & Inclusion

How to normalize work-family policies usage within workplace culture

Rangita de Silva de Alwis  Associate Dean of International Affairs / the University of Pennsylvania Law School

· 6 minute read

Rangita de Silva de Alwis  Associate Dean of International Affairs / the University of Pennsylvania Law School

· 6 minute read

A recent panel outlined the challenge of balancing the implementation of workplace family policies and the impact on careers of attorneys who use them

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg kept a photo hanging in her judicial chambers that showed her son gazing at his newborn baby. She explained the photo as her “dream for society” with “fathers loving and caring for and helping to raise their kids.”

As a fierce fighter for gender equality under the law, Justice Ginsberg often cited Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld as one of her favorite cases, which as a practicing lawyer she challenged in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case, the plaintiff Stephen Weisenfeld experienced discrimination against him as a male parent because he wanted to care personally for his child.

In particular, this case challenged societal and workplace norms in gender-based assumptions in caregiving and points to how — despite equality in workplace work-family policies — cultures at many legal employers and within society at large still reinforce imbalanced gender roles in caregiving and stigmatize the careers of attorneys who take advantage of these policies.

However, there are signs of progress within society, which is helping force workplaces to evolve. Recent research with Gen Z men at Penn Law School indicated that 88% of participants are likely-to-very-likely to use work-family policies; and 57% stated that they were likely not to be influenced by negative perceptions of taking advantage of these policies by their male peers and leadership at their employers.

I recently gave opening remarks at a virtual panel, hosted by Thomson Reuters, Setting C-Suites for Sea Change: Reevaluating Work-Family Policies and Workplace Culture Toward Greater Employment Equity & Inclusion, that outlined the challenge of balancing the implementation of work-family policies and the impact on careers of attorneys who use them. (This was the second installment of a three-part webinar series on advancing equity in leadership presented by the Thomson Reuters Institute’s Transforming Women’s Leadership initiative and the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School. You can see our coverage of the first webinar in the series here.)

Notably, all three employers of key panelists offer equal leave for both parents and equal access to policies outlining flexible work.

Men as users of workplace policies

As the panel discussed, the easy part is creating the policy, while the more difficult part is evolving the culture to encourage more men to use and remove the career stigma. To transform the culture successfully, panelist Megha Parekh, Chief Legal Officer at the Jacksonville Jaguars professional football team, noted there are several key components, including:

      • having senior leaders very deliberately model the good behavior in taking the leave and respecting the boundaries of those taking it when they are on leave;
      • encouraging people to take the actual leave;
      • reminding managers that when people are on leave to respect that leave; and
      • engaging in consistent dialogue in small group discussions about issues that parents of different genders face.

Diversity in leadership can normalize parental leave — Consistent demonstration of the ideal law firm culture and the behaviors associated with it by leaders is an essential element of any workplace cultural shift. Panelist Mark Wasserman, Managing Partner at Eversheds Sutherland (U.S.) and Co-CEO of Eversheds Sutherland Ltd., pointed out how having different perspectives at the executive leadership table is necessary to set the bar high for leaders to exhibit these behaviors.

Wasserman further explained how the practical experience of a having a majority-diverse executive committee at Eversheds Sutherland for the last five years had helped bring about assurances that in any decisions that impact the firm’s people, most of the considerations are evaluated and rigorously debated.

Importance of male leaders using work-family leave — Men as leaders and influencers within the organization need to demonstrate their use and support of the policies in order to increase the likelihood of junior lawyers, especially men, using the policies when needed. Panelist Susan Bright, U.K. Managing Partner and Global Managing Partner for Diversity and Inclusion at Hogan Lovells, recalled how the men who work part-time at the firm were able to observe a senior partner saying he had to cut a client meeting short to attend his son’s birthday party. This gave the men an important example that normalized acceptance of using the policies without career penalties.

Potential structural solutions — National governments, such as Sweden and Germany, and state governments, such as New Jersey, have offered illuminating incentives with some guiding principles and good practices for legal employers to consider enacting to enable gender equality and the father’s role in caregiving, the panel noted. These include:

      • offering job security along with leave to employees who need to take time off to care for a family member during the COVID-19 outbreak; and
      • employing financial incentives in the form of a bonus to those who take the full allotted time of parental leave.

The pandemic accelerated acceptance and flexibility — One of the silvering linings of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the acceleration of flexibility in when and where work gets done, even among many former executives who were against working outside of the office. According to the Jaguars’ Parekh, the idea that face time has been dismantled for the better allows employees to then be able to do work when they need to do work.

Panel moderator Neil Sternthal, Managing Director of Global Large Law & Canada at Thomson Reuters, explained how his thinking has changed after seeing what his female colleagues have been going through. “The competing pressures and expectations which weigh extremely heavily on women have been so apparent since the beginning of the pandemic. The unfair expectations, double standards, and reality of how difficult it is to conduct a very demanding career while also fulfilling family commitments are inequitable and unsustainable” Sternthal said.

Hopefully, the long-standing barrier in professional culture that has too often valorized going to work when you are sick or needed to attend family events — which to some degree deprioritized family life — is a phenomenon of the past. And perhaps one of the more positive aspects of the pandemic’s sudden switch in workplace flexibility and changing perceptions about caregiving has been the ability to see colleagues enduring the challenges of balancing work and family real time via web cam, and gaining the compassion and understanding that comes with that realization.

You can access Thomson Reuters’ virtual panel, Setting C-Suites for Sea Change: Reevaluating Work-Family Policies and Workplace Culture Toward Greater Employment Equity & Inclusion, here.