Women Lawyers and Gender Bias: The Mommy Track Can Kill Your Salary

The ABA Journal recently published an article which suggested that unemployed women lawyers should remain hopeful about their careers. Why? Because according to 2009 Labor Department statistics, being a lawyer is “a good gig for women who want to earn big bucks.” Based on those statistics, Forbes magazine compiled a list of the 10 best-paying jobs for salaried women employees working full-time. Women lawyers earned a median salary of $75,000 in 2009, ranking them in third place behind pharmacists and chief executives.

While a third place ranking is certainly respectable, Forbes noted that women lawyers are making only 75% of men’s earnings in the same profession. Meanwhile, according to U.S. News, the median annual salary for lawyers of unspecified gender is $113,000. Based on these statistics, it is obvious that there is still a gender wage gap in the legal profession. Why does the gender wage gap still exist, and what can women lawyers do to level the playing field?

Is the Mommy Track a New Form of Gender Bias?

Despite inroads made by women at the nation’s top law firms, a new two-level system is emerging in the legal profession, with women on the bottom. – Women in the Law Say Path Is Limited by ‘Mommy Track’ – New York Times, 1988

The New York Times hints that the mommy track problem for women lawyers began some time in the mid-to-late 1980s. By definition, the mommy track is “a career path determined by work arrangements offering mothers certain benefits, such as flexible hours, but usually providing them with fewer opportunities for advancement.” In the late 1980s, although women lawyers had made great strides in the legal profession, there was still a large gender wage gap due to women lawyers being forced onto the mommy track.

Now, in 2011, when presented with Forbes’ salary statistics, some would still assume that women lawyers are earning less than their male counterparts due to family obligations. After all, even Vivia Chen of The Careerist believes that young women lawyers are overly concerned about balancing work and family.

However, a study entitled “New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling?” found that women lawyers are not precluded from earning higher wagers because of their families. Rather, factors such as stereotyping and gender bias contribute to the wage gap in the legal profession. For example, the Gender Bias Learning Project of the UC Hastings College of Law Center for Work Life Law suggests that the four most prevalent patterns of gender bias are as follows:

  • Prove It Again: when women have to work twice as hard to get half as far
  • Double Bind: when women must choose between being liked and being respected
  • Maternal Wall: when mothers are assumed to be incompetent and uncommitted
  • Gender Wars: when gender bias turns into conflicts among women

If the “maternal wall,” or the mommy track, as we know it, is a form of gender bias, then women lawyers are, in fact, being precluded from higher earning potential because of their family obligations.

How Can We Become Rainmakers?

With gender bias abound for women lawyers in the legal profession, how can we rise above it in order to become successful? Women lawyers should strive to become better rainmakers to increase their salaries, despite their family obligations.

Alison Wolf of The Lawyer Coach Blog suggests that business development skills, such as using language to build or maintain client relationships, can help women lawyers advance in the legal profession. Martha Newman of TopLawyerCoach also believes that in order to become successful rainmakers, women lawyers must “use interpersonal marketing to develop strong client relationships and win confidence.”

These tips bring us full circle to Lawyerist’s last foray into the struggles of being a female attorney: how are we supposed to build a rapport with existing or new clients if we can’t network efficiently?

Pat Gillette, founder of the Opt-In Project, believes that she may have the answer. In an interview with The Glass Hammer, Ms. Gillette shared her views on the gender wage gap in the legal profession, and how women lawyers can overcome it.

“Women need to learn . . . how to let go of their tendency to say that money is not important to them.” Pat believes women lawyers end up bargaining against themselves, accepting less valuable assignments and responsibilities based on false assumptions that the firm will recognize their unique skills.

There you have it: women lawyers need assert themselves and accept the fact that money is important. Gender bias can certainly undermine women lawyers’ attempts at rainmaking, but if we don’t try, we may never be able to close the gender wage gap.



  1. Avatar BL1Y says:

    It is plainly false that women have to “work twice as hard to get half as far.” After 8 years are women still compensated as second year attorneys? No. Does consideration for partnership begin at year 40 instead of year 10? Nope.

    So women have to work some degree harder than men? Probably so. But, that is no excuse for gross hyperbole. Making claims that are so clearly not backed up by the facts does not advance women, even if it does, make for cheap and easy rhetoric. Instead, it just makes women look like they’re not competent to offer reasonable analysis, something most people look for in a lawyer.

    • Avatar Staci Z. says:

      I’d take that up with the Gender Bias Learning Project and UC Hastings. It is their research, and I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be publishing unsubstantiated claims without the data to back them up.

    • Avatar Anon says:

      Female mid-level associate at regional firm – I was recently asked by a male partner with whom I’ve worked a lot and thought I had a good working relationship “if I was trying to be a “big deal attorney” with reference to several female partners or was just trying to do my thing and have a good life.”

      I’m not sure what I’ve done (besides being female) to give that partner the impression that I’m not trying to be a partner at the firm. I’ve exceeded billable hour requirements every year, received positive reviews, done numerous publication and speaking opportunities, am on a firm committee, am involved with community organizations and recently solely brought in a matter for one of the largest corporations in town where firm had previously no (or minimal) working relationship with the local in-house counsel (for size of matter / comparison sake, our fees will equal about 60 percent of my salary).

      To add to this, I’m not married and have no kids nor have I ever expressed in interest in having kids or not working. Still, I get this prove it again B.S. Is it because I don’t have a family to support they assume I wouldn’t want to do this job? A male associate doesn’t meet billable hour requirements and has kids, that’s great, he has balance. A female does and has no kids, but suspicious of wheter I’m committed? Please.

  2. Avatar AMK says:

    Is it just me, or does the stock photo scream something other than “mommy track”?

  3. Avatar Mike Moore says:

    Thanks Staci … and gratz on Haute Couture. Any insight as to how the data breaks down by, say, practice area? While any kind of gender bias is downright shameful, I wonder if it’s more present in some practice areas than others. When I practiced in the early 90s it wasn’t hard to spot the lack of gender neutrality on the corporate side, and at the same time the corporate positions tended to be higher paying than on the litigation side – at least after a few years in practice.

    • Avatar BL1Y says:

      When I practices (corporate/deals side) women were compensated the same as men, promoted in the same lockstep manner, bonuses were paid on the same scale, and they appeared to receive the same type and quantity of work as men.

  4. Avatar BL1Y says:

    Why are you so sure they wouldn’t be publishing unsubstantiated claims?

    The site provides no data backing up the half/half claim, and common sense strongly conflicts with it. Normally when people have good data backing up their claims, they publish it. After all, facts and numbers and such are generally very convincing.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I do recall NYU saying women had to go to class for 6 years instead of 3 to get a JD, but men who attended for 3 years would graduate with their choice of an LLM or MBA, with no additional work required.

  5. Avatar Jay says:

    I too would like to see the hard numbers and to see if it makes adjustments in the differences in work hours. None of the women that I work with attend even 10% of the networking functions that I do, nor do they bring in any business to the firm. I’m not knocking them, they made a choice to spend that time with their kids; my wife and I made that choice that I would work far to much and she would stay home. I’m curious though if these life choices are considered in theses studies. I find it hard to believe at most firms today that a women and man working the same job, the same number of years and putting in the same efforts and results would not receive the same compensation.

    That being said, I’m always amazed at women with kids who work as attorneys in the first place. Taking care of kids is very hard work; being an attorney is also hard work; doing both has to be torture.

    • Avatar Imaginary Lawyer says:

      Jay – I know you mean well, but your comments are a perfect example of the ‘maternal wall’ described in the article. You are not amazed at “men with kids who work as attorneys in the first place”. You do not appear to see any negative impact being a father has on your own career. You also assume that if women are not attending the exact same networking functions you do, that they are not networking at all, but are spending time with their children, and that if they aren’t bringing in business it must be that they are spending time with their children.

      This is something I myself hear all the time: “You have kids? I don’t know how you do it!” Well, I do it the same way many of my male colleagues do it: I have a spouse at home taking care of the children full-time. Yet they are not subject to the same assumptions that simply by virtue of being a parent, that they must therefore work less, network less and do less at the office.

  6. Avatar Biglaw Lawyer says:

    Women are tossed on the mommy rack for one reason, and one reason only – men are useless. I know scores of female attorneys who, as soon as they get married, let alone have kids, suddenly have two jobs – (1) lawyer and (2) CEO of a $300,000/year company. When men get married/have kids, they only have one job – lawyer. Their wife, whether she works or not, is laden with the household responsibilities, because, honestly, the man in the relationship is incapable of both holding down a job and running a household.

    The men I work with complain because they have to take out the trash and empty the dishwasher. I want to punch them.

    • Avatar BL1Y says:

      Much of the “uselessness” in men you describe can be attributed to their wives and society at large not allowing them to be of more use.

      While “mommy track” might describe what happens to women who have kids, take maternity leave, and occasionally leave work early to tend to their children, the term to described a man who assumes the same level of responsibility for raising their children is “fired.”

      • Avatar cb says:

        That may, in fact, be the case, and in my mind, that is evidence of a larger problem in our society as a whole–we expect that people will sacrifice everything for their jobs. There needs to be an acknowledgement, for both genders, that what we do outside of the office is important too.

        • Avatar BL1Y says:

          You can acknowledge it all you want, but there’s a huge difference between asking your boss to recognize the importance of raising your kid, and asking your boss to compensate you the same as someone who is sacrificing everything for the job.

          The problem is people thinking they can “Have it all.” You can’t.

  7. This is such a huge, complex topic with no simple solution. It is well documented that women are not paid the same as men. Some people are asking for numbers-there are plenty of numbers out there. There’s NAWL surveys, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association survey and others. The numbers are out there if you want to find them.

    • Avatar BL1Y says:

      Controlling for education, job title, experience, etc, the wage gap closes to about 3%.

      But, the numbers I was specifically asking for was the basis of the claim that women have to work twice as hard to get half as far. I would be shocked if there were any credible data to support that. Go find me a female first year big law associate with a 4000 hour billable minimum and only $80k salary.

  8. Avatar LAB says:

    Mommy track has a lot of meanings, but it mostly means that the lawyer’s child is more important that the support staff’s child, and therefore the support staff must do unusual things to accommodate the lawyer, but the lawyer and law firm do absolutely nothing to support the needs of the support staff in the way of child care arrangements, flexible hours, dealing with sick children, school requirements, etc. If “mommy track” means part-time, the “part-time” status must be completely defined because part-time should never be construed to be working at home, coming into the office and demanding a suport staff member cede lunch hours to accommodate lawyer, and going on to host a child’s party or other event. Should this cut into the pay and opportunities? Perhaps, it should. Less time spent on client matters translates into a longer time to achieve other goals.

  9. Avatar Rickyman says:

    I don’t know how these bullies can even get jobs. Oh yeah, because they spent years being bullies and are use to pushing people around because they feel so awful about themselves. I say get rid of them all. It’s bullies like them that make this world a tougher place to live. Don’t believe, does the name Alexandra Wallace ring a bell? Unfortunately we can’t always have as lucky of an outcome with all bullies as we did with that fat racist pig and the family that raised her: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/03/21/why-ucla-needed-racist-student-to-kick-self-out-of-school/

  10. Avatar Jim says:

    Many feel the demands of the legal profession are such that –

    You can be a great mother. You can be a great lawyer. You can’t be both.

    Personally, I am with Kim R-A. It is a complex issue with no simple solution.

  11. Avatar jake says:

    Plain and simple, what i gather from complaints in many fields not just law, where women feel uncompensated, is that they do not think they should be penalized for personal commitments preventing them from participating in their job as much as, say.. a man.
    typically male professionals, put in full 40-80 hour weeks, do NOT take paternity leave, do not leave early for games or to pick up junior from school, thus tehy are paid more.

    women typically enter the professional fields later on, and miss a lot of work.

    Now, is the issue that women are not not equally compensated or that women are not able to commit equally to their jobs?

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