Women’s Roundtable 2021

Parenting issues aren’t mother issues, and mother issues aren’t women’s issues. But the pandemic has had an outsized impact on women, and specifically on working moms.

In May of last year, some had already been referring to a “she-cession,” noting how many women had been hit hardest by business closures last year. The fallout is still affecting women. Since last year, 2.4 million women have left the workforce, compared to 1.8 million men. One in four women have reported thinking about leaving their jobs. Vice President Kamala Harris in February talked about the topic as a national emergency. 

Meanwhile, some studies have noted how significantly working moms have been affected and “forgotten.”

Women have reported doing double-duty with their jobs but also taking on more of the childcare while day care centers or schools either closed or limited in-person capacity. Notably, according to one study, 80% of mothers said they were managing the home schooling in their house; 45% of fathers said they were managing it; 3% of the mothers agreed with the fathers.

In light of all of this, there is a lot going on in the home. The situation might provide an opportunity for businesses and law firms, in specific, to acknowledge what’s going on and make changes so that the setbacks of the past year do not turn into long-term setbacks. It’s also a chance to advance some ongoing initiatives in the law firm world. 

Roundtable participants Pamela Hirschman, shareholder at Sheridan Ross; Kyle McFarlane, shareholder and co-founder of Broxterman Alicks McFarlane; and Kristin Walker, shareholder at Polsinelli, discussed their experiences as working moms through the pandemic and how they think law firms can change.

LAW WEEK: What have your experiences been in the pandemic so far?

WALKER: I’m a shareholder of Polsinelli in our real estate department. My work focuses on acquisitions, dispositions and development. We’re kind of the whole gamut of real estate, but not financing. I have been with Polsinelli for just over a year, so I actually was only in the office for about four months before the pandemic. So, I was really just getting my feet under me. I had been at a national firm earlier in my career, and I had my own firm with a few partners for eight years, so I had been working from home and then had gone to Polsinelli back in an office. 

And then the other important note related to this conversation is that I have four kids. I have a 10 year old, an 8 year old, 5 year old and an almost 2 year old. She was not even 1 when the pandemic hit. My husband works full time, and the big kids were in elementary school, one in a private pre-school and then a baby at daycare when all this happened. So that’s kind of where our starting point was, and they all are sometimes out of the house now, depending on the week and who’s in quarantine.  

MCFARLANE: I’m a shareholder at family law firm Broxterman Alicks McFarlane, we practice exclusively family law, divorce and child custody issues.

I have a four-month-old, and I was pregnant and having a baby in the middle of the pandemic, which was just kind of wild. I had my own thoughts on this experience from my own life, but I am seeing such an impact on the clients that we represent in divorce, generally. There was a study that came out that said child abuse cases — the cases that are being reported — are significantly so much lower now, but they actually think the instances are so much higher of child abuse so we’re just seeing less reporting and so much more of the abuse happening because of the pandemic and people are so isolated. 

So, it’s kind of a crazy time to be a mom. Having a four-month-old and trying to figure out how to be a parent and try to be a lawyer is a particularly sore subject for me at the moment. But I’ve been an attorney for almost eight years now. I’ve always been in family law. My husband is also working — he’s in the oil and gas industry — so we’re both remote in our house. 

HIRSCHMAN: I’m a shareholder at Sheridan Ross, an IP firm. I’m in our trademark group. I have a 3 year old. And when the pandemic started, he was in daycare full-time, which meant that he was no longer in daycare full-time and was at home with me and my husband for a good three months before we could find childcare. So it was rough. 

I talked with many of the women in my firm with young children about what they were doing and how we are getting our work done and this and that. One thing that I will say that I’ve experienced is I actually have other family members in town and have reached out for help, and they just didn’t quite get it. They’d be like, well, I’ve got to do this today, and I’m like, no, really, I really need your help today, and they were just not quite understanding how stressful things are for working mothers right now, and that when I’m asking for help, it’s because I really need it. So that is something that has come up for me. My husband and I have gotten a little frustrated with my family. 

LAW WEEK: Is there anything from these findings — or others that you’ve seen over the past year — that resonates with you? When you talk about a profession where there are still less than 25% of equity partners who are women, that could end up being a significant setback. 

WALKER: Our firm has been pretty flexible if people want to reduce their hours or have a reduced schedule, and sometimes that works. I was on a reduced schedule and went up because I was working more than I was supposed to be working, and I didn’t see that changing because our business actually slowed down for a while and then it came right back. So, especially right now with my childcare expenses — for us to make things work at our house, I had to hire an extra tutor for my big kids to oversee remote learning because my husband and I — especially with our second-grader — we cannot sit there during the day and monitor that. So, our childcare expenses went up during the pandemic. And my firm was really good about that. 

One thing that’s resonated with me was an article that came out talking about how working moms are able to work, or working dads, because of the people that you can hire to help you out. We were in this situation where we were not able to hire those people during the [restrictions]. So we’re paying for all these services that we need to be able to work, and we’re still doing it, it’s all coming back to us. Not only are you putting the money out the door, I still have a 2 year old sometimes running around. I’m very fortunate that I can have a house cleaner come in once a month, but she couldn’t come, so all that stuff was coming back that I usually farm out, and that’s how I’m able to do my job. 

So finally, I saw an article that addressed those things that people were like “yeah, yeah, we get it, school is at home,” and they were just a little bit dismissive of that being the only issue that was not allowing me to do work, and I was saying “no, it’s actually all these other things too.” 

That really hit a nerve with me, and I know a lot of my friends who are working moms, female attorneys, felt the same way. It felt kind of redeeming to have somebody finally recognize that, because I don’t think people got that necessarily. 

MCFARLANE: It does seem like such a trivial thing to say, but I had the same experience. We have two dogs, and we live in the city of Denver, so we can’t just let them out of my yard, so our dog walker couldn’t come for a while, our housekeepers couldn’t come for a while, and we had this newborn. I joked with my husband saying you can help clean, but it’s frustrating because you don’t do it the way that I would do it, and so he was willing to try to step up and clean, but then I’m looking around and I’m like, OK, I feel like I’m doing everything half-assed, I’m not doing one thing well, I’m being a half-mom, I feel like I’m barely paying attention to my clients, I feel horrible for my dogs because we just had this baby, and I’m not cleaning the house, and it’s just so much pressure. 

Half the time, I wonder where the pressure comes from because my husband is incredibly supportive, but that pressure is still there. And I’m the boss of my office, so I don’t necessarily have my partners to answer to. By all means, they’re wonderful women, they have kids, they don’t put pressure on me, but there’s still this pressure that exists somewhere out there that we’ve all taken on. And then you’re pulled in 1,000 different directions, where you feel like you should be able to do it, but the reality is you can’t do it and when all of a sudden you would you start to see those cracks you’re like, oh, wait a second. That’s what we’re talking about. 

WALKER: But that’s the point where, sometimes, I think women say, well, what I can do is I can quit one of those things. That’s where I think you see a lot of people making the decision right now, and frankly, I understand that. Your cost-benefit analysis is like, listen I’m not making enough money to justify some of these things, why are we doing this? 

HIRSCHMAN: I think there are, unfortunately, still some unreasonable expectations on women in management. I know some female attorneys that will spend the time with their kids, put them to bed and then work till 2:30 in the morning. I can’t do that. I don’t know how they’re doing it. That’s amazing. I can’t do that. I don’t think people should be expected to do that. 

But then, that happens, and there are some older male attorneys in the office that will say, “well, so and so’s getting all these hours, and why aren’t you?” and trying to hold everyone up to these unreasonable expectations and you can’t. It’s really hard to do,

WALKER: : I probably put this on myself, but one of the decisions we had to make last March was when our daycare stayed open and our pre-school stayed open and we had to decide, are we going to keep our kids there or not? My youngest, who at the time was almost a year, was one out of three babies in her classroom. I felt guilty at points because I was wondering, am I potentially endangering my child? But on the other hand, if she is here, I will not be able to work and get my hours during the day that I need to work. So then, we’re back in the early morning and late at night, which is not great for clients and not good for me. So we had to make decisions like that. 

The other decision was when my fifth grader and second grader were going to be starting school this year. We decided to put them in a remote option, which was super hard because almost all their friends went back to school in person. Here we are saying to them, I’m sorry, you’re actually going to have to stay home to do school here with the tutor or we have a pod situation. But that was a hard thing to explain to kids who really want to see their friends and who haven’t seen their friends since March. But we thought what are the chances that they’re going to get shut down? And when school does get shut down again, we’re back in a situation where we have a second grader who needs constant attention and we can’t get help. 

I felt like we were making a lot of decisions based on that information, but you’re making choices between two terrible things. And I did get a lot of people who would say, oh my gosh, you’re still sending your kids to daycare or you’re still sending your kids to pre-school. My 5-year-old was one of those two kids in her class that were still there, so it was very evident that we were making a decision, and there was a minority.

HIRSCHMAN: It was hard for us to decide to send our son back to daycare. It was really hard to decide if we wanted to do full-time or part-time or even if we just wanted to enroll him so we had a spot but not send him. And we ultimately decided to send him. But I felt that guilt as well, like, is this the right decision? I’m happy we did it, but it’s the same thing when classes started again. He was one of about three kids. Now they’re all back in.

WALKER: It’s gotten better, but it’s a hard decision because you’re thinking, OK, I am willing to get COVID because I think that’s probably what’s going to happen sometime this year if I keep sending these kids out. That’s not a great decision to have to make. But what is the alternative? What do you do?

Now, my oldest kids are going back to school in person. And because we’re changing them to in-person for the last trimester — because it looks like things have been going well and the numbers are going down — now it’s things like: Do you put them on the bus or do you not put them on the bus because you’re exposing them to this whole group of people they’re not usually exposed to? But at the same time, can I leave every day at 2:30 to go get them?  

HIRSCHMAN: We hired a nanny part-time and had to go through all those considerations. Like, does she have a car? And not because of reliable transportation, but is she taking the bus and being exposed? And how many people does she live with and what is she doing on the weekends and all of those questions.

MCFARLANE: I keep telling my husband our lives have been more stressful than they’ve ever been. Everything seems like it’s just a massive upheaval. And I think the three of us can agree that we’re so much better situated than probably the vast majority of women out there, and I just think about how I’m struggling, you guys are struggling, and we have the benefit of at least being able to hire a nanny and have our kids go to daycare. And if it’s affecting our careers —I think we all agree it’s affecting our careers to some extent — my heart breaks for women who aren’t in the same position we are. 

I think all three of our firms at least to some extent have been relatively understanding and allowing flex time, and I’ve heard horror stories from women about the insensitive comments and the pressure, and I just can’t even imagine how that would feel. And those are the women that I just feel horrible for. 

WALKER: Absolutely. When I think about single parents who are doing it on their own or who don’t have a choice about, hey, I’m going to stop working, or we’re having to decide what to do with my kids while I’m working. I feel very fortunate to be making the decisions I’m making, but it’s a lot worse for a lot of people. I feel very sympathetic to the position that a lot of other people are in.

And I think it’s more falling on women than men. At least in more traditional households where you don’t have a stay-at-home dad. At least in my household, I’m the logistics manager, so I’m managing who goes to what, when they need to be there, and who is enrolled in what activities. I’m not doing all the carpooling, my husband helps with that, but just making the arrangements for our little pod and then figuring out which week are we at our house, which week are we at another house and what’s the lunch schedule look like. It’s a whole host of things that I wasn’t doing before that falls on me because of what I do and my family. And I think that a lot of other women are having that. The coordination of childcare is typically a mother’s responsibility, so I think that’s why you’re seeing some more pressure on women because they are handling it themselves. 

MCFARLANE: I love that term that you use, because it’s such a good description. We are the logistical managers on top of everything. 

That’s not a knock on men. I don’t think any of us are saying anything like that, and I don’t want it to be construed that way, but I just think women, we pick up the pieces. So when everything is falling apart, we’re just trying to patch everything together. I have a wonderful husband, but by no means is he going to ever be the logistical manager. And I think 90% of the time — and it goes to that statistic from when we started where men are like, oh yeah, I’m doing all this work, and 3% of the women agree. They’re like, no, you’re not. 

I don’t know why that is or what happened, but it’s just a lot of pressure.

HIRSCHMAN: I think there’s also some expectation from the employer that the wife is going to take care of it. With my husband and I, either one of us could handle something, but I think the employer might be like well, can your wife just take care of that?

WALKER: We have the default parent issue. They call the moms from daycare. They never call the dads, and I’ve actually had to say to ours, “if I do not answer, you need to call my husband and he is fully capable of taking that call and making a decision about our child.” And I think it’s just a default. But it does happen all the time. 

LAW WEEK: On the work policy aspect of that, at the outset of the pandemic, a lot of employers allowed more flexible work schedules. What are some policies that should be taken more seriously? Kyle, with you having your maternity leave, as well as being in charge at your firm, you’re on both sides of it, so I’m curious what you’ve seen or what you’ve done at your firm. 

MCFARLANE: We don’t have a maternity leave for our shareholders. We’re a small firm, there’s only five attorneys at my office. Both my current partner and I were both moms and neither of us had a maternity leave policy necessarily in place, it was just that we were going to work together. Fortunately, we made it feasible for each other when the other was on leave.  For our employees we offer a leave, as well. 

My husband had one week, and that included the time I went to the hospital. I was in the hospital for two nights, so he really only had three more work days at home with me and our son. 

So, the policy aspect, I just think we do our moms and our dads a disservice. We talk about where this default parent idea comes from, and I think it kind of starts there. As soon as he went back to work, I started getting into a rhythm with my son, like there was a certain way he had to be bounced, so then when my husband comes back and he’s trying to put our son down I’m like, he’s not going to go down that way, let me just do it now. So it just compounds the problem when they can’t be there to learn all these things. 

HIRSCHMAN: My firm has a decent maternity leave policy, but I think there are some that feel like they can’t take it because of the stigma. It’s available, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s taking it and even those who do take it feel like someone might look down on them for taking it. We need a big change, culturally.

WALKER: I have an associate who’s about to go out on maternity leave. And my group, in Denver at least, is very female heavy. When he announced he was thinking about taking paternity leave, and we have a 30-day leave for maternity, every female on the call was just like, “yes take the entire thing, and you need to take it because if you don’t take it you’re setting a precedent for other people that they shouldn’t take it.” 

But to the point about other policies related to the pandemic, like I said our firm was very good about saying, if you need help, or if you need to talk about a reduction in hours, please come and talk to us about it. 

HIRSCHMAN: I would add to that, the firms, though, need to make sure that it’s known that they offer this flexibility. They’re not always saying, “hey come to us if you have an issue with getting your work done and we’ll work it out.” It could just be silent, and they’re expecting their employees to come to them to work something out. But I know that’s not always happening. It’s not being announced so people don’t know that they have this option to seek help, and it should be announced.

WALKER: I think you have to think about, at the same time, if you do get to the point where you say, “Listen, I need to reduce work schedule,” how does that affect your career? That’s another consideration where some people say, “Listen, I know what’s available, but I’m going to do whatever I can to not choose that path, because I’m worried about what the long-term repercussion is, and I think that’s yet to be determined.” 

And I think the other thing you need to keep in mind is even when there are flexible policies, that policy isn’t saying don’t do your work. I get up at 4:30 in the morning so I can work for a few hours before my kids get up, and that’s my way of, saying, hey, I’m going to get some hours in because I know later it’s going to be a little bit harder. And it just goes back to, you got to get your work done. 

MCFARLANE: Well, the pressure has never been greater because we have more qualified people out of work than ever before, so everyone’s a bit replaceable. 

HIRSCHMAN: As you were saying, Kristin, for the associates, how is that going to affect partnership track, and the firm might say, oh yeah, we’ll be flexible, don’t worry about it, but that doesn’t mean that the people who are looking at your hours and looking at your profitability next year, might say well, so-and-so still got their hours in, so why should we promote you? And it’s going to happen. 

It shouldn’t hurt someone who’s on partnership track, and I don’t know what the answer is to that how you make sure that person isn’t penalized. But they shouldn’t be.

LAW WEEK: I’ve seen a lot of worried opinion articles suggesting there’s the potential for this to turn into a long-term problem for the very reasons you’re saying. Is there anything that you would say that law firms should keep in mind or learn from this? 

HIRSCHMAN: Well management definitely needs to have an open mind, because everyone’s situation is going to be different with different factors to consider. You don’t necessarily want to say, “this is our policy.” You need that flexibility.

MCFARLANE: As for our profession in particular, billable hours are not everything. We started to see the shift with office spaces when there was a huge rise of tech and having that tech-like culture. But billable hours aren’t everything, and culture, really, really does matter because you lose money when you lose employees. Just investing in your people is always going to be the most valuable and profitable approach that firms can take. 

I think sometimes as lawyers we don’t think that way. As management it’s like, OK, well I don’t want to invest in this person, this is a complicated issue so I’m just going to move on. It’s easier to deal with a mom who’s struggling or juggling four kids than starting anew and hiring someone else. And I don’t think that law firms necessarily understand that transaction cost. 

WALKER: I think it’s also put an emphasis on mental health. That wasn’t necessarily addressed in the profession before, or very, very little. But it’s there, it’s an issue. And I think it’s been good that that’s been brought to the forefront. 

I think there’s still a stigma around it, but I think one of the positives is that people are starting to talk about it like, OK, this is a lot. We’re expecting people to do a lot right now. What can we do to kind of help that along? 

I remember as an associate thinking, am I insane? Am I the only person that feels this stress? Because people don’t talk about it. So, at least having the conversations and saying to people, how are you doing and checking in on the people that you work with. The rise of that has been a positive. I think that wasn’t really going on before.

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