Miranda McGowan


The fight for women’s equality in law has achieved a lot. Women have

made up nearly half of law students and law firm associates for the last two

decades. Despite this progress, the partnership ranks of law firms are

profoundly and intolerably sex segregated and will remain so for the

foreseeable future. Our profession, which has fought for and helped to achieve

legal equality on behalf of so many, is itself dogged by intractable inequality.

A standard set of solutions, which address structural barriers within law firms

and the effects of cognitive biases, have been urged for decades and yet have

failed to deliver any significant improvement.

A persistent feedback loop lies at the heart of this intractable gender

inequality in law firm leadership and impedes women’s progress to

partnership. Gender stereotypical expectations and senses of obligation lead

to differences between men and women with respect to their work experience

and income, which, in turn, lead to couples making rational, income

maximizing (and gender stereotyped) decisions about parenting and managing

the home, which reinforce gender stereotypes. Both men and women are caught

in this feedback loop. Continuing to focus on fixing law firms so that they are

more equal for women cannot disrupt this feedback loop because it ignores the

other half of the population—men—who are stuck in the loop.

The breadwinner stereotype is the culprit behind men’s part of the feedback

loop. Women’s equality requires it to be dismantled. Persuading men to take

paternity leaves of a month or two by themselves with their new babies has

eroded the breadwinner stereotype in countries as hard working as, and even

more socially conservative than, ours. Many law firms already offer fully paid

paternity leaves of over a month, but few men take enough of it to make a real

difference. Paternity leaves need to be carefully designed to exploit rather than

buck the breadwinner stereotype. The tweaks to existing paternity leave

policies are relatively small but will require the commitment of leaders in law

firms to make such policies successful. The proposal offered here is not a silver

bullet that will bring down gender inequality. It is, however, likely to help a

lot, improve the lives of men, their children, and their spouses, and hurt no one.