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‘She-Cession’ Myth Busted: Women Didn’t Quit Law During Pandemic

April 22, 2022, 3:35 PM

We know women aren’t wimps. So why do we keep buying the narrative that when push comes to shove, they’ll bail out of their careers?

Ever since the onset of the pandemic that message—that women are dropping out of the workforce because they’re overwhelmed by child care responsibilities—has reached a crescendo. Lending credence to that message was the McKinsey/LeanIn report on women in the workplace last year warning that 25% of women were contemplating “downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.”

Worse, McKinsey predicted that women could be set back by half a decade, resulting in “far fewer women in leadership—and far fewer women on track to be future leaders.” The American Bar Association picked up that thread, issuing a finding that 37% of women in its survey of 4,200 ABA members were considering quitting entirely.

Well, folks, relax. Those predictions were stunningly inaccurate. The great female exodus among the privileged set (yes, that means women in law) turned out to be a big fat nothing.

“Women did not exit the labor force in large numbers, and they did not greatly decrease their hours of work,” writes Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin in a recent academic paper on Covid-19’s effect on women. “The real story of women during the pandemic is that they remained in the labor force. They stayed on their jobs, as much as they could, and persevered.”

Goldin blames the press and institutions like management consulting giant McKinsey for creating the panic. “The McKinsey survey got me quite furious,” Goldin told me. “Women look at McKinsey and Catalyst [a nonprofit created to help women in the workplace] as their friends—their mouthpiece. They talked about one out of four women bailing out, but what they didn’t say was that one out of five men wanted to bail out too.”

Education Level Is a Big Factor

One key finding in Goldin’s study is that those in privileged positions kept their careers going.

“The big divide is less between men and women and more between the more-educated and the less-educated,” writes Goldin. What kept more-educated women in the workforce is that they could work from home. In fact, she finds that “college graduate women with infants and toddlers had increased participation rates relative to 2018, particularly after winter 2020.”

As members of one of the most privileged segments, female lawyers largely stayed in the game. “There were no mass resignations of women due to the pandemic,” confirmed Laura Leopard, the principal of legal intelligence firm Leopard Solutions. Though she said that women left Big Law at a greater rate than men—the margin was only 2%.

Although many female lawyers left their AmLaw 200 firm in 2021, said consultant Adam Oliver of Firm Prospects, “more of them returned to another law firm or another legal position in 2021 than they did in 2019 or 2020.” Oliver noted another interesting point: While 12.9% of women left law completely in 2021, that was down from a pre-pandemic 15.7% in 2019.

In fact, more women moved laterally to other firms than ever, according to data from recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. MLA reports that there was more than a 7% jump in the placement of female candidates at all levels (partners, counsel, and associates) from 2019 (33%) to 2021 (40.3%) in the U.S.

Not only did women in the legal field not quit or downsize their careers during the pandemic, some ramped up. “Some are going from part time to full time and getting significant pay increases,” said MLA recruiter Carol Morganstern, adding that “2021 was a big year for women.”

Going for the Bucks?

So here’s the question I’m most curious about: Did the pandemic make women more ambitious? And are they finally becoming as greedy as men and going for the bucks?

“I don’t think it’s a new way of thinking for women, it’s more about having greater opportunities,” said career coach Sandra Bang, who, until recently, served as the chief diversity and talent officer at Shearman & Sterling. Though Bang doesn’t think money is the number one issue for women, she said, “women are talking more explicitly about money. I now have more conversations on strategies about asking for more money.”

What’s new, she said, is that women seem “less hesitant” about negotiating for pay, adding, “I don’t think men have ever hesitated to ask for more money or asking for a job promotion.”

Katherine Richardson, a recruiter in Austin, Texas, agreed that women want more than money: “They’re looking at the whole package—top pay, good treatment, flexibility, and best culture. They want a firm that can support them in all facets. Money alone is not the carrot.”

She added that men now want the same thing: “Men have home lives, and the pandemic has been disruptive for them too.”

In other words, women (and perhaps men) now want it all—money, flexibility, and a better culture. And why shouldn’t they make such demands—while the job market is sizzling and firms seem so eager to please?

Of course, whether firms will deliver on all those items is another issue.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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