Motherhood should not mean professional suicide
Fifty-three years ago, America put a man on the moon. Believe it or not, back in those days one American worker with a high school diploma could support a family. In fact, at any time in American history before the 1970s, the average worker -- farmer, stevedore or salesman, didn’t matter -- could support his family better and better with each ensuing generation. It wasn’t that much different in the UK, pre-globalism.
Of course, society has profoundly changed since then. Today most couples need two full-time incomes to buy an average house and raise a smaller family. Single-income families are relatively rare. Many married couples are workers almost to the exclusion of being wives, husbands or parents. Not surprisingly, in the last 50 years fertility has fallen roughly 50 percent.
But in today’s professional world, times have never been better for women. Discrimination based on gender is not only frowned upon, but severely sanctioned by law. Same with sexual harassment in the workplace. Does bad stuff happen? Yes indeed. We live in an imperfect world. People will always misbehave and weaponise whatever leverage they may have for selfish ends. Sin has been around for a while.
But back to the women. Women may enjoy their work, but work they must. Here’s the rub: for women, a career throws a wrench in the works of having children.
Enter the law firm of Burgess Mee, family law solicitors based in London. Burgess Mee is a small firm that has done something bold. They have appointed a (part-time) “fertility officer” to ensure that motherhood at the law firm is not professional suicide.
Why is this even necessary? Big-city law firms fiercely compete for top legal talent. Half or more of that talent is female. You normally join a law firm as an associate and are expected to work yourself to the bone in order to make partner. Proving yourself to be partnership material demands long hours and devotion to the job above all else.
Having consulted for DC law firms back in the day, I’ve seen this firsthand. The entire process is ruinous to any semblance of family life. It is gruelling, hellaciously stressful and psychologically debilitating. The process breeds workaholics-for-life, an addiction terrifyingly toxic to family life.
Burgess Mee appears to want to do something about this by naming surrogacy law specialist Natalie Sutherland as the firm’s first ever fertility officer. According to Ms Sutherland, “The intention is to create an environment at work where employees feel supported, both in their career building aspirations and in their family building aspirations.” She further states:
The impression that me and my peers were given early in our careers was, if you want to do well, you shouldn't be having babies until you are established… But that compounds the problem because usually you only become established when you are well into your 30s when your fertility is starting to decline. As female lawyers, there is a worry that having children before making partnership is essentially career suicide, and I feel strongly that it should not be thought of in that way.
About time, I’d say. Making partner and holding your place on the legal industry treadmill is a meatgrinder. While the money is good, there is an onerous social cost. Something is fundamentally wrong with having to defer family to the altar of Mammon.
Now Ms Sutherland is an activist surrogacy law specialist, and maybe advocacy for co-workers’ motherhood is something new for her. Hopefully she doesn’t see surrogacy (having another female bear the child) as a solution to the “motherhood as career suicide” challenge.
One of the reasons that Burgess Mee acted so boldly was that a much larger City of London firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, just offered its staff $60,000 in lifetime fertility benefits, including egg freezing, IVF, and surrogacy. Increasingly, law firms and others are providing similar benefits.
While that is all well and good, could these benefits cause women to delay having a family? I’d rather see in-house daycare, more flexible working hours and remote work-from-home options. Daycare at a law firm? Why not?
We’d better get real, think outside the box and revolutionise the workplace because we are facing an existential crisis of crashing fertility. While fertility rates don’t boost the bottom line, the lack of babies will reduce the need for lawyers in the future. How about putting people before profit?
Ms Sutherland, a mother herself, hit the nail on the head: “Isn't it better to have an open culture where young lawyers coming up don't feel like they have to choose between career and family?”
Amen. That is a horrible choice -- a spurious paradigm. It pits the present against the future, subordinating family to making money. How did we ever get to the place where having a job was an impediment to having a family? We need to radically change our thinking and reorder our priorities.
Burgess Mee is the first UK concern to have a fertility officer. While “diversity officers” are a dime a dozen, having a fertility officer is a noble precedent, worthy of becoming common workplace practice.
I hope that Ms Sutherland does some good in her new position. I was glad to hear her say, “Fertility issues can affect everybody, not just those in jobs like law.”
Sometimes we need to state the obvious to bring the point home.
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