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A blog with tips and insights into the practice of law

Work Life Balance

“My female colleagues think they don’t have a choice, but it’s really us men who don’t have a choice. If I ever want to make it to partner I have to sacrifice time with my family – flexibility is not part of the equation.”


This eruption of sorts came from a senior associate at a function I attended recently. Predictably, the comment was met with mixed reactions – the women rolled their eyes (some of them wildly) while the men nodded in empathy (except for one senior partner who was obviously taking a mental note). For me, the comment provided an opportunity to reflect. I’ve never really had cause to consider the disadvantage faced by males in the work-life balance discussion being one of the lucky few to be able to have my cake and eat it too. While being business partners with my workaholic wife is no bed of roses, it does provide me with a level of flexibility not afforded to many men.


The words “male” and “disadvantage” have only started to appear in the same sentence fairly recently, but not as the result of the concept of affirmative action as some would have you believe – the legal profession has been quick with rhetoric but slow when it comes to action in that department.


The reason in my view is that suppliers of professional services (yes my comments are not limited to the legal profession) continue to be managed, for the most part, with an 18th century mindset. For instance, time spent in the office is still considered an indicator of work commitment, and career breaks (for whatever reason) are seen as a form of career suicide (the senior associate quoted at the start of this article is certainly not alone in his views). Many partners continue to treat workers as a pair of hands, rather than a whole human being who faces demands from life outside of work too.


This attitude is exacerbated by new technology. Who would have foreseen the extent to which the lines between work and home would be blurred by the vibrating smart phone, which for most of us, demands an unhealthy level of responsiveness to work; and both men and women face tremendous pressures in managing work and life outside of it.


However, when it comes to the work-life balance and career flexibility discussions, there is an “unwritten hierarchy” of rights in most firms and men are just not on the priority list. Chances at career flexibility are much higher if you are a woman with kids. The assumption remains that “real” men (single or married) don’t need/want work-life integration. They work long, hard hours, miss meals with family and skip social events if they want to be a partner, often at the expense of all else.


This prototype of the working male lawyer worked perfectly well for the baby boomers, where by and large men worked and women were at home (just have a look at the Mad Men TV show for the archetypal example). However, as more women have received a higher education (just over 50% of law graduates are now female) and entered the workforce, dual career couples have now become the norm. Therefore, women demand a more active role from men at home as they pursue their career aspirations.


Because of our society’s continuing gender role definitions, men are prevented from being a part of the work life integration agenda. The fall out of this is not just for the men themselves, but also for the lives of their families as the result of physical and emotional absenteeism. This being said, I don’t think it’s the women’s role to save us, they are still busy fighting their own battle.


With very few exceptions, we refuse to help ourselves because real men don’t discuss touchy-feely issues. When was the last time you had a chat to a mate about work-life issues over a quiet beer? – it’s just not done without exposing oneself to ridicule. Our mentoring relationships don’t allow space for exploring anything beyond the “professional” persona. This situation can be worse in some cultures where the primary identity is often closely tied to status at work.


It doesn’t get any easier at an organisational level, where it is acceptable for women to request (even demand) flexible work arrangements and plan their maternity leave, while men who have the same legal rights are far less likely to request similar arrangements if they have serious career aspirations. This should not surprise any lawyer as professional experience should inform us that the creation of policy does not always equal its utilisation.


News media often (and in my view appropriately) highlights the brutal choices women have to make between their family and career, but it is less common to see highlighted the reality and struggles of men who are increasingly becoming the lead of single parent households. Additionally, while no one can dispute the physical, emotional and career related burdens of a new mother, we must also acknowledge the exhaustion and strain felt by a working father who has a child with special needs (I have a couple of friends in this position and trust me the pressures are extreme). Finally, there is the growing burden of aged care arising from an ageing population that both men and women will have to share.


The attitude of the firms, as well as all of us practicing lawyers, has to change for us to break out of a system that dishes out work place flexibility as a gender based perk. Championing the cause of men does not lessen, or take away from the challenges faced by women in any way. However, it can help create a new generation of men who openly value and support a workplace that is more inclusive of the needs which all of its employees share.