The Parent Trap: Equality, Sex, and Partnership in the Modern Law Firm

71 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2018

See all articles by Miranda McGowan

Miranda McGowan

University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: August 23, 2018


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.

Keywords: gender equality legal practice

Suggested Citation

McGowan, Miranda, The Parent Trap: Equality, Sex, and Partnership in the Modern Law Firm (August 23, 2018). San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 18-358, Available at SSRN: or

Miranda McGowan (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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