Do childless women make the most productive lawyers?

It depends on how you define the word "productive."

By Catherine Price

Published March 25, 2008 6:15PM (EDT)

Since the topic of men, women and work appears to be getting people hot and bothered this morning, I figured I'd stir things up a little more by referring you to a recent study about the "productivity" of male and female lawyers, with and without children, reported on here by the Wall Street Journal.

A recent study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior examined the billing habits of 670 lawyers in Alberta, Canada. According to the abstract, here's what they found:

"The results suggest that mothers with school-aged children are less productive than non-mothers, whereas fathers with preschool-aged children are more productive than non-fathers. While time spent on household and childcare tasks significantly reduces women's productivity, we find little support for the benefits of family resources or working in a family-friendly firm for women. Rather, fathers seem to benefit more: family resources are positively related to their productivity and family-friendly benefits allow them more time for leisure. These results support the assumption that having children is negatively related to women's productivity but challenges the belief that family-friendly policies are primarily beneficial only to mothers trying to balancing work and family."

I don't know about you, but to me this abstract reminded me of the logical-reasoning section of the LSAT: If mothers with school-age children are less productive than nonmothers but fathers with preschool-age children are more productive than nonfathers, then who's more productive: a childless woman or a man with three toddlers?

According to the Research Digest blog and Legal Blog Watch, childless women are the most productive. (It bases its conclusions on information not contained in the abstract, in case anyone is still scratching his/her head.)

However, this analysis leaves out one crucial point: The researchers defined "productivity" as "hours billed." In other words, the measurement had nothing to do with the actual amount of work these lawyers did; it's just a measurement of the time they spent doing it. Carolyn Elefant makes a good point on Legal Blog Watch when she writes, "As we all know, hours billed don't necessarily correlate to efficiency; indeed, longer hours may signal less productivity, not more. I'd be curious to see, for example, whether women lawyers manage to complete tasks more quickly precisely because they have less time. If that's the case (and I suspect it is), perhaps having children makes them productive, not less."

So there's that. As for the rest of the study's results, the simple translation is that childless women billed more hours than women with children did, and that the more time women spent on household and childcare tasks, the fewer hours they billed. That makes sense -- there are only so many hours in the day. As for the dads, they billed more hours than their childless counterparts did, potentially because they're trying to bring home more money for the family. (It helps, though, that the men were more likely than the women to have a partner who stayed home and took care of the kids.) And as for family-friendly work policies? Apparently these made the men bill fewer hours, but didn't have an impact on the women's hours -- and according to the Research Digest blog, men were more likely to use their flexible schedules to find more leisure time for themselves, while women used their free hours to do more domestic work. "It seems the old adage 'a woman's work is never done' still rings true in the twenty-first century,'" the blog's article concludes.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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