How RTO Mandates Affect Women in Particular

October 30, 2023
Kelly McNees

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Return-to-office (RTO) mandates have consequences for gender equity in the workplace!

Many law firm leaders are ramping up RTO mandates — believing that lawyers need to be in person to best serve clients — yet most employees crave flexibility. What’s often overlooked is how RTO policies are particularly challenging for the female lawyers firms claim to want to support and have worked so hard to recruit.

Here’s a rundown of the RTO challenges female lawyers face — and what firms lose if they return to pre-pandemic norms requiring full-time in-office work.

RTO Challenges for Women

Simply put, increased flexibility gives workers more time to juggle their personal and professional obligations. Women are more likely than men to be in caregiver roles, caring for children or aging parents.

Now, many working moms are at the edge of a “childcare cliff,” especially given that the expiration of billions of dollars in federal childcare grants is expected to vastly reduce the number of available childcare slots across the country. Yes, this is a parent, not just a “mom,” issue. But the reality is that when parents can’t find childcare, women are more often the ones who leave to be home with the kids.

Meanwhile, women who stay at their firms are aware of the consequences of not going back to the office. noted that women worry about “missing business development opportunities, being overlooked for assignments, receiving lower compensation or a lower review, and not being viewed as committed to their firm if they didn’t return to office.” Demanding full-time, in-office work forces female attorneys to make impossible choices.

What Firms Lose

When women leave law firms because of a lack of flexibility, they often go to employers that offer more supportive workplaces.

This brings up an issue we’ve talked about before: the business case for empathy and employee wellness. RTO mandates have business implications ranging from loss of important client relationships to higher attrition rates and less diversity.

While each departure marks a loss of that individual’s skills and relationships, it also worsens the collective “leaky pipeline” problem: fewer women rising through the ranks to vie for equity partnership and C-suite roles. This loss has long-lasting consequences for the next generation of female lawyers, who will have diminished access to mentoring.

Giving individuals control over their schedules — the ability to leave for a child’s school activity or an elderly parent’s doctor appointment — without repercussion or judgment is key to retaining diversity in your firm. When employees feel supported, they tend to be more engaged and stay, which means happier clients as well as lower attrition rates for the firm.

If you are in a position to influence your firm’s decision-makers, make sure they understand the true cost of RTO mandates.