All professionals are confronted with many stressors, but for women, the tension often starts to multiply.
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I’m often asked about the pressures one faces as a professional, especially as an attorney. Believe me, they’re plentiful.
Some of the more common stressors lawyers face are the pressures of deadlines, billing, client demands, long hours, continuing education, and ever-changing laws. But I’m sure people in every profession face these same challenges to one degree or another.
In combination, these factors can create a “toxic” brew, making work as a professional one of the most stressful and demanding jobs out there.
If you’re going to be a professional — whether it be in the practice of law, accounting, medicine, journalism, or business — you need to be prepared for stress. And if you work in a large organization — like a big law, accounting, or consulting firm — that often means being prepared for what may feel like unrelenting pressure.
And if you’re a woman? Well, we’ll get to that.
As a woman and a member of the New York State Bar Association for close to 40 years who raised a child while living and practicing U.S. tax in two foreign countries, I speak from solid frontline experience.
The tension starts to multiply, I would say, exponentially once you combine the general stress factors of being a professional with being a woman who may be wanting (or not wanting) to raise a family.
Women have been working in professional spheres for decades now. And in professional terms, a woman’s place in the world has been greatly transformed during that time.
Women now achieve all that men achieve, but there is still a gaping chasm in transferring responsibility between these two genders for some of the roles that more traditionally “belonged” to women.
Women might excel at work, but at the same time, various home pressures — from child care and education to elder care and household chores — are often piled on top, leading to major stress, burnout, and, sometimes, drop-out.
It’s a fact that in our society women are the ones expected to step back in times of crisis. Research is currently bearing this out as we continue to assess the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before examining the effects of the pandemic on women’s careers, however, I’d like to look more closely at the pressures women face in the professional workplace.
It’s not a level playing field
Women have been practicing as attorneys in the United States for well over a century. You would think that after 100 years the legal profession would provide a level playing field for men and women.
The legal profession continues to be male-dominated, and women still face strong headwinds.
Based on discussions with numerous women professionals in other areas and in different countries, it seems that the same holds true for other professions and in other nations.
The issues are not confined to the legal industry or to the United States. Systemic oppression of one kind or another exists globally and in all workplaces.
Still, to give you a heads-up, since my experience lies in the legal profession (in which I have worked while living in three wildly different countries), from time to time my focus in this article may slant more in that direction.
Social and professional challenges
I believe that women face more social and professional challenges than their male counterparts.
Here’s what’s borne out in the literature and backed by my firsthand law experience:
- Women are more often challenged on their capability and knowledge.
- They face criticism in the way they dress, their demeanor, and their presentation.
- They’re questioned about putting their career goals ahead of their family lives.
- They’re often expected to take on tasks that are implicitly viewed as “women’s work,” such as taking notes during meetings or organizing office gatherings and events.
- They often earn less than men in the same professional roles despite frequently taking on extra duties and responsibilities.
Yet I have seen in my experience that women often:
- have a far better understanding of the law
- pay greater attention to the nuances of the case on which they’re working
- more intensely undertake the legal research that is the linchpin of the legal profession
This is outstanding in certain respects, but I think this is partially a result of the fact that women are faced with greater pressure to prove themselves and to gain the same respect as their male colleagues.
I know this was true for me, and I know it was true for other women in the profession whom I knew personally.
Women should not have to fight to prove their worth in the legal, or any, industry. It’s as simple as that.
Research doesn’t paint a rosy picture for professional women.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many more women downgraded their careers or simply quit altogether.
According to a 2021 American Bar Association (ABA) report that analyzed statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, 865,000 women — four times the number of men — dropped out of the workforce in September 2020 as families faced uncertainties with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, the big issue being homeschooling.
ABA has been monitoring changes in the legal field during the pandemic, and it reported that 35% of lawyers were thinking of working in law part-time, a significant increase from previous years. For women lawyers, that percentage was 42%.
Those experiencing the most difficulties were, unsurprisingly, women attorneys with younger children. The report found that 53% of women with children age 5 or younger and 41% of women with children ages 6 to 13 were considering a switch to part-time legal work.
Of greater concern was that 37% of women were considering leaving the profession entirely because of difficulties brought on by the pandemic — compared with 31% of men.
In July 2020, seven U.S. law professors published an open letter to warn of the “likely negative effects” of the pandemic, pointing out a decline in women’s scholarly journal submissions.
Research productivity of professional women in general has been tanking during the pandemic, with submissions by professional women in sharp decline.
These pressures bring about other problems.
Women are reported to be twice as likely to live with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or specific phobias. They’re also
Similarly, women lawyers seem to face greater physical and mental problems than attorneys who are men.
For instance, results of a 2016 study showed that 39.5% of female attorneys experienced alcohol misuse, significantly more than the 33.7% for male attorneys.
I doubt the numbers are getting any better.
As far as I can tell, an immediate solution is not readily available.
Hopefully, however, the pandemic has brought about a greater recognition of the increased burden on women professionals and will encourage society — and in particular, professional firms and institutions — to develop innovative and creative ways to relieve these disproportionate pressures. At the end of the day, systemic oppression hurts everyone.
For example, greater allowances for part-time work, different work “shifts,” or sharing of caseloads may be a solution for those professionals who need such flexibility.
Let me be clear that I believe the responsibility to solve these issues and to achieve long lasting change and improvements for women professionals lies mainly with those in positions of power, those who can change practices and policies to affect the profession as a whole.
The burden should not fall on women and other marginalized groups who feel the oppression from an inequitable system.
Still, as we wait for the broader societal changes to take hold, there are other tips and possible solutions that do lie solely within our own power.
Professionals are trained to work with their minds. Mastering a professional degree (be it an MBA, MD, JD, CPA, CFA, CFP, MSW, or any other alphabet soup designation), completing rigorous licensing exams, and working in the field of real life all require a powerful, sharp, and well-disciplined mind.
Harnessing the resources of such a sharp mind can be a very useful and empowering tool.
Try to reframe negative thoughts
First on the agenda is recognizing those negative thoughts that may play havoc with your confidence level and sap your energy, such as:
- “I cannot manage all this work and meet the billing quotas.”
- “I can’t be a good mom while working on this project.”
- “If I lose this job, I don’t know what I will do to pay back my student loans.”
Try to rein them in and find a more neutral perspective on thoughts that send you into a downward spiral of anxiety, stress, and depression.
So, “I can’t be a good mom while working on this project” might become “I will do the best I can to spend time with the children before they leave for school. I will talk to them about this new big project, and we can talk together about a plan for a special outing when this deal closes.”
In my experience, this kind of constructive and neutral self-talk can help significantly.
I know it helped me and continues to do so to this day, giving me a greater sense of control over the situation at hand.
Try setting boundaries
While it can be beneficial to challenge and reframe negative thoughts, it’s important to remember that some of these thoughts may very well be grounded in truth.
The amount of work and duties women often juggle can truly be too much for one person to handle.
What can be helpful is to try to think of ways to set and enforce healthy boundaries, such as:
- not responding to work emails or messages after a certain hour
- protecting days off as much as possible
- developing assertive communication skills to point out inequities or to articulate possible alternatives or workarounds for achieving an assigned task
- asking for what you need or want — don’t be afraid to speak up
This can be difficult at first, but it’s a very big step toward protecting your well-being.
Think outside the box
Another thing you can do to improve your mental well-being may be to open your mind to less traditional venues in which to continue practicing in your chosen profession.
For example, practicing law in a law firm requires a certain type of person to be successful at managing the stress and workload. But not everyone needs to practice in a law firm.
Maybe there are other avenues that are more fulfilling and conducive to the lifestyle you wish to lead.
I believe that law is an extremely diverse profession and that with some looking and exploring of its facets, you may find an area that is in sync with your interests and your personality.
As for me, I love details. I don’t like constant stressful deadlines. I love research, writing, and thinking of solutions when presented with a statute that seems to say there are none.
So, I found my niche in U.S. international tax.
It fit perfectly with my lifestyle, as I am married to a “foreigner” and living abroad (U.S. international tax is definitely globally portable) and need to spend time with our growing son. It lends itself to an independent consulting practice, unlike litigation, for example, which involves court deadlines and state-by-state qualifications.
I think the same kind of reasoning can apply in other professions and that this is not unique or limited to the legal arena.
So if the most narrow scope of what your profession typically entails doesn’t suit your interests or needs, try thinking outside the box.
Step back a minute
If you’re interested in finding your niche within your chosen profession like I did, try taking a step back.
A good starting point is to make a list of the discrete parts of the work you do that you really enjoy.
Is it being in constant interaction with people — your colleagues and clients? Is it being creative in your writing? Is it managing a crisis and using organizational skills to make a team of people work together efficiently in a crisis situation?
Maybe you can find an area within your profession that is more suited to your mindset and personality.
With law, for example, for those who stay in the law, paths to happier careers may not mean working at a firm with the highest salary. There’s so much more if you’re willing to explore!
Consider switching careers
Opening up your mind may mean leaving your chosen profession altogether. Yes, that’s a valid option, though I know it may seem totally risky, whatever your chosen career.
Again, I will speak about lawyers in particular. Lawyers are typically very risk-averse people. Many of us dislike the experience of losing control. And the same may hold true for other professions as well.
Yet, leaving your chosen profession may be an excellent choice for your lifestyle and work-style.
Guess what? Many people who leave the legal practice indeed have law to thank for their new and very satisfying careers.
Many go into business, joining a company they’re happy to work for and shrugging off the “lawyer” role for something they find more dynamic and fulfilling.
Some move on to politics, research work, public relations, teaching. Some move easily into communications positions where having strong advocacy skills is crucial — for example, organizing marketing campaigns, writing press releases for the media, pitching the company and its brand.
For real-life examples of people who have left the law and moved on to new careers where many have “repurposed” their legal skills, Former Lawyer is a great resource. On the site’s blog and in their podcast episodes, you can not only hear about the new directions career changes entailed but also learn what people feared, hear all of their doubts and questions, and learn how they managed such a significant change.
Even if you work in a different profession, these former lawyers’ stories may offer you inspiration and reassurance to search for a different career path with the skill set your profession taught you, if you feel that leaving your profession is the step you want to take.
Plus, you may even be able to find similar sites for your profession.
Making that first move out of your professional practice may not mean you find the perfect fit right away, but it often opens the door for a next move that is even more gratifying.
We like to think that, today, women professionals achieve all that men achieve — and we do. But while we may excel at work, we often face unique and additional pressures that may affect our mental health.
These stressors that pile up may lead to stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, or substance misuse (just to name a few potential issues), often at higher rates compared with male professionals.
While the ultimate hope and goal is to achieve broader societal changes to relieve these disproportionate pressures, for now it’s often up to women professionals to find their own solutions.
In my experience, solutions come in many forms. Maybe accommodations can be made to allow you to continue in your current role. Maybe you want to branch out and find a niche within your field that suits your interests and needs. Or maybe you’re ready to bid your profession goodbye and venture out on a new path.
Whatever you choose, try to remember that there’s a big and wonderful world out there just waiting for you to explore it.
A member of the NYS Bar since 1984, Virginia La Torre Jeker, JD, has been practicing U.S. tax in Hong Kong and Dubai for 35 years. Virginia, whose Twitter account @VLJeker has been listed in Forbes’ Top 100 Must-Follow Tax Accounts every year since 2017, is a regular speaker at conferences and seminars. She has been quoted in Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and her scholarly works and tax blog are often referenced by others in the field. But Virginia doesn’t stop at tax. She believes that maintaining one’s mental health means so much more than just being pigeonholed into one’s profession. She has taught law in the United Arab Emirates and acts as a mentor to many young professional women. She is actively engaged in charity work for stray animals, using her love of fashion and passion for sustainability to raise funds for their care. Virginia is also an accomplished author with three children’s books published for her young son, who was born in Hong Kong.