Don’t Count on Millennials

Women lawyers are such optimists. Why else would they say that that millennials are leading the charge for gender equality? Women swear that this next generation will bridge the gender gap because it values diversity, demands work/life balance and won’t put up with their fathers’ law firm.

I’d love to drink the millennial Kool-Aid. But I’m not sure this is the group that I’d pin my hopes on. The latest troubling sign: a study from the Council on Contemporary Families, which finds that a majority—58 percent—believe that the man should be the primary breadwinner in the family. (The study polled high school seniors in 2014, comparing the responses over a 20-year period.) Only 42 percent expressed those views back in 1994.

Also disconcerting: Male authority is enjoying a renaissance. In 1976, 59 percent of respondents disagreed that “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family.” By 1994, 71 percent disagreed. In 2014, only 63 percent had problems with this return to patriarchy.

But here’s the paradox: Despite the conservative trend on the home front, millennials strongly support job equality—or so they claim. Since 1994, 91 percent of high school seniors have agreed that “women should be considered as seriously as men for jobs as executives or politician,” and 89 percent said that “a woman should have exactly the same job opportunities as a man.”

In a nutshell: Millennials believe in equality at the office—but increasingly, not in their own homes. If the Father-Knows-Best model prevails at home, what are the chances that the cult of male superiority won’t spill into the office, too—particularly in competitive, testosterone-fueled professions like law?

Millennials have not had the best role models. Not only do few women make it into the top ranks of Big Law (they are barely 18 percent of all equity partners), but many land on the “mommy track” (jobs with predictable hours but few opportunities for career advancement) or practice areas with little prestige or money. Women are well-represented in low-luster practice areas like education, family law, health care, immigration and labor and employment, but are scarce in high-profile areas like M&A and big litigation, according to ALM Intelligence.

Whether women are opting for these practices out of choice or societal pressure, our continuing ambivalence and distaste about women holding power create poor conditions for female ambition.

The report’s authors, Joanna Pepin of the University of Maryland and David Cotter of Union College, theorize that the preference for male breadwinners is a reaction to the logistical difficulties of having two working parents and men’s loss of status in the current economy. As for the male decider at home stuff, they’re stymied. Pepin tells me that gender equality peaked over 20 years ago: “Other metrics also show a stall starting in the mid-1990s—increases in the female labor force participation, the pace of closing the gender pay gap, time gap in time spent doing housework.”

There’s not much of a silver lining to this conservative trend, though Pepin offers this morsel: “The youth whose mothers were employed while they were growing up were more progressive than their peers.” So having a working mom is a valuable role model. (And what a relief that kids with working moms don’t hold it against them.)

But Pepin warns that the shift toward traditional gender roles means stagnation. If millennials see no reason to change family dynamics, she says, “it is unclear how social changes for women to make progress might come about.”

Women reaching the 50 percent mark of equity partners by 2020, 2025 or 2030? Dream on.