Gender, Law, and Culture in the Legal Workplace: A Chilean Case Study

“What has to change is the model of work. It can’t be that in order to be a partner in a law firm, a woman has to learn to renounce her children. It is the men who have to renounce this work model and take equal responsibility for their children. It is very difficult for a society to do this.”

How do law and culture affect the behavior of actors on the ground? If culture and law interact, how does this interaction occur? This Article examines how gender and law affect lawyers working in a Latin American country—Chile—with a strong neoliberal ethic, a traditional approach to gender roles, and progressive legal regulation intended to protect female workers and their families.

Chile’s labor laws protect dignity rights of private and government employees. Chile provides generous paid parental leaves and forbids the firing of pregnant women, absent serious cause. Given these and other family-oriented laws, one would expect that female lawyers in Chile would thrive. The story is mixed, however. While women represent the majority of law students, and female lawyers and judges are making advances in government jobs, women represent a very small minority of partners in most law firms. And women are often not assigned equal work.

To study how law and culture affect labor relationships of male and female lawyers, the Author moved to Chile to interview Chilean lawyers, law professors, judges, prosecutors, and law students. The study found that stereotypes about women’s weaknesses as leaders and workers prevail in Chile; these attitudes, combined with mothers’ near exclusive responsibility for family, harm women’s careers even when they do not have children. Although mothers may share their six-month postnatal leaves with fathers, fathers rarely take long leaves largely because of societal and employer disapproval. This Article concludes that culture appears to have an even greater effect than law on the gendered conditions of lawyers’ work. Culture is not static, however, and the interaction of law with culture enables change; lawmakers must consider the effects that legal reforms have on rights and their unintended consequences and propose new legislation to correct inequities.