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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Crisis exaggerating gender inequalities, survey suggests

Crisis exaggerating gender inequalities, survey suggests


The mental health of two thirds of women in law have suffered as a result of the coronavirus crisis, a survey has revealed

The mental health of two thirds of women in law have suffered as a result of the coronavirus crisis, a survey has revealed.

A major survey of women in the profession revealed the extent of the initial impact of the pandemic on their finances and mental health, but there is optimism about the future.

Conducted by the Next 100 Years project in early May, the results showed 66% of women said the coronavirus crisis was impacting their mental health.

Out of the 900 women surveyed, 91% were working from home.

There was also widespread concern that gender inequalities were being exposed - 65% felt the lockdown was exaggerating existing inequalities between men and women.

More than half of the respondents were also concerned that diversity initiatives will fall by the wayside as financial pressures grow post-crisis.

Many women lawyers have young children, and respondents with younger families reported finding the pressures of lockdown particularly acute.

91% were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling duties with almost half of them (49%) said that they were taking on more of those responsibilities than their partner.

Nearly three quarters of the respondents (73%) reported finding the situation hard to juggle, with 32% having to reduce their working hours to manage it.

The survey revealed examples of those on maternity leave who felt their jobs were particularly vulnerable; and others who felt their future prospects may be impacted if they were seen not to have managed well whilst juggling family and work.

One solicitor said: “Our firm has seen 80% of the staff furloughed. 

“The only two kept at my office were the mother of a five-year-old trying to home school and myself, currently pregnant.”

She described the strain on both their mental health as “outrageous”.

One partner said: “All staff apart from partners have been furloughed, so I am working at home around the clock whilst having to juggle a four-year-old and an ill husband. 

“It is exhausting and at the same time I am dealing with the reality that the firm just may not survive this."

Women without children felt expected to pick up extra work to cover for colleagues with young families; those starting their careers were fearful of the impact of the crisis on their future prospects; and other respondents were feeling isolated and struggling with bereavements.

The survey respondents also reported financial worries amid the crisis.

More than a third were experiencing a drop in income and 67% said their employer has furloughed staff.

However, the decrease in income did not generally come with a correlating drop in working hours - with just 6% of employers reducing their formal working hours; and 3% requesting reduced hours.

“It is particularly hard for women with young children in the firm, some of whom were the first to be furloughed,” said one solicitor.

“The pay cuts have had a bigger impact on junior staff members, the majority of which are female.”

Despite the immediate impact of the crisis, there appears to be a surprising level of optimism among the survey respondents, with 70% expecting their businesses to bounce back once the crisis is over.

Firms and chambers were generally thought to be handling the crisis well and the majority of respondents were optimistic about the future of their firm or chambers. 

Founder of the Next 100 Years, Dana Denis-Smith, said the survey shows that women in the legal profession are being hit hard by this crisis. 

“Many are attempting to do the impossible”, she said. 

“As we see schools and childcare settings partially opening up and the government allowing people to go back to work, I hope that legal businesses continue to accommodate the difficult situation that working parents will continue to find themselves in and are mindful of the tough time experienced by so many women in past months. 

“As financial pressures grow it would be disastrous if some of the hard-won progress on diversity we have seen in recent years is lost.

“These life changing events will affect the legal profession for years to come and I hope that we learn the right lessons.”

She said women in law are optimistic about the potential for increased flexible working, a change that would make a real difference to women’s progress.  

“Whilst the current working from home situation is less than ideal, it does show how easily it can be done if firms are willing to embrace it.”

Next 100 Years project, which is working to achieve equality for women in law, comes from the team who founded the First 100 years project.   

The First 100 Years project charted the journey of women in law through the 100 years following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.