It would be disastrous if hard-won progress on diversity is lost because of the impact of the pandemic on women in law, says Dana Denis-Smith
As the covid-19 crisis has taken its toll on women in the profession, we must ensure hard-won progress on equality is not lost.
The Next 100 Years surveyed 900 women working in the profession to find out more about their experience of the covid-19 crisis and the pressures they have been facing.
Of those surveyed, 66 per cent said the crisis was impacting their mental health, over a third had experienced a drop in income and 67 per cent reported that the organisation they work for had furloughed staff.
For those with young children, the pressures of lockdown were particularly acute: 91 per cent were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities with 32 per cent forced to reduce their working hours to do so; 49 per cent were taking on more childcare responsibilities than their partner and 73 per cent were finding it hard to juggle.
This is not just an issue for our profession. Across the board women are being disproportionately affected. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London showed mothers were 47 per cent more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit, and 14 per cent were more likely to have been furloughed since the start of the crisis. Mothers were also doing more childcare and housework than fathers.
Of those we surveyed, 65 per cent were concerned that the lockdown was exaggerating existing inequalities between men and women. It appears those concerns are well-founded. Action needs to be taken to ensure that, as we move out of lockdown, we don’t see a negative impact long term.
We found examples of women 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 while juggling family and work during this period.
Schools and childcare settings are partially reopening but it seems unlikely normal childcare arrangements will resume until September at the earliest. As people return to work, firms will need to continue to accommodate the difficult situation working parents find themselves in, with many attempting to do the impossible.
Most of those we surveyed were optimistic about the future of their firm or chambers, but as businesses are squeezed financially, this will inevitably have an impact on budgets. Just over half of respondents voiced concerns that diversity initiatives will fall by the wayside post-crisis.
The gender pay gap issue has been put on the back burner because of covid-19. Chancellor Rishi Sunak suspended compulsory gender pay reporting for the current year, a seemingly small step to alleviate the pressure on businesses, but which has unwittingly given the green light to put the issue to the bottom of the pile. Worryingly, those that did file demonstrated the situation is getting worse, not better.
One benefit of the crisis is likely to be the rise of flexible working. Among those we surveyed, there was an overwhelming expectation of increased acceptance of requests for home working or flexible working post-covid-19.
I’ve long argued that the legal profession should be more open to this and that it would help women stay in the profession and progress. It has been a frustration that so many firms have continued to resist offering more flexibility and that those requesting such arrangements have felt it was damaging their career prospects.
Normalising the ability to cut out a long commute, fit working hours efficiently around school or nursery hours and to work part-time can make a positive difference to those with young families. The current working from home situation is less than ideal, but it shows how easily it can be done if firms are willing to embrace it. This is a change that would make a real difference.
This has been a life changing event and no one is pretending the road ahead is going to be easy. As legal businesses grapple with the fall out, I hope that we learn the right lessons. We need to recognise the impact that it has had on women in our profession and not exacerbate the effects.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project first100years.org.uk