Mothers working in the law – building on positive change
Dana Denis-Smith explores the situation, post-pandemic facing mothers working in the legal profession
Research from the Next 100 Years project has found 84 percent of mothers working in the law still find it difficult to balance working life with the demands of being a mother, with half believing they are treated differently at work to men with children.
While the pandemic has led to significant positive change – 89 percent said post-COVID-19 remote working has made juggling work and family commitments easier – mothers continue to take on the lion’s share of the responsibility for childcare, with 68 percent saying they do more than their partner.
Support and flexibility
The legal profession is certainly heading in the right direction. There was a time not so long ago when the idea that most people would work from home for at least part of the week would have been considered unworkable. Now, forced by the pandemic and a competitive recruitment market, legal businesses are more conscious than ever of the need to improve their working cultures to ensure they are inclusive and able to attract and retain talented lawyers.
This is reflected by responses to the survey that showed employers are providing support to working mothers, including flexible hours (63 percent) and remote working (80 percent). The overwhelming majority (79 percent) said their employers were supportive when they needed flexibility.
While this is certainly encouraging, the findings make it clear that the majority of women with young children are finding it hard to progress their careers as they would like and do not believe they are being treated in the same way as male peers.
According to our survey, of the 60 percent of mothers who wanted to be able to reduce their hours or work more flexibly in order to spend more time with their children, over half felt unable to do so due to the impact it would have on their career opportunities. Many cited client demands (48 percent) and financial pressures (62 percent), with 22 percent saying that their employer would not agree to a reduction in their hours.
So how do we make progress? How can the profession truly get to grips with a problem that sees too many talented women unable to progress in their careers or dropping out of the law altogether?
While the majority of firms now offer hybrid working, there persists an ‘inflexible flexibility’ at top firms in particular, driven by perceived client demand, the tyranny of the billable hour and a focus on inputs rather than outputs.
We have to be more innovative. That means training management to manage a flexible workplace in a positive way. We need to give lawyers options, with job shares, part-time work, compressed or staggered hours, as well as the option of flexitime.
We also need more women at the top – including those who work flexibly. Less than half of those who completed our survey felt they had good female role models at a senior level in their organisation.
This lack of visibility serves to reconfirm existing biases and exacerbates imposter syndrome. Diversity in leadership sets the tone for the whole organisation and women in senior positions not only drive change in their own organisations, they set norms and demonstrate what is possible. Rather than pulling up the ladder behind them, good female leaders should take every opportunity to shine a light on their own experiences, as well as championing other women in law.
The pandemic forced the profession to adopt remote working, a huge change which is making life easier for working mothers. Whilst outwardly employers appear supportive, the majority of mothers are still feeling the strain and fear that any move towards more flexible working or part-time hours could have a detrimental impact on their career prospects.
We can’t afford to continue to lose experienced and talented women from the profession. If we want a sustainable workforce and to achieve equality for women working in the profession, we need to see a culture change. That means valuing outputs rather than inputs, with structural changes that give those with family commitments the ability to thrive and progress.