What lawyers might think about working mothers but would never say
By Kate Buller, Founding Partner, Executive Coaching
We all have them: those niggling thoughts in the back of our minds that can subconsciously bias our views and colour our perceptions. One area that is littered with preconceptions concerns working mothers.
Offering flexible working arrangements to women when they are seeking balance while bringing up families is critical to retaining valuable and talented female lawyers.
While a number of progressive law firms are making important strides in this area, there are still lingering myths about the performance of mothers working flexibly. Some of the internal and occasionally voiced accusations often levelled at working mothers are as follows.
1. Women choose to get pregnant, we give them generous maternity leave, they owe us and so should redouble their efforts upon their return to work
In my experience, women return to work eager to re-establish themselves. Their ambition, work ethic and desire for achievement are often renewed.
However, their confidence in being able to juggle the demands of work and childcare is often low when they first return. Returning mothers feel guilty about being away, feel out of the loop and unusually insecure about their capabilities. They need to revalidate themselves quickly and this can be hard if the best cases and matters are reserved for their full-time colleagues.
With flexibility and active support, they can deliver excellent results and return with a sharp focus and ruthless approach to prioritising.
2. Once women have families they aren’t as committed to their work
Most lawyers who return from maternity leave are extremely conscientious and wouldn’t dream of letting a client down, day off or not.
Women tend to be cooperative by nature and work best where they feel appreciated and where there’s a bit of give and take.
3. We have to pick up the slack created by part-timers on the team
Evidence is stacking up that women who work reduced hours (for reduced pay) deliver more. They may work differently, but they will often put in extra effort to mitigate against any perceived lack of commitment.
The conventional working day is less relevant for lawyers who work for client businesses across time zones. Away from the office, valuable work done at home can sometimes go unnoticed. What is more visible is when the working mother leaves ‘on time’ to collect the kids – often characterised as the ‘walk of shame’.
4. When women work from home, they’re probably doing the childcare or shopping
People who routinely work from home have an entirely different approach to those who do it occasionally. Working several days a week from home means that logistical arrangements have to be carefully established and distractions minimised in order to focus, often including finding creative childcare arrangements away from the home. All that most flexible workers ask for is trust.
5. We’ve generously provided women with newly created roles that allow them to fit work around their families, why are they still harping on about promotion?
Of counsel and PSL roles are proving popular alternative career paths for women wanting more predictable hours. However, they want to still have a career path and not feel like they’re in a dead end.
For the relatively short period when their children are small, women are often prepared to compromise on their ambitions. However, the role has to be fulfilling and feel like it is still a good long-term investment. Firms need to be careful how they talk about these roles
and make comparisons with fee-earners.
6. They’re useless at business development because it has to be outside working hours and offsite
In The Shift, Lynda Gratton talks about the future of work and the need for us all to become ‘innovative connectors’. Women have a head start here, often being great connectors who see business development as part of their day job, not something that’s done in bars or on golf courses.
7. Full-time lawyers need to be fairly rewarded for their billings, why do the part-timers complain?
The focus on billable hours creates a long-hours competitive culture. More sophisticated performance management systems recognise those who contribute significantly in other ways.
Financial recognition is sometimes the only real feedback lawyers get and verbal feedback can be sparse, or only negative. Skilfully delivered, feedback helps women to gauge how they are doing and to manage both their careers and their financial expectations.
8. You can’t be a good lawyer if you work part-time
The idea pervades that you must be utterly immersed in the law and available 24/7 to be good at it. Research shows that those working reduced hours are among the most productive employees.
Management must adapt by being excellent project managers, good coaches and focusing on outputs. Creatively getting back up to speed is foremost in many women’s minds, as they have invested heavily in their careers. With good management, where and when the work is done will become increasingly irrelevant.