Back in March, everyone I spoke to was fairly stoic about the looming lockdown. Many had grand plans. They would seize the opportunity to use isolation to do a good clear out of the house, learn a new language, finally get round to reading The Mirror and the Light, watch a box set or two.  Succession? Chernobyl? The choice was endless. Problem solved.

By week three, barring essential workers, everyone who could do so was working from home.  In an instant the mantra “this job has to be done in the office” had been turned on its head.  Suddenly, even the most dyed in the wool, traditional law firm partner was embracing the possibility of avoiding a lengthy, unpleasant commute and working in a quiet space with a nice view of the garden and the possibility of a dog walk at lunchtime.

In some quarters, there was a giddy expectation that here was the flexible revolution we’d all been waiting for.  The end of presenteeism; of the office based 9 to 5 (or, more likely, 9 to 10); a new acceptance that professionals could be trusted to work from home, completing their tasks as and when it suited them.  The biggest barrier to women’s careers was finally coming down.

Or perhaps not.

Women with children soon found out that the fight for equality was back in the home. And it was a fight they were losing.  Research began to show that the burdens of lockdown were much greater for women, particularly those with children.  Suddenly, mothers found themselves back at home, doing the bulk of the extra childcare, cooking and cleaning.

Women were also taking on the brunt of caring for elderly relatives or family members who needed to shield.  Forget learning a language or reading a book, with all this extra work to do, women had enough on trying to hold down a job, even if that job was four days a week.  It’s one thing to have permission to do the work at home, it’s quite another to have the space – mentally and physically – to actually apply yourself to that job.

Little wonder, then, that The Lawyer recently ran an article “Female partners with children need more understanding from their male peers.”  So there we are. That’s what we need. More understanding.

My advice to women?  Don’t wait around for the empathy and understanding to come flooding your way.  Your situation is more perilous than ever.

While you’ve been putting your head down, struggling to keep on top of work, supervising home schooling, planning, cancelling and replanning foreign holidays and staycations, waiting online for that precious Ocado slot, monitoring your children’s screen time, exhorting your elderly parents and in-laws to stick to the rules, your male peers have, by and large, been having a different lockdown experience.

Not only have they been able to work from home much more successfully than they ever thought possible, your male peers haven’t lost touch with the people who can impact their careers.  I’m not talking here about their children, elderly parents and in-laws. I’m talking about their clients and the partners who lead their practice groups, who bring in work, who maintain client relationships, who are keeping the business afloat.

Talking to some senior partners over the last few weeks, it’s clear that men have been much smarter at pushing themselves forward to not only get what juicy work is around but also to let people know how well they’ve performed in executing that work.  How that deal would never have happened without their intervention, how their contribution to that negotiation was so critical. Yes, in part, it may be that they’ve had the luxury of a partner at home who is carrying the burden, but also they get it.  They know how to manage their careers.

If you don’t believe me, think about this. Another piece in The Lawyer examined what lawyers had been up to during lockdown.  Cooking, exercising, DIY were all up there (no-one, it seems, got round to learning a new language) and so was social media use. But here’s the thing. Across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, women were more likely to have increased their usage.  LinkedIn was the only social media platform where “men were more likely to have upped their presence.”

Where do you go if you want to read what experts in your sector are saying? Which platform is there to help you expand your professional network?  Where do employers go to look for talent? Where are all the jobs? Which platform is best if you’re looking to build your personal brand? For business development? To extend your professional reach?  Not Facebook, that’s for sure.

My advice to women during this next lockdown? Don’t wait for more understanding. Take control. Work out where you want to be by April, have a plan and create yourself a routine that sets you on the right path.  Here are five things that I guarantee will make a difference:

  1. Share the burden at home. Be it childcare, housework, home schooling, elderly care, house admin, whatever.  Don’t become the “default parent”. And even better, ask your male peers if they’re doing the same.  If not, encourage them to do their bit for equality, where it really matters.
  2. Sharpen your difference. What’s your personal brand?   What is unique about you? What do you know about, where is your expertise and who knows about it.  Hint: LinkedIn is a useful platform for building both reputation and reach.
  3. Pick up the phone.  Talk to people. Your clients, colleagues, partners, peers, other people in your sector.  No-one’s on a plane, everyone’s at home, we’re all available.  Lockdown has taken down barriers and we’re all living a shared experience. It’s amazing how much easier this makes it to chat to people, whatever their position.
  4. Keep learning. Forget Spanish, it’s never going to happen (unless there is a business reason) but do carve out time to read technical updates, recent cases and the like. As well as law firms and the usual subscription services, many universities offer reasonably priced individual modules.  Away from law, there are plenty of online offerings that are often either free or very low cost.
  5. Be at the net.  Be alive and open to opportunities to make connections, bring in work, extend your network.  This isn’t just about external clients.  Which other teams in your firm will bring in work that will draw on the work of your team? Whose advice would be even better with your particular slant on it. We’re all business developers now

Take your future into your own hands.  Make a plan.  Be upfront and be bold.  The bad news is that you won’t have time to read The Mirror and the Light; but assuming you get number one right, you still might have time for the odd box set. Mrs America is fabulous.

Lisa Unwin is the co-founder of the Reignite Academy