The Covid-19 pandemic has received its fair share of bad press regarding its impact on working women. But are there any positives that will drive equality for women in the legal profession?
The views of our female peers are mixed. Some hail the advent of increased remote-working and the ability to convert commuting time into family time. Others are fraught and overburdened juggling far more than their fair share of domestic responsibilities and childcare. Some have gone part-time, though unfortunately there remains more of a stigma associated with this within the legal profession than in other sectors. One lawyer without children described the greater sense of guilt and failure she now experiences whenever she becomes overwhelmed by a work situation, feeling like she has no excuse for it when working parents are tackling so much.
Amid the differing experiences and viewpoints, there is one recurring theme which we are particularly interested to explore. For some within the legal profession, there seems to have been a refreshing change in the nature of the conversations taking place. With the blurring of the lines between home and work, it seems professional women and men alike are now discussing the domestic with an openness not previously witnessed in the mainstream.
It is easy to see how this could have happened. We have spent the past year staring into each other’s studies, sitting rooms and bedrooms, listening to dogs barking, children shouting, delivery drivers ringing doorbells, and the odd piano lesson (as was the case in a recent High Court hearing). Generally speaking, fathers are spending far more time at home and with their children than ever before and experiencing first-hand the juggling act that is required to keep the show on the road. Prior to Covid, for men and women alike it was much easier to leave the domestic out of sight-and-mind at the doors of the glossy city office.
The positive effect of this personal insight is a greater understanding that, underneath it all, we have shared experiences and challenges, irrespective of the traditional stereotypes. Any such change in conversation brings with it an opportunity to make connections across the gender divide in a way that was arguably far more difficult before the pandemic.
We have experienced this ourselves in interactions with male clients, colleagues, counsel and counterparts alike. One senior partner rarely attends an online meeting these days without some mention of – or interruption from – his beloved pet dog. Another eminent silk has shared adorable photos of his daughter and grandson playing in the snow. A recent business development meeting commenced with one partner announcing jovially that his internet bandwidth might struggle given his three daughters were busy home-schooling.
The reason that this matters, of course, is that the ability to build relationships, whether with colleagues, clients or contacts, is vital for career progression, but can be challenging when we have less in common with others. Whilst we can forge connections with our female peers by discussing what matters to us, this has the negative impact of relegating topics such as work/life balance, flexible working and childcare to ‘women’s issues’, when they are in fact universal.
Elevating these topics to the mainstream is the first step to reducing unconscious bias and recognising problems within the system that are unfairly impacting women, or indeed all minority groups, who are under-represented in the upper echelons of the profession. It is much easier for a supervisor to recognise how hard it has been for a lawyer to meet their billable hours targets when they have seen a child interrupt a Zoom call six times with home-schooling queries, than it was pre-pandemic where a domestic emergency required that person to drop what they were doing and rush home from the office.
Of course, there have always been men who are perfectly comfortable having these conversations. Some of them happen to be the most supportive and inspiring lawyers and mentors with whom we and others have worked. That is no coincidence.
The pandemic has the potential, at least within the legal profession, to liberate and act as the catalyst for institutional change. Maybe all the men rolling up their sleeves behind the scenes on the domestic front will feel more comfortable talking about it, and even flexing their working lives around it. Maybe advocates will be able to request remote hearings if they are unable to travel to court due to childcare issues. Perhaps an increasing number of fathers will opt for the primary carer role, feeling less confined by traditional social constructs now the pandemic has shaken things up.
Whatever the long term outcome, some of us are likely to remember this past year as the time we got to know those with whom we worked so much better, despite being further apart. Let’s hope that these conversations continue beyond the pandemic.
Lorraine Lanceley and Elaina Bailes are partners at Stewarts