Having a baby inevitably has a significant impact on your career as a woman, regardless of what stage in your career you are at, whether it’s your first, second or fifth child, whether you are emailing clients on the ward following delivery or not returning to work for another 12 months. Equally, Covid-19 has ushered in a “new normal” forcing us all to re-evaluate how best to protect our own and our families’ wellbeing while continuing to provide financially.
For me, experiencing both these extraordinary events at once represents a chance to look afresh at some major challenges that we have been grappling with as a society for too long. Namely what a good work/life balance looks like and how to deliver flexibility that works for employers and working mums. I have been grappling with this since I had my first baby (now 11).
It is important we talk about working mums specifically, not working parents in general. Though there is clearly cross-over, the issues working dads face are not the same, and we do both mums and dads a disservice by treating them as though they are. The key to solving workplace inequalities is to address the issues which challenge women, recognising that a part of this is the role men play in the household and as parents.
My daughter arrived a month into the first lockdown. As the only UK partner in a small and flourishing practice, I felt that for myself and my team I needed to carry on working in some form during my maternity leave (unofficially four months) and maintain client work shortly after my daughter was born. This would have been challenging without Covid-19, but the shift to working from home has created new positives as well as negatives.
For one, I was able to continue breastfeeding, which would have been difficult had I returned to the office immediately. Mothers who are able and choose to breastfeed naturally have a greater physical (not emotional) tie to new-borns than the fathers and it’s vital that this is recognised and supported. For mothers, returning to work and playing an active role in their baby’s life should not be mutually exclusive.
Working from home has also levelled the playing field somewhat in the period when “traditional maternity leave” would have been more restrictive, in terms of the ability to maintain visibility and connection with work. Now that everyone is working remotely and communicating virtually, my “absence” was less noticeable than it would otherwise have been, better allowing me to maintain my position during my maternity leave. Before the pandemic I would either have had to struggle into work to attend meetings and interact face-to-face with my team (alongside dealing with the logistics of pumping milk) or stay at home and drop out of sight and out of mind: neither of which is appealing when you want to maintain a business and be a professional and a good mother. For working mums everywhere, this flexibility to be present without being physically “there” is a major step forward.
Of course, the flip-side is trying to work effectively from home while life, with all its demands and distractions, goes on around you. While dads are feeling the strain too, research from the University of Sussex suggests that the greater share of childcare and home-schooling is falling on women and certainly discussions amongst my peers echoes this. Suddenly finding yourself with no support and still having to maintain a job and home-school, topped off with a new-born, has been a real battle and required huge strength of character just to keep going – and I know I’m not alone. It’s vital that we talk about this openly and turn words into meaningful actions to prevent more mothers dropping out of the workforce or taking on less ‘demanding roles’ for fear that they will do them a disservice.
It is also important to not confuse ‘having it all’ with ‘doing it all’; those are two separate concepts and whilst there some mothers with help behind them who feel that they do have it all, for most mothers doing everything is an everyday exercise in spinning plates. Whilst it is no longer the norm that a man is the sole earner whilst the woman keeps house – many parents now find themselves both working and balancing – the balance between father and mother is not equal. I doubt any father of a young family wants to sit in an office indulging in facetime late into the evening, but mothers often do not have the choice as someone has to be at home to pick up the slack.
As part of my role on the board for Women in Fund Finance, I spend time mentoring and hearing from women in the industry who feel they must choose between career v children. In a return-to-work session held last summer, these issues were discussed at length. Six months on from that session, and a year since the pandemic hit, and there are still more questions than answers about the toll this is taking on the working women dynamic. Now is the time to consider these issues deeply and seriously, so that we can find solutions that support women during the pandemic and that outlast it. All business, including law firms, must take a proactive approach to understand how the landscape has changed – perhaps forever – and what support working mums need now. What is also really key is that we make it more acceptable for men to take a more domestic role and follow in the footsteps of some of the Scandinavian countries who seem to have got the gender balance sorted somewhat better than we do.
What I want for my generation and my children’s is an end to having to make the choice between our professional and personal lives when we become parents. Covid-19 has thrown the issues into sharp relief – but it has also brought about changes that offer some hope that a better way forward can be found for the future.
Emma Russell is a partner and head of finance at Haynes & Boone