The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, according to a study published last month. The study, by Essex, Surrey and Birmingham universities, found school closures during lockdown badly damaged the mental health of mothers but had far less impact on fathers’ wellbeing.
Managing childcare and home schooling, as well as their own jobs, led to more mothers of young children feeling depressed and having trouble sleeping. The findings chimed with our surveys of women in the legal profession last year, which found they were coming under considerable strain, with 66% saying the crisis was having an impact on their mental health.
Of those with young children, 91% were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities with 32% forced to reduce their working hours to do so.
There was also emerging evidence of women’s careers being impacted. 55% thought women in the profession were being disproportionately impacted by cuts and redundancies, there were women on maternity leave who felt their jobs were particularly vulnerable and others who felt their future prospects could be impacted if they were seen not to have managed well juggling family and work.
At the same time, we saw the pressing issue of the gender pay gap put on the back burner as compulsory gender pay reporting was suspended. This year the reporting deadline has been extended by six months.
While some of it has been important to alleviate pressure on businesses, the move also unwittingly gave the green light to put the gender pay reporting to the bottom of the pile at a time when addressing gender equality is of desperate importance.
As we make slow moves towards fully lifting restrictions and look to returning to our offices, at least for some of the time, there are positive signs that despite the difficulties of the pandemic we could see some real progress for women.
Flexible working – long the number one change women believe will aid equality in the profession – is now being adopted across the board, with firms lining up to announce permanent changes to their flexible working policies, combining remote working with time in the office.
This is good news. It shows that change is possible and a willingness to accommodate those with caring responsibilities better. The big test will be how this works in practice and whether the profession shows true flexibility, embracing part-time as well as remote working.
Firms will need to show leadership and consistency in their flexible working policies. It should not be left up to individual managers and partners as to how much time their teams spend in the office – there will always be some who object. It will require a change in the culture of organisations that must be driven from the top.
Firms will also have to look at the structure of their teams and individual roles and working practices. It’s all very well and good to offer flexibility, but if lawyers are still expected to hit sky high targets for billable hours worked or for new business wins, then apart from cutting out a commute, those looking for a better balance between work and family life are unlikely to see huge benefits.
In the long term, I would like to see changes to the law that make flexible working the default option for businesses, both in relation to remote working and part time work. The government are said to be behind the idea, with support from small business minister Paul Scully, and an advisory group brought together to draw up new employment advice for flexible working.
Ultimately, firms will continue to lose talented lawyers to in-house roles if they are not willing to accommodate truly flexible working. Experience shows those lawyers are most likely to be women.
In the near term there needs to be recognition of the difficulties faced by lawyers over the past year, something many firms have looked to counter with bonuses, extra holiday entitlement and well-being support.
Such initiatives will be welcome for those whose caring responsibilities will continue to be onerous for some time to come, whether that’s due to childcare shortages over the summer, isolating children or the need to support vulnerable relatives.
The gender pay gap must also be tackled.
Part of the reason why women have been adversely impacted by the pandemic was a sense that they should be taking the hit on childcare given their lower earnings when compared to their partner.
If legal businesses are really serious about improving equality, they need to be transparent, reporting on their gender pay gap and working to close it, setting targets and having diversity front of mind, from graduate recruitment through to senior management.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we must redouble our efforts. That means culture change, more transparency, setting diversity targets and the integration of permanent flexible and remote working.
We have seen what kind of transformation is possible over the last year, let’s keep up the momentum to push for further progress.
Find out how you can use the Law Society’s Women in Law Pledge to ensure meaningful change is achieved for women’s equality within the legal profession.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The Next 100 Years