Gender inequalities in law are, it appears, being exaggerated by the covid-19 pandemic.
Campaigning group, the Next 100 Years, surveyed 900 women in law in early May (of those, 91% were working from home) and found that 66% of them said the coronavirus crisis was impacting their mental health. Cementing concerns that gender inequalities were being exposed, 65% felt the lockdown was exaggerating existing inequalities between the two genders.
A female partner with a four-year-old child and an “ill husband” who responded to the survey said that all non-partners at her firm have been furloughed. For her, the result is: “I am working at home around the clock whilst having to juggle a four-year-old and an ill husband. It is exhausting and at the same time I am dealing with the reality that the firm just may not survive this.”
Another solicitor said: “It is particularly hard for women with young children in the firm, some of whom were the first to be furloughed. The pay cuts have had a bigger impact on junior staff members, the majority of which are female.”
Many female lawyers have young families and traditionally struggle more with childcare responsibilities than their male counterparts so it is no surprise that survey respondents who have young children reported finding the pressures of lockdown particularly acute.
This is echoed by the Civil Justice Council’s report on the impact of covid-19 on civil justice and remote court hearings which was published on 4 June and received widespread praise for its depth and speed. The report refers to evidence of the disproportionate impact on barristers with caring responsibilities for children who are involved in remote hearings, and suggested that the impact of measures on women and carers be monitored.
Next 100 Years survey revealed the vast majority of women (91%) were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling duties. And half of these found themselves with more of those responsibilities than their partner was taking on. So it is not surprising that 73% of the women in law surveyed said they were finding their situation hard to struggle; nor should be a surprise that nearly a third were left with no choice but to reduce their working hours to manage it.
Many also felt their future prospects may be impacted if they are seen not to have managed well while they are juggling family and work.
Respondents who do not have children are not faring particularly well either. Many, it emerged, felt they were expected to take on extra work to make up for colleagues who have young families.
Founder of the Next 100 Years, Dana Denis-Smith, said the survey shows that women in the legal profession are being hit hard and many are trying to do “the impossible” along with, she says, “a reluctance to admit they are not super women”.
She said that as schools and childcare settings start to open up, and as people start to return to work, “I hope that legal businesses continue to accommodate the difficult situation that working parents will continue to find themselves in and are mindful of the tough time experienced by so many women in past months”.
Denis-Smith has major concerns that as financial pressures grow “it would be disastrous if some of the hard-won progress on diversity we have seen in recent years is lost”.
She warned: “These life changing events will affect the legal profession for years to come and I hope that we learn the right lessons.”
Yet the pandemic is proving that flexible working and the advantages brought by modern technology and the likes of Zoom and other forms of video-conferencing can be done effectively.
Denis-Smith says there is optimism about “the potential for increased flexible working, a change that would make a real difference to women’s progress”.
She said it shows how easily it can be done if firms are willing to embrace it. Initial signs are encouraging: more than three quarters of the respondents (77%) said their law firm/chambers was handling the crisis well and 70% were confident the business will bounce back after the crisis.
The survey results also revealed that more that 50% of the respondents had concerns that diversity initiatives will fall by the wayside as financial pressures on law firms increase after the crisis has passed.
Firm leaders need to understand the concerns of their workforce and the particular pressures exerted on many women lawyers during the covid-19 crisis, as well as in the longer term. An understanding of the disadvantages a firm can inadvertently cause their female staff can lead to mental health problems, greater disparities in pay and other benefits and risks long-term detriment to the profession.
The pandemic must not be allowed to stifle progress on gender equality.
The Next 100 Years is a project working to achieve equality for women in law and comes from the team who founded the ground-breaking First 100 years project. That project charted the journey of women in law through the 100 years following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 - which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.