Covid-19 “exacerbating” inequality in profession

Denis-Smith: Women being hit hard

Women lawyers are worried that the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating inequalities in the profession, with the pandemic hitting them hard, a survey has found.

It also reported that two-thirds of women lawyers said the pandemic was having an impact on their mental health.

Over a third have experienced a drop in income, which did not appear to result in a drop in working hours – only 6% of employers had reduced respondents’ formal working hours with just 3% requesting reduced hours themselves, even though 67% reported that the organisation they worked for has furloughed staff.

The survey exploring the experiences of women in the legal profession during the pandemic was conducted by the Next 100 Years in early May; nearly 900 women responded to the online survey, of whom 350 answered the questions specific to those with school-age children

Almost all of the women were working from home – 11% have had confirmed or suspected Covid-19 themselves, and 17% have had a family member similarly affected.

A fifth had volunteered or acted pro bono during the crisis.

A significant majority (65%) were concerned that the lockdown was exaggerating existing inequalities between men and women, with just over half voicing concerns that diversity initiatives would fall by the wayside as financial pressures grow post-crisis.

There were examples of women on maternity leave who felt their jobs were particularly vulnerable and others who felt their future prospects may be impacted if they were seen not to have managed well whilst juggling family and work during this period.

For those with young children, the pressures of lockdown were particularly acute: 91% were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities, with 32% forced to reduce their working hours to do so.

Half said they were taking on more childcare responsibilities than their partner and 73% were finding the situation hard to juggle.

One law firm partner said: “All staff apart from partners have been furloughed, so 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.”

One solicitor said: “Our firm has seen 80% of the staff furloughed. The only two kept at my office were the mother of a five-year-old trying to home school and myself, currently pregnant. The strain on both our mental health has been outrageous.”

Women without children felt that they were expected to pick up extra work to cover for colleagues with young families.

A barrister said: “As a young, healthy woman with no children I am one of the few people in chambers able to continue going to court throughout this time. The pressure is immense.

“It felt like I became responsible for bringing new work into chambers overnight, and that I didn’t have a good reason for not accepting work. I’m exhausted.”

More than three-quarters of respondents (77%) felt their firm or chambers were handling the crisis well and the majority were optimistic about its future, with 70% expecting their businesses to bounce back once the crisis is over.

Most expected that requests for home working or flexible working after the crisis was over would be looked on more favourably than before.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The Next 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support, said: “The survey shows that women in the legal profession are being hit hard by this crisis. Many are attempting to do the impossible and there is a reluctance to admit they are not super women.

“As we see schools and childcare settings partially opening up and the government allowing people to go back 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.

“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.”

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