(Anonymised, italicised quotes from Social Media Contributors, with thanks)

Isn’t it Ironic?

There is a certain irony that on International Women’s Day, 8th March 2021, the schools in England re-open after the third lockdown since 20th March 2020. This year’s theme is “Choose to Challenge”, yet the one missing ingredient for many working mothers over the last year has been any real sense of positive choice about many things at all.

After recent social media exchanges, I’m sure there will be those who say this isn’t an experience unique to women, nor should women make it such, but the undeniable truth of the matter is women, particularly those with caring responsibilities, are being disproportionately and adversely affected by the pandemic in comparison to men, 2.2 million in the US dropping out of the labour market altogether.

An American survey from June 2020 found that 12.7% of mothers were not working due to Covid-related childcare issues, compared to only 2.8% of men. Meanwhile, in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown and 67% of women compared with 52% of men were taking charge of home schooling.

It’s taken for granted…that women will pick up the slack and “deal with it” if it’s anything to do with kids or family or the home. How we are quite supposed to deal with this whilst working full time, as if we don’t have kids or caring responsibilities, I have no idea!

The pandemic has exposed how inextricably linked to childcare provisions in schools is the success of the working lives/ careers/ businesses of working mothers and, as a consequence, the economy as a whole. Without such provisions in place, we can expect a stagnation or regression in women’s career progression, as they are forced to give up jobs entirely, or dramatically reduce working hours, to better balance working from home with the demands of childcare and home schooling.

Shock

The speed with which Corona Virus spread amongst us is what I recall most clearly about pre-pandemic days: A seemingly innocuous news report first week in March, led into the anxious charting of my parents’ progress home in their camper van as they drove North through Spain and France to make it home from holiday early, in the nick of time, before the first 2020 UK lockdown.

Then next, school closures, just like that, almost overnight, with no time to have considered and sensible conversations at work about how best to manage a full-time job or business around childcare, whether shared or otherwise.

Shock turns Shocking

Soon after, the shocking effect became evident.

Furloughing

Clients accepted furloughing in order to facilitate home-schooling knowing it was likely to adversely affect their visibility at work and potential future career progression. The challenge around staying visible whilst working from home, particularly when transitioning – whether starting a new job/ role or returning from maternity leave- had already begun to crop up in coaching conversations, but these concerns were then compounded by the increased expectation that non-keyworker parents stayed home to work.

The pandemic has also highlighted other longstanding issues:

Inflexible Hours

So many women are refused part time hours once they have children or take on caring roles, and forced to leave employment or take on minimum wage/zero hours jobs that are more “flexible”. It’s a total brain drain because companies can’t see that women can be productive and add value, even working part time hours.

Those who did choose to keep working ended up doing their own full-time job with a huge amount of extra work from furloughed colleagues thrown in on top, without any additional pay.

In one particular example, a female boss made attempts to persuade another woman not to take on any additional caring responsibilities even in the case of a terminally ill parent, implying it would have negative ramifications for career progression. Despite continuing to work throughout the pandemic and taking on those additional responsibilities without any knock-on effect to productivity/ output at work, that woman with the first that the team “let go”.

Pandemic Penalty

At the Bar, senior women wanting to apply for Silk, having had a reduction in Criminal work due to Crown Court closures, and having to prioritise childcare over court appearances, have fewer case examples than their male counterparts to include in the rigorous Queen’s Counsel application form, requiring “recent” evidence of heavy-weight work.

Confidence Issues

Increasingly too clients complain of reduced self- confidence where court work has reduced significantly with the temporary closure of Courts and their advocacy skills have been left to “go rusty” or where they are being asked to return to work in environments which they do not feel are “Covid secure.”

Working Parent Guilt

Similarly, working parent/ mother guilt is never far away, across a whole spectrum of children’s ages, even though individual’s personal circumstances are so very different:

I am mother to an A level pupil and a second year Uni student. The emotional impact of steering 2 teenagers through this minefield is so under-publicised that I find it increasingly unacceptable. I feel consumed with guilt that I am powerless to really help. University students are all but forgotten and the stress of helping my younger son…choose a University from places he’s never set foot in is crushing. I know I’m lucky. I have great boys, a supportive husband, a job I enjoy in a great team and a comfortable home in which to WFH. Therefore, yet more guilty feelings for not being on top of everything! We are being asked to do something no other generation of mothers has done, ever and it’s so hard.

Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations and increasing conflict around shared care for those home schooling whilst holding down full-time work negotiating with their other halves has become common parlance. Being within the home with all the family 100% of the time has also been a significant stress-point, with lots of people feeling the pressure. A number of clients have mentioned strains in their relationships, which is not something pre-pandemic I’d ever heard brought up in sessions.

Time Ownership Challenges

I’ve seen time ownership challenges increase for those lucky enough to have practices which have transitioned seamlessly online, e.g. In family courts, a consequence of which has been that practitioners are actually doing more work now than they can truly manage – with earlier hearing times and no commute, (apart from bedroom to study of course) – not to mention home schooling on top.

Wellbeing

The competing demands of working from home and being primary caregiver haven’t only frayed relationships at work and home, but have also seriously impacted clients’ confidence, worst still, mental health, challenges which have only been intensified for single parents, as this “Day in the Life” example of a separated parent illustrates:

I started working 5am – 9am whilst the children were on screens.  Then 9am to 3pm I jumped between home-school and work, and after bedtime squeezed in the hours. I got ill in July 2020, ended up in hospital briefly, then essentially absolutely burned out in summer. I was devastated in January when the schools closed again…The emotional toll on me and the kids is awful… I can feel I am reaching the point of collapse again.

It’s easy to see then how working mothers are finding their wellbeing compromised: Working mothers who are leaders, struggling to lead exhausted teams when they are exhausted themselves, as work and life become inextricably and unhealthily inter-twined. Stress becoming overwhelm, in particular after the intensity of back-to-back zoom calls without a break to get a cuppa in communal office kitchens where ordinarily people can meet colleagues informally and let off steam. And that’s not to mention the unseen mental load that women carry – for example, being first point of contact with school/ Doctors, and undertaking, according to ONS analysis, an average of 60% more unpaid work than men. Single parents have found themselves under even greater pressure, single-handedly home-schooling young children, or feeling increasing isolated where “stuck” in/ locked down with teenage kids.

Awe

But let’s give credit where credit’s due: I surprised myself as a speaker how quickly, when all live events were cancelled, how it was possible to transition – seamlessly I’m pleased to say- to online webinars and an increased use of, and trust and confidence in, Zoom coaching. Nowadays, one hugely positive knock-on effect of the pandemic is the preference of many to avoid unnecessary travel time to facilitate one to one meetings, which in turn has more readily opened up an entirely new, and global market for international coaching.

In the same way, I am in awe of the speed with which companies, when push came to shove, successfully transitioned to home working, with fully functioning technological support and infrastructures put in place. The organisations made the kind of progress about which women campaigning for flexible/ remote/ home-based working could only have dreamed. Even the old school traditionalist firms in law and finance simply had to adapt, transition and grow or quite literally die, if they want to avoid suffering a fate similar to Blockbuster Videos all those years before.

Additionally, on a positive, there is now a more tolerant approach taken towards work interruptions due to the demands of childcare. A recognition, finally, that we are human beings not human resources or automatons, with lives beyond our working noses. The way paved for a more inclusive and diverse office life, making work, and full-time or flexible working, more accessible, in particular to working mothers.

To hear then the boss of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, reject as the “new normal” remote working and describe it instead as an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”, is disappointing to say the least. It flies in the face of so many other companies and organisations who intend to use their lockdown learnings to facilitate a more accessible, inclusive model.

Predominantly, Solomon’s objection appears to be based upon the premise that in the bank’s “apprentice” culture, incoming trainees would be without direct mentorship. Whilst of course there is an argument for saying that younger, single, millennial trainees may have experienced a heightened sense of isolation brought about by pandemic remote working, and the lack of informal “water-cooler” moments during which to learn from others and kick ideas around, it is a fallacy to say that working from home makes direct mentorship impossible, or that there is no place for a hybrid, offering flexibility and choice between office and home working. I have successfully coached and mentored remotely/ online, internationally, long before this pandemic year.

Awe turns Awe-inspiring

So, when the likes of Solomon make the irresponsible and regressive claim that working from home is an aberration, let’s remind him and his old-school, pale, male, stale cronies that, when done properly, with schools reopened, and when people, especially women, CAN make a genuine choice to challenge cultural and societal norms, they will: a hybrid mix of office life and working from home empowers rather than disempowers workforces. It also makes the workplace accessible to a more diverse range of workers. Ground-breaking, awe-inspiring stuff that we now know works, and works effectively. We have the lived experience as evidence.

I get it. Not everyone WANTS to work from home. I understand that many people are missing that special something that one can only tap into from the uniqueness of office life. But to reject working from home out of hand suggests that nothing has been learnt from the pandemic and demonstrates an entirely fixed and immovable position which has the potential to directly discriminate against caregivers.

Consequently, organisations will lose people to more forward-thinking, adaptable competitors. Droves of talented females will vote with their feet, plunging businesses, particularly in financial services, into an ever-deepening retention crisis: Women making up just 16% of leadership positions in this industry to date, despite a whole raft of diversity targets and initiatives.

Most of my clients are setting up working groups to look at what experiences from the last 12 months can be taken forward into ‘business as usual’, with many talking about adopting a lot more flexibility. It’s a shame that not all organisations see it this way, as businesses will surely lose talented people, if they don’t embrace a more flexible approach.  

Even for the likes of the legal profession, that has more readily embraced the remote working changes, the big test will of course be around not whether it IS sustainable long after the disappearance of Covid but rather whether law firms WILL, culturally, continue to promote/ embrace it to level the diversity playing field.

Pandemic Experiences making a meaningful difference: Choose to Challenge 2021/2022

Let’s “Choose to Challenge” then the cultural norms. Let’s get commitments from firms and organisations that they won’t just support a hybrid working model for ease of access to women, but that they will also actively support and promote a return to the workplace, wherever, physically, that may be. High-light senior role-models – both women AND men – who have trodden a similar path before and made successes of flexible working or extended parental leave.

How about, in addition, assurances that, for example, the QC Application Panel won’t discriminate against women with pandemic gaps in their CV. Investment in returner programmes, to attract and retain female talent: to include coaching to build confidence; mentoring to upskill or more quickly put women back on a level playing field to the one they might have left pre-pandemic; and sponsoring their return to actively promoting their talents within the workplace and beyond. Promotions based on output not input to ensure equity. The avoidance of lazy assumptions around the perceived negative impact of care-giving on someone’s ability to successfully perform at work. And finally, extend paid parental leave, to avoid the need to take unpaid leave or use holiday entitlements to accommodate any future demands of home schooling.

Companies across the board need to accept that women are incredibly valuable, and it would benefit them to have women who care in their employ – “despite” them only being there part time…Businesses have a role to play in ensuring equality

After a year of railing against a global pandemic that has in many ways robbed so many of choice, both at home and at work, let’s use the opportunity now to Choose to Challenge what has gone before, and by doing so, influence equality outcomes for the better.

 

Further Reading: https://mck.co/30i6HTv

Nikki Alderson Biography

Nikki Alderson, specialist Corporate & Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker & best selling Author, & former Criminal Barrister with 19 years’ experience,

  • supports organisations, law firms & barristers’ Chambers to retain female talent; &
  • empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.

Nikki specialises in 3 areas:

  • Women Leadership transition & change;
  • Enhanced career break returner support; &
  • Workplace resilience, mental toughness, confidence & wellness.

She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching (https://amzn.to/3fodKQX), nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category & finalist in the 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year and 2020 Women in Law Awards, Legal Services Innovator of the Year.