The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating inequalities between men and women in the legal profession, according to a survey by the First 100 Years organisation which promotes the cause of women in the profession.
Its survey of women lawyers found that 65% of respondents believe the current lockdown is having this effect, with over 50% voicing concerns that diversity initiatives will fall by the wayside due to financial pressures after the crisis.
Childcare is a big issue, with the vast majority taking on more childcare and home schooling responsibilites and many of them struggling to juggle these with their work responsibilities, especialy as less than a third reduced their working hours to deal with this.
One in-house lawyer reported, “I am the only female solicitor in a team of five. The other solicitors' partners manage the home schooling for their children but I have only been able to manage my workload by working early morning and late evening. I don’t want to stand out as having performed more poorly than my male colleagues if there are redundancies later but I don't know how long I can keep it up. I am completely exhausted and there is no end in sight.”
Even those without children can be affected. A barrister related: “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.”
The majority of those surveyed felt their mental health had been impacted by the crisis. One participant reported that their employer had furloughed 80% of staff, and “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”.
Two thirds of participants reported furloughs and cuts to staff by their employers, and over a third had experienced income reductions (though no comparable figures are available for men). One participant reported: “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.”
On a more positive note, 77% of respondents felt that their firm or chambers were handling the crisis well, and the majority were optimistic about the future of their firm or chambers, with 70% expecting their businesses to bounce back once the crisis is over.
There was also an overwhelming expectation that there would be an increased acceptance of requests for home working or flexible working, with 83% anticipating a change in the profession.
First 100 Years said it would use the findings to inform its next steps as a project “as we continue to work towards driving the change needed to create an equal future for women in the profession”.