Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.
Amanda* worked 11 weeks of overtime last year in her job as a lawyer. She has two children ages 11 and 13, and is married to a man who works part-time, mainly to chauffeur children around to activities she says!
Women everywhere are burning out
The number of women burning out post-COVID has skyrocketed, and Amanda also had her own experience last year.
“I burned out mid last year. I started to notice I was just spent, and by the end of last year I tried to reset some boundaries again, which will be a work in progress. That’s going well.”
COVID was a hectic period for work, and Amanda noticed the level of discretionary effort she was putting in that doesn’t significantly positively impact how you are perceived.
“I have been the discretionary effort queen! I’m trying to cut back a bit on the stuff that goes unseen. Which comes back again to what boys are really good at, which is laser beam focus on what’s important.”
You may baulk at the stereotype that men focus ‘better’ on just what’s important, but it’s supported by data. When it comes to non-promotable tasks, women are more likely to put their hands up, more likely to be asked and say yes more often when they are.
For Amanda, learning to say no to has created space for the most important things.
“Know what you want and relentlessly do things that move you towards that goal. Your goal may change but always be deliberate. Saying no to someone else may liberate you to say yes to things that are important to you.”
Do law firms work for women?
The legal industry has some specific challenges with women and retention. More university graduates are women than men (64% – 36%) but by the time you hit equity partner the numbers have shifted sharply back the other way (24%F – 76%M).
While some progressive law firms are working on a number of initiatives to retain and progress women, Amanda had some insights on the challenges.
“Law firms are a unique beast. They’re incredibly profitable for those who make it to what I call the “feeding trough”, but it’s not an equitable business model.”
“If you look at law firms through a gender lens, you could say that one gender is fuelling the success of another gender because of an entrenched business model.”
“If you scratch at the surface of why women leave and don’t make partner, you have to start asking the tough questions. Is there a certain type of personality that doesn’t lend itself to becoming a partner? Is it a values discussion? I don’t think the firms have biased selection, but I think the women are self-selecting because of misaligned values. If you’re asking me to give you 70-80 hours a week, what is that costing me in terms of what I could be doing with my time?”
“I don’t know that the law firm machine itself is inherently anti women, I just think there is something in the cut and thrust of what it means to be a partner that lends itself to male personalities. I’m reluctant to get into gender stereotypes. But if you have to bring in $3m of revenue, you’ve got to be working your team really hard, and I think that’s harder for women than men.”
The clash of kids and lawyer-ing
Amanda also cites a unique clash between progressing up the chain in a law firm and having children, when two high-pressure timelines overlap.
“There’s a key window of time when you’re supposed to be building your practice to make partner and business development is key. When a lot of women are up to their eyeballs in breastfeeding and nappies and don’t have the discretionary time to be out having breakfasts and lunches and and dinners.”
Having moved around the world a number of times, Amanda didn’t have a strong network during those practice-building years. With two small kids and no family nearby, she could put in the work hours to make the Partner money but didn’t have any extra time to build her own practice.
She had already taken an unusual path for law firms, working in a global, cross-practice team and not on the partner track.
COVID, flexibility, and switching off
Because of her unusual path, Amanda had been working remotely and part time for a number of years.
“When COVID hit, the biggest change for me was that suddenly the rest of the firm wanted to have conference calls all the time and I was like, ‘why so much time on Teams?’.”
“Another big shift was the men were getting on video calls and talking about how much family time they were having, and I wanted to punch them in the face.”
Despite her frustrations, Amanda thinks the move to large-scale remote working has helped women balance the juggle. It forced behavioural change in a positive way. Her own husband had previously been adamant that he needed to be in the office full time, and now works in the next door room in their home!
“A lot of men who had required face time in the office – which made it really hard for women trying to juggle – suddenly realised there is another way.”
But the challenge she faces now is permission to switch off. During COVID lockdowns, in Amanda’s firm, it was common and completely unquestioned for people to schedule meetings at 11 pm.
“At points I felt like I was living at work, not working from home, because there was no separation. Who is the onus on to enforce the boundaries?”
The value of time
For Amanda, the conversation about her values and what she does with her time is an important consideration. The flexibility of working from home saves her two hours of commuting a day.
“How I spend that time becomes a values conversation – do I spend that time doing housework or building my practice. But I at least have that choice. Time is our most precious commodity, it’s the only think we can’t get more of.”
Time with her kids is non-negotiable, and she reflected on how their needs have changed as they have grown.
“Investing time and energy into the children is vitally important to me. If work is asking more of that than I’m willing to give then that’s a boundary that I have to set, because work will take, take, take. I have to be ok with where I set those boundaries – easier said than done! There are weeks when I feel like I don’t have control over that boundary.”
For the first few years of working with children, Amanda was part-time, and her husband was full-time, but Amanda felt like she was working full-time with a baby on top. Initially, she solved it by sleeping less!
Through COVID, Amanda saw more dads spending time with their kids, feeling more liberated, and enjoying it.
“Pre COVID, I said that until men work part time, women will never be treated equally. Because you’re choosing to spend your time differently, and the system will value and judge your choices through those metrics.”
“If COVID has changed anything, I hope it has recalibrated or balanced both genders abilities to make those value judgements, and the businesses around them can really start to recognise those choices.”
Now, Amanda’s looking at the number of years she has left with her kids at home.
“If my daughter leaves home at the same age as me, I’ve got 16 more weeks of annual leave to spend with her. Talk about refocusing on what’s important! Once they’re gone it won’t matter if I’m working until 10 o’clock at night.”
Making it possible
There’s a huge systemic challenge to face with law firms and keeping women around long term.
If you work for a law firm and want to know the latest best practice on what’s being done to attract and retain women, get in touch.
*not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the challenges of the juggle, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.
If you would like to share your story, please send me a message!