IWD 2021 – The Importance of Flexible Working

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) is choose to challenge.  Choice.  For those of us who have the freedom of choice, this is an opportunity to challenge – gender stereotypes, the gender pay gap, office harassment and bullying.  The challenge I take up is ensuring flexibility to work. 

I have, for this IWD 2021, penned a few thoughts about my journey as a working parent from my experiences as a lawyer and a mother.  My journey is still ongoing, but it has changed my perspectives on everything – career, priorities, the “having it all” debate, and support networks. One of the focuses of this year’s IWD is where women work, and the importance of progressive and inclusive employers in allowing women to choose to work in the way that works for them, whether their priority is income, career advancement, or just the opportunity to do something different from childcare and housework.

This was a challenge anyway, but then the pandemic hit, threatening to undo much of the good work in this area.  More on this later.

When I left Slaughter and May, pregnant with my second child and slightly reeling from the major career I had just walked away from, I honestly thought I would never be a lawyer again – it seemed to me there was no way of working in my chosen career that allowed me to stay central to my children’s lives on a day to day basis.  At that point, I almost gave up my practising certificate. Thankfully, because I genuinely do love being a lawyer, it turns out there were other options – I just had to look for them.

To date, I have tried four ways of parenting:

  1. Full time, Magic Circle law firm, 1 year old in nursery. This worked some days, but the enjoyment of working just wasn’t balancing with how much time I could spend at home. And more often than not, it just did not work – I was not the mum I wanted to be.
  2. Full time mum of 1, and then 2, boys.  I absolutely loved it, particularly in comparison to the recent emotional tussle of career vs. parenting. But once my second child started to sleep, I itched to get back to some kind of work, just wasn’t quite sure how to do it.  I looked at the more part-time options (e.g. 3 days a week), but wasn’t happy with any formulation that took me away from home for whole days, or at least where those days were not within my control.
  3. Mum of 3 boys, flexible agile consulting.  This was a real gamechanger for me – obviously there are challenging moments, but as a general way of working it allowed me to be mum when I wanted, and lawyer when I wanted, and that was incredibly empowering. There are, though, some limits to consulting, and career advancement and genuine inclusion within the business is realistically harder.
  4. Mum of 3 boys, flexible agile employment. This is my current state of being at London Law Collective, and although frenetic at times, it works for me. I am fully involved in the building of our firm as part of the management team and yet I do the school runs, playdates, and plenty of kids meals. Definitely still “at home mum”. I work from home most of the time, and my visits to the office often feel like a day off! I don’t think my chosen way of working would work for everyone – it is a joyful whirlwind, often exhausting, and you need to be able to switch on and off from “mum” to “lawyer”, and back again, without really thinking about it. The two worlds collide frequently, and sometimes painfully.  Last week I forgot World Book Day, and although to my three year old this is now a distant memory, it hurt me.  

I know that I am very lucky to start from a place of “choice” – I have been able to make a pretty supported decision to be both “lawyer” and “parent”.

Because, for this model to work, you do need support in all areas of your life.

  • Trusted and wholesale childcare.  This really is essential – there are times where you actually cannot attend a conference call with a baby on your lap, or from a swimming lesson. Unfortunately this can also present a potentially significant financial barrier to entry – childcare remains expensive. 
  • A supportive employer. Also pretty essential, when you are often not visible for weeks at a time, and operating a little bit in a silo. There is a trust element here – building a relationship with your employer where they know you will get the work done (however and whenever that works for you) is key. And the trust works both ways – you need to trust that you will remain a valuable member of the team even though you cannot always attend a team drink or weekly in person meeting – Zoom just doesn’t cut it.
  • Lastly, you need a supportive partner. Who understands that you may not spend the evening together because work that day starts after bedtime. Who can (ideally) share the school runs and home chores. Who, most importantly, understands the competing priorities that are never far away from the surface, and can help when these priorities conflict. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be as single parent – I have the utmost respect for those in that situation.

Obviously, this cannot work all the time – there are many overwhelming moments, lost evenings, and a lot of exhaustion. Yes, tears too sometimes. And if ultimately your job is not an enjoyable or fulfilling one, I don’t think it is worth it. I am, as I say, in the fortunate position to have been able to make choices within a career I genuinely love.

Looking forward?

So what now? Lockdown is gently beginning to lift and we are creeping back to more “normal ways of working”.  My sphere of reference is, clearly, as a working parent, and I read with so much interest the flexibility that is now being entrenched into City Law. Linklaters’ employees can now work from home 20-50% of the time. Simmons & Simmons have just introduced a “hybrid” working plan, allowing employees to work up to 2 to 3 days a week from home.  Smaller law firms had, of course, got there already. This all gives women (and men too!) so much more optionality, and I welcome the changes.

It is not all good news though.  This past year has halted a generally forward-looking freedom of choice for women in the workplace. “A pandemic amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities” said the UN in April last year. For the working mothers, this is clear to see. Overwhelmingly, women have been expected to fulfil the roles of teacher, carer, cook, cleaner, and entertainer, all whilst holding down often full-time jobs, while the carefully built up childcare support structures disappeared around them. The recent PwC Women in the Workplace Report suggests that the gender inequalities will take years to repair, with women in 2020 more likely to leave their jobs than men, and the full effects of the pandemic still to come.

This makes the challenge for flexibility in the workplace all the more pronounced – progressive and inclusive employers should not just be the exception, they should be the rule.  So, this IWD, I choose to challenge employers to embrace and support inclusive and flexible work cultures. Flexible working allows more women to become business leaders; it encourages teamwork and collaboration; and it enables women to stay at the centre of their children’s universes while not putting their working lives on pause.

Lizzie Frost