As a career focused woman who is also pregnant, I have experienced first-hand how helpful flexible working can be. While women often choose not to tell colleagues that they are pregnant during the first trimester, for fear of miscarriage, the side effects in this early crucial period can have a real impact on their working life. Fatigue and morning sickness are both common symptoms, and both can affect their performance at work.
Flexible working has completely changed the working landscape for pregnant women. For example, the ability to work remotely has allowed me to stay at home on days when the fatigue is particularly overwhelming, which has prevented me from overexerting myself by commuting. I have found myself more able to take short frequent breaks in order to recharge, which would have been more difficult in the office. The smell of coffee in the office is no longer appealing and triggers a wave of nausea – but thankfully I can stay at home and avoid this on days when my symptoms are particularly bad.
This is often a subject that goes unnoticed, due to the (understandable) taboo against talking about pregnancy before reaching the fabled 12-week mark. But the gains from flexible working are real and should be properly understood – and it is important to make sure that they are not lost as we settle into more permanent hybrid working patterns simply because they are not discussed.
My firm has a policy of attendance in the office 40% of the time. The beauty of this arrangement is that we are not told which days we have to attend the office, and there is a general understanding that we can be trusted to arrange our own diaries. This responsibility and trust are crucial; it has allowed me to manage my health alongside my workload in a way that satisfies both, without having to disclose my pregnancy to the office until I was ready to do so.
While the first trimester may only last for three months, the same issues impact those who suffer from illnesses and disabilities such as chronic fatigue or long covid. This is something that affects women in particular – and when one looks into the statistics on this, they are shocking. ME/CFS affects more women than men in a ratio of 4/1 which means that these women are disproportionately prevented from achieving their full potential in the workplace due to office culture. Many mothers have found that flexible hours have allowed them to meet their family’s needs while also meeting their work deadlines. Flexible working has enabled many talented female lawyers with different requirements to engage with the profession, and it is vital that they do not lose the access they have gained over the last two years.
Law firms are currently considering what their long-term hybrid working model will be. There are many benefits to being in the office (especially for more junior lawyers who may not have appropriate space at home from which to work), such as better supervision and training, clearer boundaries which assist with maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and more connection with colleagues. But it is vital that these benefits are weighed up against the benefits of flexible working – some of which are felt by those who are disproportionately unrepresented in leadership roles, where decisions are ultimately made.
Despite the fact that 61% of solicitors are female, there are still not enough women at the top; only 35% of partners are women. The action necessary to ensure that the best decisions are made moving forwards are two-fold. In the short-term, leaders must recognise their own blind spots and consult widely to ensure their decisions do not disproportionately affect groups without voices in management. Looking forward, leaders must recognise that diversity is necessary in senior roles, as it provides leaders with a wider range of views which are necessary to properly represent their diverse range of employees.
The pandemic and remote working has enabled leaders to be more open-minded and to consider whole-scale change. It is vital that this opportunity is not wasted, and that a middle-ground is found between remote working and working in the office which properly takes into account women’s needs.
Suzanna Eames is an Associate in the family team at Farrer & Co and Chair of the Junior Lawyers Division.