It's time to change the narrative
Many of you will have seen the article published by the American Bar Association (ABA) on 29th June, written by a women, explaining why female lawyers with children derail their careers. “They lose focus”, the author writes. “Lawyer moms are so stretched and overscheduled that they cannot easily find time in their days to assist others,” she goes on to explain. “Children typically look to Mommy for on-time meals, rides to school…..and general comfort and care.” In short, it’s the fault of women that they don’t progress.
This article was not written in the 1940s, it was written in 2021. The outcry on social media showed that the views in the article did not reflect the views of many (they certainly do not reflect my own). However, most of the outcry was from women. Perhaps the men didn’t feel as outraged. I suspect many, even the majority, were but they were unsure of what to say. Interestingly, the response from the ABA was only signed by former female presidents.
I have seen a number of articles responding to the ABA article, pointing out all of the things that make working mums an asset. I fully agree and think that it is important the initial article is drowned out. I also agree with the response from the ABA which underlined that women are not one homogenous group. A lot of the things that make lawyer mums an asset, also make women an asset. Empathy. Emotionally intelligence. Albeit, this is isn’t universally true of all women, or universally lacking in all men.
The more I educate myself the more I know, and the more I don’t know. I do know that it is time to change the narrative. To have honest conversations about this and to challenge the stereotypes that, as the article that started this showed, still exist.
There are so many great initiatives that are challenging stereotypes. Miriam Gonzalez and her Inspiring Girls foundation speaks to girls and shows them they can aspire to be whatever they want to be (check out my inspiring chat with her here). The First 100 Years project aims to set down the history of the legal trailblazers that came before us (Dana Denis-Smith, the founder, is going to be a guest on series 4 of our podcast, follow us so that you don’t miss that). She Breaks the Law is also brilliant and I am seeing first-hand how the community empowers.
What have I learnt from my conversations? I have learnt that it is important to share our stories, as women, to change the narrative. I also think it is equally important to share and change the narrative of men. Not all women have children and not all men put their careers before their families. Not all women are the same, just as not all men are the same. We all have the right to be ourselves, to be respected, and to have access to the same opportunities (equitably as well as equally).
Reflecting on my story and the way that either consciously, or unconsciously, I have handled things has helped me reflect on how stereotypes have impacted me. They have shown me that whilst I started my professional life naively thinking that those stereotypes don’t exist, they do and they impacted me.
I started life in the City. It was never my dream to be a “high-flying City lawyer”. I wanted to do my best and I kind of ended up in the City by accident. I hate monotony and I thrive when I am busy, so I naturally gravitated towards corporate. The transactional element kept me on my toes and I enjoyed the big-picture approach that you have as a corporate lawyer.
I didn’t leave because I had children. I left because I married someone who lived on the other side of the world. I could have married and stayed, but I didn’t. Why? Partly because I felt that the long hours wouldn’t be compatible with my future. It seemed to me I was just bringing forward the inevitable. I also felt I could continue to have a successful career in Chile, whatever that was going to be.
After some ups and downs (and, yes, jobs with long hours), I went to work for the British Embassy in Santiago. I had a role promoting British financial and legal services. All of the people I had to network with and form relationships with outside the Embassy were male. There were a few exceptions to that, but I can name them on one hand.
I got used to comments made because I was a woman. I got used to being asked when I was going to have children. I even got used to one particular contact that I had who wouldn’t speak to me. He was a respected figure in the Chilean finance world. Whether it was because I was young, or female, I don’t know. I had an ally, a senior colleague, who would call this person out every time he talked over me, or through me. It bothered him more than it bothered me, I think. It didn’t phase me that I had to fight to get heard. I was there and I powered on. Eventually he got the message, albeit reluctantly.
Then I had children.
I took my twelve weeks maternity leave, a bit of holiday, and returned to work. I didn’t want the fact that I had children to make a difference to how I was seen at work and I loved my job.
My first assignment involved an overnight stay. Ironically, it also involved chaperoning a senior female political figure around hospitals and orphanages, because that was what she championed. I didn’t mention I had a newborn at home (three-month-old Nicolas still felt like a newborn to me), I didn’t mention the fact that the crying babies in the orphanage set off my maternal instincts and that I was leaking milk. Even though it would have been safe to do so, I had started to compartmentalise because I felt (subconsciously) it would be safer to do that.
Baby number two arrived, a girl. Again, I took my 12 weeks and returned to the office. I would speak about Nicolas and Ana when I was asked about them, but I tried not to make too big a deal about them. I carried on working, giving my all, in a job where I had maximum flexibility and where I was treated the same as before I had children. I was surrounded by working mums and working dads and the culture was such that everyone had work/life balance. However, deep down I was nervous about perhaps being seen as less committed because I had children.
Fast forward. I returned to the UK. Divorced and remarried, I got pregnant with twins. I was faced with a choice. I didn’t have to beg and borrow to get more than 12 weeks leave. BUT, I didn’t take the year. I took six months, and I shared my leave with my husband, who also wanted to be at home with the twins. However, again those thoughts surfaced about what it would say if I took longer. I had by that point managed to run the gauntlet of the well intended but unhelpful comments: “will you be going part time?”; “I assume you will be taking a year?”; “how will you manage your job now you have two more?”.
Whilst on paternity leave my partner got promoted. When I returned from maternity leave I also got promoted.
I was fortunate to work in a firm where men would push back on meetings because they were doing the school run, or going to sports day. They were setting an example that it was ok. By the end of my time there I stopped trying so hard to separate my kids from work. I went to assemblies and I put up some pictures of them on my office wall. I was senior and that helped.
I have had many jobs and I have four children. Being a Mum is part of who I am, it is not all that I am. My attitude to work has not changed because of my children. If anything it made me more committed. When I go to work, I make a choice to be somewhere where my children aren’t, so I made that count. My husband is not just a father, but it is part of who he is. He makes a choice to be somewhere the children aren’t when he goes to work, he makes that count.
Ironically, a study by the ABA found that 67% of women lawyers are immediately treated as less committed when they disclose they are a mother. Men are considered more committed. Implicit bias the root cause. I often “covered up” my motherhood so as to not be judged. I now have my own company and have the pictures my children have drawn me proudly pinned to the wall and there for all to see when I am on a zoom call.
It is time to change the narrative. We can all play our part in achieving that.