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Raising the Bar for Working Parents

Comment & OpinionRaising the Bar for Working Parents

When New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern resigned recently, the press was full of articles asking whether women can ‘have it all’ (this was a BBC headline which was much maligned and swiftly removed – ‘Jacinda Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?).  The story did, however, open up the conversation around whether women can juggle high pressure careers with being a parent. The BBC called Jacinda Ardern “an extreme test case of balancing work and family”.

 By Michael Edwards, barrister at 4PB

 The challenges facing Ardern will be familiar to many in the legal profession. Research from Protectivity indicates that 63 per cent of respondents active in the legal industry are reporting experiencing stress on a daily basis. The most stressed age group was the 35-44 category and overall, women reported higher stress levels than men.  According to ONS, the average age for a woman to have their first baby is now 31 years old, and two children families remain statistically the most common.  Simply put, two little ones at home, plus a busy career equals stress. In addition, more and more has been written about women having less time generally. A piece in Time Magazine calls it the ‘pink tax on time’ and how a large proportion of household tasks and other life admin naturally falls on women – which “does not just reduce women’s objective time, but women also feel a psychological burden from it, experiencing time as more stressful than men— even free time. Research suggests that this tax on subjective time further undermines women’s working lives and well-being.” This can obviously be more pronounced for a barrister who can dictate their own working hours to a degree, but depending on their practice area may be required to work long, unsociable hours.

Further research, recently conducted by The Next 100 Years project, found 84 per cent of UK mothers working in the law still find it difficult to balance working life with the demands of being a mother, with half of those surveyed believing they are treated differently at work to men with children.

These pressures, strains and the resulting gender inequality can be even more prominent for barristers, who have the extra layer of stress which self-employment can bring. A recent report from the Bar Council revealed female barristers are paid around 34 per cent less than their male peers. This is a larger gap that in commercial law firms, where women earn about 25 per cent less than men; the average gender pay gap across British businesses overall is around 15 per cent. In slightly better news, the pay gap at the Bar has narrowed when compared to 2020, when it stood at 39 per cent. But commenting on this, Bar Council chairman, Mark Fenhalls KC acknowledged, “there remains a long way to go to close the earnings gap, particularly in the higher-earning practice areas.”

So how can the Bar do more to support working parents?  The self-employed model has historically created difficulties in taking the responsibility away from Chambers to provide support to working parents. There remains a perception that barristers are well paid and should make provision for periods of leave – that is not the reality for many barristers, particularly at the junior end. Change is afoot, however.  There are a number of ways in which Chambers can offer support to working parents.

  • Open up the conversation An important first step is to encourage open discussions around taking parental leave and the challenges facing working parents. Barristers should be encouraged to express openly how they want to manage their home and working lives. This is particularly important in the run-up to a period of parental leave and upon the barrister’s return to work. Some barristers will want to be kept in the loop, others will find it an intrusion whilst they are away – it’s a balancing act and an individual’s choice. The Bar Council advises barristers to nominate a ‘chamber buddy’ to keep them informed about what is going on during any absence and this can be a great way to ensure that barristers on leave do not feel excluded from any events and they are kept up-to-date with any important issues but, equally, that they do not feel bombarded.
  • Offer mentoring the twin challenges of parenting and a career at the Bar can be immense. The experiences of those who have managed both are likely to be invaluable for working parents. The Bar Council offers a Maternity Mentoring Scheme which can be a useful way for new parents to speak to a more experienced working parents who have been through similar experiences. Speaking about the experience of being mentored, a new parent said: “My mentor was a huge source of support and guidance. To have had access to such an experienced and successful practitioner, with whom I could openly and frankly discuss the challenges of combining a demanding practice with a young family, was a real benefit and I cannot overstate how useful it was. I would highly recommend the Bar Council Maternity Mentoring Scheme.”
  • Create a policy Chambers are in a position to initiate changes for working parents, despite the self-employed model.

Recently at 4PB we have introduced a new policy to support parents at the Bar. Our barristers are now entitled to a two-year rent-free period after having a child. This supports the barrister during their period of leave, for up to 12 months, and then a further 12 months rent-free (subject to an earnings cap, which will generally only be exceeded if the parent comes back after a short period away and works full time). We also wanted to be able to support secondary caregivers, by offering up to four months rent-free (up to three months’ leave, followed by one month rent free on return). There were many reasons behind us wanting to implement this policy – we wanted to make it clear we not only support working parents but we are committed to retaining our tenants and helping them to develop their careers. From a cost benefit analysis, implementing a policy like this has long-term benefits for a relatively small cost.

The good news is the conversation is opening up more around working parents at the Bar and how Chambers and the profession as a whole can support this vital subsection of barristers. However, as the research and statistics show, there is still a way to go.

Michael Edwards, barrister at 4PB

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