Women in Law. Childcare: It’s Also a Man’s World

father and little daughter go to school or daycare

“We are at an exciting point in the debate about achieving equality of opportunity in the work place”

Saima Hanif is a Barrister at 3 Verulam Buildings, Gray’s Inn, London, UK

I was a fortunate child.  My parents instilled in me the importance – presented very much as a virtue – of professional ambition. I also attended a school with a similar ethos.  I never felt, and nor was it ever transmitted to me, that being a woman would or should give rise to obstacles in the workplace.

As a young child I had wanted to be a judge; however as I got older, that morphed into a desire to be a barrister. It never crossed my mind, in those halcyon days of my youth, that being a woman should make it more difficult or unusual a path

The 100 Years Project has made me realise that, in retrospect, I am, and have been, the beneficiary of the efforts of those brave and pioneering women who came before me, as it was they who entered unchartered territory to vindicate their beliefs and our rights.  I did not think twice about taking lengthy maternity leave, and I was in fact encouraged to take as long as I felt necessary. Nor did it occur to me to consider whether it could have a negative effect on my career; by contrast, for those who came before me, the same concerns would justifiably have loomed large.

It also struck me that in the world I have inhabited, it seems inconceivable that it could ever have been necessary to pass a piece of legislation such as the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.   That past really is a foreign country – one worth visiting out of anthropological curiosity only.   This itself has brought home to me just how much has been achieved since that landmark moment.

However, it is also startling that something so fundamental as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 has only been in force for 44 years. It begs the question as to why was there not a stronger, more urgent desire to introduce it sooner?

What this time-travel suggests is that waiting passively for change is often a painfully slow, and therefore unattractive, option.  More representation at senior levels, an issue that is currently very live in the legal profession, will not happen rapidly of its own accord.

In order to determine what solutions will effect such a change, we should start with an understanding of the obstacles.  Women are entering the legal profession in roughly equal numbers to men. Barriers to entry have therefore been successfully eroded.  Where there appears to be a marked divergence, however, is after women have children, which has a knock-on effect on the representation of women at senior levels. A material cause for this appears to be the demands of childcare, which seem to be borne principally by women.

Women have fought fiercely in the past to enter and participate in the workplace, whereas men appear to have struggled less ardently for greater participation in the domestic sphere.  It is interesting that despite recent government efforts to encourage fathers to share parental leave with their partners, take-up has been low. The reasons are no doubt complex and multi-faceted, but the implicit message is that either fathers cannot, or do not want to, take periods of time out of their careers to rear their young.

The logic by default must be that, in 2019, raising children is still a woman’s job.

The need to embed flexible working policies as a means of achieving equality in the workplace is nothing new.  However, what needs greater emphasis and prominence in this dialogue is that it also encompasses men in the workforce. Similarly, childcare responsibilities need to be understood and vocalised as issues for men and women.  Even if there are female quotas (for example, minimum representation at board level), as long as it is predominantly women that leave meetings early to tend to domestic commitments, the quotas serve as at most a partial solution.

To embed a permanent shift in thinking, there needs to be male support and advocacy for the notion of greater domestic participation.  As new generations enter the workplace, they should see their male colleagues striving to fit family obligations around work commitments with the same fervour as their female colleagues.

We are at an exciting point in the debate about achieving equality of opportunity in the workplace, with many public and private organisations striving for change.  That debate must recognise, and encourage, the importance of male participation in the domestic sphere, as much as it does female participation in the work sphere.


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