Divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag, founder of Vardags law firm, argues that career breaks, long maternity leaves and the cult of the perfect mum are making it more difficult for women in the workplace.
Current expectations of women taking themselves out of their careers for long periods when they have children are causing both a fertility crisis and a gender pay/opportunity gap. It’s like a modern form of putting women in purdah, behind a curtain away from the world of money and power which remain predominantly in the hands of men.
Women are guilted into this prolonged full-time mummyhood as much by other mummies as by men. Are you going to spend maximum time bonding with your baby? Are you doing the school run? Are you checking the homework every night? Is your child sleeping in the same room as you for a year as the latest government guidelines suggest (do they just make these things up)? I see countless marriages break up because exhausted parents stop having sex or even fun together and brilliant powerful, amazing women disappear into a world of Lycra gym kits and long sessions in Starbucks talking about breastfeeding or the deficiencies of the new swimming teacher. In the meantime their husbands are spending longer hours at work to avoid the hassle of home and often becoming closer to women with whom they have more to talk about.
Some women genuinely want to become long-term full-time mummies – it’s a sacrifice they want to make, or indeed a preference, to have a particular life for them and their families, and why not? But so many women fall into it because it’s expected of them and after a while they lose their confidence to leave their parallel existence of strollers and Gymboree while the world of work starts to look like a harsh and alien thing designed for other people.
Increasing social pressure is causing mothers to take long maternity leaves of up to a year at a time, sometimes returning for only a few months before vanishing again, sometimes never coming back at all. Coming back is made harder by employers who expect women to return on an all-or-nothing basis.
If they do come back they can be way behind their former peers in terms of skills and experience. Inevitably, also, businesses, especially small ones, will have learned to manage without them because they have had to.
At the same time businesses are hit really hard by the absences, especially if they’ve promoted the women to positions of real responsibility and invested heavily in them based on merit without consideration of the fact they may disappear for years at a time. The upshot of that is that many employers secretly favour men over women of childbearing age both for hiring and promotion because men are more likely to be there for them and they don’t have the luxury of managing that degree of absence for key people. Men become genuinely, objectively, more valuable. So women are promoted more slowly and invested in less heavily. They’re all there in equal numbers at the start of their careers, then at the top, they’re notable by their absence. They fall further and further behind. They become poorer and more dependent and their lives become smaller, more boring, lonelier.
The other corollary is that those women who care about their careers are leaving it until later to have children so they can get somewhere at work first. This is causing a fertility crisis – I see more and more women come through the Vardags’ fertility and surrogacy department who are facing real problems bearing children, causing them immense distress. There is a fertility drop across the developed world, and if we’re not careful we’ll end up like China or Italy with not enough children for the future. We’re making having children such a big deal, economically and in terms of the pressure on parents, that we put it off often until it’s too late.
A different way
We need a different approach from both employers and women. I’m the female founder and President of Vardags, a leading law firm with a staff of 140 in five offices and I’m described as Britain’s toughest divorce lawyer. But I myself experienced sexism and marginalisation throughout my junior career until I set up shop on my own and could live by my own rules. I’ve been told – “Your children weren’t on your cv!”, “I don’t see how you can make it at the Bar as a single mother” and my personal favourite, “There’s no f**king maternity leave here!”. I now have a highly skilled, predominantly female workforce through hiring purely on merit.
I also have four children ranging from 23 years to six months and two step-children. We’re incredibly close. I’ve always taken short maternity leaves and for the last birth took none at all – I just worked flexibly and sometimes from home with constant back-up. I’ve breast-fed in the office, I’ve had my baby come into internal meetings, I work with it.
I encourage our talented, ambitious women to have children good and early and to come back to work as soon as they feel able to, but to come back at the pace they want to, even half a day or a day a week at first, in an organic way that fits with the gradual sense of becoming more independent of one’s baby that happens in the weeks and months after they’re born. And for the senior primary carers (male or female) who’ve been with me for more than two years I pay for top childcare for every day they’re back in the office.
Our women come back to work and develop their careers to become prosperous, independent and leaders in their field, giving their children, male and female, a role model of women achieving everything that is possible in the world.
Women can have it all, but we need a new way, that opens up the boundary between the world of work and parenting and rips away the curtain. We shouldn’t expect employers to be biased against us, but equally we shouldn’t give them reason to be. We need to be every bit as committed professionals as our male peers, but we need them to take their share the burden and joy of childcaring and we need employers to give us all the flexibility to make it all work.
We need a new vison that responds to modern life with more remote working so we can be at home near our babies backed up by childcare so we can do our jobs, with workplace nurseries where possible (I commend Goldman Sachs on that). We need work based on time and outcomes rather than just on turning up. We need to stop shoe-horning a modern society of equal men and women into an outdated system set up by men who thought women’s place was really in the home.