She-cession—a new COVID-19 term entering our lexicon--refers to the fact that women are impacted more harshly than men in terms of job loss and economic well-being.
While men and women lost jobs at about the same rate in March and April of 2020, men are being rehired at a higher rate. This is not necessarily an indicia of discrimination—women tend to work in sectors which have been more negatively affected by COVID, and women are also more likely to be the secondary-earner in a dual income family and therefore be the partner who reduces work hours to accommodate family needs.
There are a couple of other factors affecting women in the pandemic era. First, women continue to perform more childcare and home-related duties than men. And secondly, women are expressing concerns about their mental health more than men.
Women lawyers may not check all of these boxes for the she-cession: law isn’t a service industry, and many women lawyers are either principal, equal or sole earners in their household, and may not be scaling back work commitments to accommodate childcare and home-schooling.
However, my take from talking to women lawyers with children is that they carry, or believe that they carry, more of the load relating to children and households.
So, how are Alberta women lawyers doing?
According to data for Assist’s 2020 Q3 (May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020), they are increasingly asking for help.
Women lawyers traditionally access professional counselling services through Assist more than their male counterparts. Program usage breaks down by gender fairly consistently, with about 55% of users being female and 45% being male.
According to the Law Society’s 2019 Annual Report, 58% of Alberta lawyers are men, with 40% being female, 1% being transgender and 1% choosing not to disclose gender. We have more male lawyers, but more female lawyers use our counselling program. This is not an unusual pattern—women are generally more open to asking for help (and this is why we have partnered with the Centre for Suicide Prevention’s Buddy Up campaign to help men have difficult conversations about their emotions.)
This trend continued during the first two quarters of 2020, with 47% of counselling program users being male and 53% being female.
Use of counselling resources declined in March and April as we hunkered down to try to flatten the curve, but as the province began to reopen in May, counselling usage shot up and the gender divide intensified.
During May, June and July of 2020, 74% of our counselling program users were women, with men accounting for only 26% of cases.
I have three messages arising from this data:
First, men: issues can generally be resolved most easily and quickly with early intervention, so if something is weighing heavily on you, Assist is only one phone call away.
Secondly, you may have noticed that Assist is only reporting on male and female program usage. This is to protect confidentiality for a small community where disclosing the number accessing counselling services could effectively breach confidentiality. We haven’t forgotten the trans community!
And for women: don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. There may be some relief for those of you who have been juggling intense work demands with parenting 24/7 over the last 6 months as schools and daycares reopen, but we know that there will be COVID outbreaks and that kids may be back at home without much notice. And some will have elected to enroll children in online learning or set up learning bubbles with other families, both of which will still result in demands on you.
If you are struggling with meeting your work commitments without being an ogre to your kids, you are not alone. We hear from many women lawyers who feel overwhelmed and exhausted, whose nerves are frayed or who are battling depression. We live in a competitive society where people are sometimes judged by the Instagram-worthiness of their lives and this pressure, on top of our innate desire to be successful, that drew us to law in the first place, does not help.
So, please take a deep breath and acknowledge to yourself that perfection is not an attainable standard in either practicing law or parenting. Learning to live with imperfection is an important resiliency skill. Allowing yourself to be imperfect in your work does not mean letting go of standards—it means aiming for excellence and knowing when good enough is good enough.
Remember that you are a parent 24/7 for at least 18 years. The odd out-of-character incident does not undo all the good parenting you have done.
Then, take another deep breath and know that you are not alone. You have friends and colleagues going through these same struggles.
Consider what you can take off your plate by outsourcing—housework, yardwork, meal preparation—there are all sorts of possibilities in the gig economy.
And consider whether your firm or employer is open to granting leaves of absence or reduced hours arrangements. Most employers would rather set employees up for success than have employees burning out and potentially end up on medical leave. Give yourself permission to think about what you want and need and then to ask for it.
Assist can help, too:
- Professional counselling is available to you—4 sessions per person per issue per year. Many lawyers feel conflicted by work and homelife demands, and sometimes feel out of control. We are not in normal times and six months of pandemic living is taking its toll. A counsellor can help you break down your feelings of overwhelm and develop strategies, including what to do in those moments when you have work pressures and your children are making you want to scream. Please call 1-877-498-6898 to book an appointment (M-F, 8 am to 4 pm) or for crisis counselling.
- You may have to have a difficult conversation with your partner or teenagers to create a more equitable division of child and home care responsibilities. Assist’s professional counselling includes couples counselling and family counselling.
- Peer support is here for you as well. We have more than one hundred trained lawyer peer support volunteers many of whom have experienced a lack of work-life balance. You are not alone. Call us at 1-877-737-5508 for our peer support program.
- Our New Parents Practicing Law groups are organizing their activities for the next several months. Although we have groups based in Edmonton and Calgary, they will be meeting online—and the upside is that lawyers across the province can join. We are hoping to host a session on talking to your kids about COVID and school issues, so stay tuned.
- Red Mug Coffee Circles are held every Monday at noon. Everyone is welcome to join our non-judgmental community where we talk about issues facing the legal community. If you need to connect with some other lawyers or students as a sanity-saver, just ask for the Zoom link by emailing email@example.com. Kids and pets pop up in our circles and they are very welcome to be themselves, too.
- If you want to chat about how to present an alternate work arrangement to your firm or employer, call me. I spent many years as part of a job share, working part-time and consulting so that I could achieve some type of balance in my life, and I advised employers on these arrangements. You can call me at 1-587-779-7205.
So, women lawyers, articling students and law students: we are here for you—only a phone call away--and we can help.
And for everyone else: if you want to learn more about how you can support a woman in your life, we can help with that, too.