Society and people’s working lives are very different now than a generation ago when our parents were trying to combine their career and family lives. To be a working mother was still relatively the exception, rather than the rule and the concept of equality in the workplace as well as at home was only just beginning to take hold. Forget flexible working, to be a successful working mother was hard work, not only just in terms of juggling work and home as we all do, but also in dealing with the outdated attitudes and preconceptions.
Who better to ask about the challenges facing a working mum back in the 70s than Dame Janet Gaymer DBE QC (Hon.) Dame Janet is a Non-Executive member of the House of Commons Commission and Chair of the House of Commons Administration Estimate Audit and Risk Assurance Committee and Members Estimate Audit Committee. From September 2013 she was a non-Executive member of the Management Board of the House of Commons before becoming the Acting Chair of the Management Board in September 2014, pending the implementation of governance changes in the House of Commons in 2015. She served as an Independent Lay member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority between 2011 and 2016. She is a member of the Advisory Board of Excello Law Limited. She was the Senior Partner of the international city law firm, Simmons & Simmons, before becoming the Commissioner for Public Appointments and a Civil Service Commissioner.
“I still remember the concerned look on my mother-in-law’s face, when in 1977, I mentioned, in conversation, that I might return to work after the birth of my first child. I had qualified as a solicitor in 1973 and became a partner in my firm, Simmons & Simmons, in the same year as I discovered that I was pregnant. (“Most inconsiderate” said my Senior Partner at the time.) This was a time in the City when only 7% of solicitors were women and it was a disciplinary offence to wear trousers in the office. Well, I did go back to work and gave birth to my second daughter in 1979. I finally left Simmons & Simmons in 2006 after my five year term as Senior Partner ended and became the Commissioner for Public Appointments and a Civil Service Commissioner. I still work in various non-executive roles and am now a grandmother to two granddaughters. My elder daughter is also a lawyer and facing the challenge of how to combine work and family life.
So have things changed since I had that conversation with my mother- in- law? And are there any lessons for new working mothers today?
In many ways, things have changed for the better. There is much more information and support available for working mothers, whether on the internet, or through organisations focused on what mothers need. The need to have reliable child care has not changed but there are more sources of help with this. Unfortunately, good quality child care is expensive. I employed two carers for my daughters, one who was a mother herself (who worked mornings) and the other who was a retired nurse (who worked afternoons.) Neither were trained nannies.
Technology has given mothers the tools to help not only with the organisation of the home infrastructure but also to keep in touch with the office, when working from home – which was not allowed in my office until comparatively recently. However, this does mean that the office intrudes on the home and the control of time is much reduced. I returned to my home in time for bath time every day, even if I worked later in the evening. However, I knew that I would not be interrupted by calls from the office or clients, since the office would have closed for the day. The 24/7 delivery ethos had not yet arrived. In this respect, life was more leisurely. I can measure the technological change by the size and contents of my handbag. At the beginning of my career, there was no technological item in my bag, not even a phone – although we did have a brick like car phone. I now carry with me an IPad, phone, blackberry (still) and kindle and my hand bag has increased in size. All help me keep in touch when on the move, not only with my business contacts but also my family.
Diary and time management have been important throughout my career. Client demands have often required innovative solutions to child care requirements. For example, my elder daughter was taken to Paris at 7 months old for an arbitration hearing, during which she slept peacefully outside the hearing room until she needed feeding and I absented myself from my lawyerly duties in order to fulfil those of a mother. I also made sure that when I was away from the office, the reason for my absence was not assumed to be child care – indeed, I was often at an over-running tribunal hearing. In other words employer expectation management was important. On the other hand, attendance at school events was given the same importance as client meetings in the diary, save in extreme circumstances. Holidays were (and still are) booked in twelve monthly cycles, in order to ensure that they are taken.
Looking back, I have also come to realise how lucky I was to be in good health during my career. I was doing a job which I enjoyed and was making progress. I also had a very supportive husband, who was also a lawyer and who understood the pressures of practice. I did not consciously keep fit and worked hard. Today, mothers are working even harder and the need to pay attention to one’s well-being is even more necessary. Increased mobility in the legal profession and the fractured nature of women’s careers makes steady, uninterrupted career progress more difficult and brings with it additional strains which I did not experience.
The legal services market is now very different from the one into which I qualified in the 1970’s as is the world of business. However, some things do not change. For example, sometimes it is worth taking a risk. I would not have become The Commissioner for Public Appointments, had I not decided to move out of my comfort zone and respond to an advertisement. This one move resulted in a fulfilling second career after the law, which, itself, was a form of flexible working.
So what conclusions did my mother in law draw, after I went on to combine legal practice with a family? Well, I never did ask her, but she joined the caring team, looking after the children every Friday, and, in so doing, became a very special grandmother indeed. I hope that I shall be able to maintain the high standards which she set……..once I have switched off my computer.”
Many thanks to Dame Janet Gaymer.