Reflections on women in public life

I read Holly Walker’s book last week, but first I read Deborah Coddington’s review, and I think we must have read different books.

Deborah would approve of my choices. Had first baby at 26. Took a big chunk of parental leave. Went back into a mum-track job part-time. Got a promotion, quickly had another baby, more parental leave, then a new job with equally family friendly conditions. If you subscribe to the idea that women should have babies first, and keep a career on a steady simmer before roaring to a boil once kids leave the nest, I’m doing everything right.

But I reckon there must be a way to change how we work so that a steady simmer is the maximum setting. We don’t need anyone to be at a roaring boil, at risk of flooding over and drenching the flames and ruining the whole thing. It’s actually inefficient, really risky, and it means that some of the people at the top get there based on whether they can put in total life commitment long hours – not on other more important criteria.

Holly writes of her time as a politician “what did I know about how plumbers, gasfitters, and drainlayers should be regulated?”, and I had to grin because, well, there are people whose job that is, and I’m sort of one of those people.

Last night, my previous six months’ work on some very complex and technical regulations came to a close. It was my home-with-the-kids day, so I dropped them at my dad’s work in the late afternoon, then went in to sit in the Beehive waiting to see if the Legislation Committee had questions of the legal and policy team. They didn’t, which was good but anti-climactic, so instead we all went out for a drink, and it felt awesome, we had got the work done – this multi-agency team, thousands of emails, long meetings, a million intricate issues nailed out into a result that had finally crossed the finish line!

In our current roles, Holly and I are part of an enormous cadre of civil servants who combine motherhood with meaningful careers. We make a hellava contribution but get modest recognition at best. Mid-tier public sector roles can be fantastic for working parents, and it’s almost a guilty secret just how much of a non-issue the parenting/career juggle can be when the workplace culture supports it.

My current team manages a huge output with not many people, and a third of us work part-time. It runs smoothly because the workload is arranged so that no-one is ever sole charge on something both urgent and important. It becomes self-reinforcing, everyone buys into the culture of making space for life outside work, expectations around deadlines take that into account, and yet the work gets done!

I saw today that 13 new Queen’s Counsels have just been appointed. Only three are women. That’s so bad you almost gotta laugh. Three? Three of thirteen? When judges are pretty much always drawn from that pool?! THREE?!

The private legal sector, and of course politics, does not have vast cadres of women. Holly writes that she fancied herself entering politics from an early stage in her career; for me, that flight of fancy was about entering the top ranks of the legal profession and maybe becoming a judge one day. And I’d be damn good at it! But there’s no way I can see myself increasing my hours any time soon, no way I can see myself re-entering a working environment with onerous expectations of constant availability. It’s not compatible with the amount of time the kids and I need to spend together. I can’t squeeze the kids into the small part of my life leftover after work eats almost all of it, that’s not the life any of us want.

Which is fine, like, that’s totally fine. Could I become the first Solicitor General to work a 30 hour week? Maybe but probably not! Could I find my life is happier and more fulfilled remaining at a moderately senior level which provides interest but not too much pressure, while having the main focus of my life located outside paid work? Almost definitely.

I can think of literally dozens of extremely talented lawyers in exactly the same position as me. Dozens and dozens of women I’ve worked with who have fabulous minds for legal analysis, who would be brilliant on the bench, but who’ve consciously made career choices that step away from the track that would end in a position of top influence, and toward the track that gets us home in time for cuddles. And we’re in great jobs, don’t get me wrong. Interesting jobs where you can make a big difference. Sure, you’re name isn’t in flashing lights, but you can point to things you’ve achieved, and credit is overrated anyway.

But, y’know, also, three of thirteen?! 



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