In a recent CNN interview, jet-setting Nigerian lawyer Beatrice A. Hamza-Bassey, the first African female partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, (one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in America) confessed that she had not found that elusive balance between the demands of work and family and stated that “work-life balance is a myth”. I completely agree with her. Hamza-Bassey is a married mother of two young children so she knows what she is talking about.
Today’s woman wants to have it all – the successful career, happy family and everything else that our hearts desire, and why shouldn’t we want to have it all? The truth, however, is that we cannot have it all. Something has to give.
As I understand it, work-life balance is a concept that addresses the distribution of time allotted to a person’s activities in the pursuit of paid work and other activities in pursuit of social equilibrium and family harmony. Before the men reading this raise placards to say that, “We (men) have rights too!”, let me at this point say that work-life balance is an issue that both women and men grapple with, but since I am a woman, I am/will be partial to the plight of women.
Women have come a long way in trying to achieve gender equity in the work place, but the doors are not wide open enough just yet and sitting in the board room with the men sometimes comes at a high personal cost. This is why it is news when we see successful, high-flying lawyers like Hamza-Bassey, and that is why we take notice and cheer her on.
The reality is that society-defined gender roles still exist and our work culture, especially in Nigeria, still perpetuates the myth that long hours in the office, face time with superiors and intense workloads are the best ways to increase workers’ productivity. Competition and the desire to advance in the workplace make work-related opportunities such as travel and training more attractive over family and social pursuits. No one wants to feel like they are abandoning the team and frequent desertion of the work team affects the morale and performance of the team. So where does that leave women? Having to make the choice more times than men, whether to give up full-time law practice for family.
When I think of work-life balance, my maternal grandmother, Mrs C. V. Koripamo, is always my focal point. Born in 1910 (and still alive today), she was a strong-willed young woman who was determined to be self-reliant and refused an arranged marriage at age 18 because she did not know or love the man. Her mother and sister thought that she was crazy and by the time she was getting married at age 26 she was seen as a lost cause. My grandmother trained as a midwife at Iyi-Enu Anglican Mission Hospital, Onitsha and you will find her name recorded at the number one spot in the National Midwives’ Board Register. After completing her training, she was posted to Kaiama (her birthplace) to open a maternity home, which she ran from 1933 to 1936. In January 1937 she got married and her career took a backseat to family.
My grandfather was a school teacher and administrator, and politician. The family moved a lot to accommodate his career, but when it was possible and the opportunity availed itself, my grandmother worked part-time as a midwife. For the most part she ran a home bakery business. In 1972, at the age of 61, when most people are retiring from their active career lives, my grandmother, with the support of her husband, opened Irigha Maternity Home in Port Harcourt. The Maternity was open for over twenty years and her services were sought after and appreciated by all strata of Port Harcourt society. Would she have had it any other way? I doubt it. I think that my grandmother is fulfilled and happy with the choices that she made.
In the workplace, the advancement scales are tipped against workers who take time off for family. On another score, interrupted training and lost opportunities that occur because of time off to have and nurture babies make some women’s work lives a game of Snakes and Ladders – on the rise one minute and down the next. Whether we want to admit it or not, the ‘ideal’ worker is still male and free of domestic responsibilities. At the end of the day, it is about our personal choices and what will make us happy.
We all know that the practice of law is a jealous mistress, but a young lady, who I call the poster girl for virtual law practice in America, made her choice, not to choose. Her name is Rachel Rodgers. In addition to running a successful virtual law office, Rodgers runs a business, Her Virtual Law Office, which teaches other women how to set up a successful virtual law office, promising women that they can “have the lifestyle you want without giving up your law career.”
She explains her choice on her business website – “During law school, there wasn’t any firm or organization I could find that offered the opportunity to build a successful legal career while allowing for a flexible lifestyle. It seemed like I had to make a choice: have the lifestyle or have the legal career. Not both. … I was always willing to work hard but I didn’t want to be chained to an office. I had a love for travel and wanted to be able to spend my summers in France. I also knew my husband and I would eventually start a family and I wanted to have the freedom to spend as much time as possible with my children. So I turned down the various job offers to launch a virtual law office.”
Rodgers has many critics and a virtual law office does not come without serious concerns as regards client confidentiality, security risks, clients absconding without payment, confirming the identity of a client, and even the legality or extent of the services (depending on the jurisdiction), but it is about choice and the retention of women in law practice.
As we all strive to achieve work-life balance, I think it is important to remember that the choices we make to achieve this are personal choices, and we must respect each other’s choices and refrain from passing judgment about the choices that the women we know have made.
Kaine Agary is a writer and law enthusiast living in Lagos, Nigeria.