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Women in law: Ambition looks different for everybody

Like fellow blogger Rebecca Bromwich, I was excited to read Danielle Groen’s recent piece for Chatelaine about women and work (featuring hometown hero Megan Leslie!) to see how it might apply to women lawyers.

Image of two women walking

But it didn’t put me in “feminist fist pump” mode the way I wanted it to. So I’ve taken Rebecca up on the invitation at the end of her post and decided to offer my own thoughts.

Rebecca’s description of just getting around to reading the article as an uphill battle is all too familiar. I read it in one sitting (I think), but only after I saw the headline on social media while simultaneously cooking dinner and listening to a podcast. I had to write a note to self in my phone reminding me to read it later that night. All this after a long day of working on a pro bono access-to-justice project, drafting a motion brief, and attending a women lawyers’ networking event (a wine tasting, if you must know).

You know that meme that pictures a woman’s brain as a browser with multiple tabs open? It’s totally true, in my experience. All the tabs are always open.

That’s a powerful visual of what professional women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond deal with. And that’s why, as Rebecca says (paraphrasing the Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass), we need to “talk about women’s careers in ways that make visible an understanding of the compelling challenges of having to not just believe, but do, six impossible things before breakfast.” (For me, my before-breakfast to-do list often includes one-armed burpees. The struggle is real.)

But what makes the impossible things possible is exactly what Rebecca suggests: keeping the conversation going. Talking about our schedules and obligations and how we find ways to fit in everything we have to do and want to do. I love these conversations, because they reveal so much about what women prioritize. (And these conversations can lead to connections, which can lead to career development: the hustle is also real.)

Women lawyers all have official work and volunteer commitments, but outside of that, our “unofficial” priorities say a lot about our personalities.

In the last week, my unofficial priorities have included trying some new summer recipes, keeping my house clean (thank God I have a partner who shares the housework – Sheryl Sandberg would be proud), returning my library book on time, making it to my dance class, trying to finish the latest season of Orange is the New Black, and attending my niece’s birthday party (where my husband was the one doing the literal juggling. Is there symbolism there?).

But I think these conversations also need some guidelines. So I’m answering Rebecca’s call for thoughts with some work-life balance “checks and balances,” if you will, sparked by her and Danielle Groen’s articles.

I have four.

First, it’s not just mid-career women who are juggling (and sometimes struggling). My peers—women and men—are moving in and out of parental leaves and still trying to keep up their careers; or figuring out how to ask for better compensation; or wondering whether private practice is right for them; or, if they know it is, wondering how they advance their careers from there. And sometimes, all of the above. Career moves are top of mind for all decades.

Second, please let’s stop assuming the only dichotomy pulling women in different directions is between work and kids. I don’t have children, but there are other things in my life that I want to balance against work. We all deserve the same control over our schedules so we can be where we need, and want, to be when we’re not at work.

Third, these conversations are, more often than not, privileged ones to have. We need to recognize and address that. If I have time to write a thinkpiece then I probably know where my next meal is coming from. So many women in our communities don’t have the luxury of these conversations because they’re just trying to survive.

But being lawyers gives us a platform. So maybe the best response to our privileged position is a bit more activism?

The Nova Scotia Branch of the CBA – the CBA-NS – is setting an example in this respect, I think.

The Women’s Forum of the CBA-NS hosts an annual collection drive for women and children’s shelters and transition homes, coinciding with International Women’s Day. In March 2016, we raised well over $5,000. And next week, for the first time ever, Nova Scotia lawyers will be marching together in the Halifax Pride Parade under the banner of the CBA-NS and the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (our law society). Let’s look for more opportunities like these, and create them if they’re not already there.

Finally, ambition looks different for everybody. But it’s still ambition. The Chatelaine article noted, “women experience mid-career ambition slumps far more often than men do.” How about this: maybe we just make smarter choices about how to channel our ambition? Many of us choose positions that put our law degrees to work, but also do other things with our lives.

Suggesting we’re “slumping” when we make these choices takes away our agency. Megan Leslie’s decision not to run for the federal NDP leadership sounded to me like a well-informed choice that was best for her at this point in her life, and she seems to be loving her new position at the World Wildlife Fund Canada. For God’s sake, it doesn’t make her any less ambitious.

Same with Anne-Marie Slaughter, who spawned countless essays responding to her 2012 Atlantic article where she explained her decision to leave the State Department and take up a professorship. Teaching at Princeton seemed pretty ambitious to me, but with her new job she also got to live in the same city as her family. I applauded that agency and couldn’t understand what all the angst was about.

Being the leader of a political party, or a director in US State Department – those are extremely high rungs on the career leader. Not all of us want that. Or maybe we do! But we should not for a moment suggest that anything less means we’re in an ambition slump. Instead, we should look for ways to lead in the positions we occupy, and be realistic about what career advancement looks like for us.

Sometimes, leaning in just means moving in a different direction. And that’s okay.