COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. A word I had never heard four months ago is now a daily preoccupation, changing society so fast and so profoundly that it's hard to think we'll ever go back to "normal." What is consistent, though, is the disparate and disproportionate impact this pandemic and its effects is taking on women.
The Pandemic collapsed women's painfully extricated and separated realms of work, creating an impossible scenario. For decades, women fought to find their place in the workplace. With that development, women became saddled with the so-called "double shift" or "second shift," spending all day at work and doing all the "household tasks" in the evening, while also overseeing child-rearing (play dates and after school activities and Boy/Girl Scouts and homework and applications). It seems impossible to explain the exhaustion generated by this double shift. I can talk about emotional and mental bandwidth, I can talk about mental drain, I can talk about the energy required to manage and troubleshoot the myriad aspects of "running" a family, but most of it seems to fall on deaf ears. Except that in moments of crisis, women are the bulwark of society. I'm not saying this so we give ourselves a huzzah. I am saying this out of frustration for the little real recognition we get for our unpaid & hidden work in normal times and the ways in which our tasks are taken for granted when things go south. Shelter in place, they said. What about childcare? What about school? What about meals? What about our jobs? And women lawyers (in addition to certain other professions) have the distinct attribute of being "essential" workers, so we keep "showing up" to work while being asked to take over every other responsibility we've managed to push into society: cleaning, meal prepping, teaching, grocery shopping, animal care, and whatever else your life calls for. For years we were told to "outsource" certain tasks, find the help we could where we could find it, and now that help is gone. (Note that help would often come from other women, being paid for their labor, so the absence of those services also means the absence of income for other women who are dealing with all the same pressures from a position of less economic privilege). What this crisis has done is collapsed a system that was untenable before and impossible now. Our home is now our office, our office is our home, and the double shift is now being served consecutively. And the scenario above is for the lucky ones. It's stressful. It feels like we're tearing at the seams. But we are safe: we have shelter, we have food, we have warmth (and soon we'll have cooling when needed), we have clean water. The Disparate Impact on Small Business Owners Is Hitting Solo Practitioners, and Therefore Women, Disproportionately. I am also watching women attorneys fold their law firms, firms they had spent years of painstaking work building. I am watching the dismantling of years spent striving for a shred of independence and autonomy. There are numerous articles and studies on the rate at which women go into solo practice, which correlates to the small number of women given an opportunity to become partners at larger firms. Solo practice (or small firm practice) is also a way to carve out a career that allows women to thrive professionally and intellectually while maintaining control to tackle our complicated lives. I know that experience. I had that experience. I was a solo practitioner for a short while and was moving towards building a small firm. I was also looking for other opportunities and I found one which, in retrospect, saved me. If I were still a solo practitioner, I would've closed up shop; no two ways about it, I would be done. I got out just in time. But others, who were successful, and doing well, are now shuttering their doors or desperately looking for loans and grants to keep them going. What I am seeing is the demolition of women's work without a real recognition of the ways in which this dismantling of society is having a disparate impact on women. But I am seeing this demolition while witnessing a demand for women to also multiply their efforts by orders of magnitude. Be a wife, and a mother, and a teacher, and a cook, and a lawyer, and a team leader, and a manager, and laundress, and a writer, and an IT department, and a handyman, and a grocery shopper, and sane. Forget it. It's not happening. That's what I have to say to that: It. Is. Not. Happening. However, given there is a platform to respond, here are my "tips" regarding the pandemic. Remote Lawyering: Thoughts, Tips, and Some Advice. I would go nuts if I was not lawyering. That's the truth. It's hard and it is frustrating because I am doing it in circumstances that make it inordinately difficult. But it's something to look forward to and keep me occupied. I am lucky. We are lucky that we can keep practicing from home. We have the internet, we have computers, and we have somewhere to sit with our brains. As solos, as single practitioners, we can keep doing this on our own. However, we can also keep doing this in teams, with a few measures. Here are some measures I've implemented. They are not revolutionary, but they may help others:
Chat functions. I have "chat rooms" or "chat channels" (on Google, in Teams, on Slack) to stay in daily contact without having to call or send an email when you have a quick question. It also feels like I am "close" to my coworkers during the day because they are a few keystrokes away.
Daily team phone call. Every morning at 9:30 am I have a call with the entire team. It lasts 20-30 minutes. Everyone reports their tasks for the day. We troubleshoot. I re-assign work. I keep track of productivity. Most importantly, we hear each other's voices. It makes a difference.
Divide your tasks by the amount of focus required. I reserve administrative tasks that have a low "brain power" requirements for when I know there is more chaos in the house.
Have a "Work Schedule." I keep a somewhat regular work schedule: 9:00 am to 5:30 pm. Less gets done in that window, and sometimes I have to get back to it while the kids sleep, but we all have an expectation of when we are busy. The kids know, I know, we can all understand this is the "Work Day" for me.
Take a lunch break. With the kids, it's not possible, just not possible, to do a "working lunch." So I take a 30-45 minute lunch break.
Redefine "Necessary." Some things just won't happen for a while and don't have to. Some meetings can get cancelled. Some regular tasks need to be eliminated. We can't do it all.
Think of the Ways Our Society Can Improve On the Other Side of This. I have never been an attorney without being a mother. I had my first son in law school, my second son during my first year of practice, and the rest after that. I was baffled, immediately, that childcare was such an afterthought. We were basically on our own to figure it out as though it was an "aside" while demanding participation in ways that assumed childcare was not just figured out, but an entire system. Leave with 24 hours' notice for a week? Figure it out. Randomly stay for late nights? Figure it out. Work on weekends? Figure it out. We have to make childcare an integral part of our workforce conversations. And childcare isn't the only topic. Healthcare, similarly, is critical. We have to give employers and employees the ability to access affordable health insurance. I have been a business owner and an employer. I insisted on giving employees good health insurance, including medical and vision. This commitment made it near impossible to generate a profit for most of the time I had a firm. We have to create ways for employers who want to do the right thing, to be able to do so, and we have to give employees access to health insurance that actually keeps them safe. These are conversations we should have on social and professional levels. But there are also conversations we now have to face on a personal level. Task sharing is one of them. I am guilty of doing too much in my household for too long. My partner and I now have a lifestyle that calls for it more than it used to (my husband commutes from Texas), but even before, I accepted more tasks and responsibilities than I should have. This is an excellent time to sit down and have that talk: "Look, you're taking the kids in the morning (or on certain days) in your home office so I can get something (or nothing) done." While the pandemic has highlighted and increased the inequities that exist within our various systems, it can also be the great equalizer: we're all in this together, we need to figure it out together. Finally: Re-Define Your Expectations. I've always told people that frustration is the result of a mismatch between reality and expectations. Our old expectations for women attorneys were already unrealistic. This new reality only distances itself from those expectations. Changing our expectations of reality is the only way to decrease frustration, especially now. Breathe. Focus on what matters. In the end, we are balls of cells on a speck of dirt that could be wiped out by a single-cell organism in a matter of months.
Giugi Carminati is a human & civil rights attorney, as well as a women’s advocate in Denver, CO. She is the Managing Attorney at NDH, LLC, for the W & SW United States. NDH, LLC is a civil and human rights law firm out of Atlanta, GA. She speaks and blogs about gender equality and social justice. Her law practice focuses on immigrant rights, law enforcement of excessive use of force, unlawful conditions of detention, racial discrimination, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. She is a litigator by training and a social justice warrior by calling. She speaks French, English, Italian and Spanish. She is licensed in Texas, New York, Colorado and DC. Her firm website can be found at http://www.ndh-law.com.