Put your political perspective and pop culture fandom aside for a moment. Regardless of how you feel about her legal rulings, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may have some wise career and life advice for you and me. Lately, I have been binging on films, documentaries, biographies, and collections of writing about and by the 86 year old justice, also known as the “Notorious RBG.” My binge began with the excellent movie, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as law school student and early-career attorney Ginsburg. Ironically, I saw the movie one day before the Supreme Court announced Justice Ginsburg’s first-ever absence from the bench during Supreme Court oral arguments. Her recent surgery and the necessary recovery time necessitated her unprecedented absence (she will follow the arguments using transcripts from home). As I wish her a speedy recovery and continue my RBG binge, I have been imagining the life and career coaching Justice Ginsburg might offer me if I was to somehow coax her away from the most powerful legal seat in the country, her legendary fitness workouts, and her love for the opera. Here is the advice I imagine she might offer.
Advice for those considering or in a marriage or lifetime partnership
Justice Ginsburg was married to her Cornell classmate, Martin Ginsburg, for 56 years until his passing from cancer. A key feature of their relationship was that they appeared to avoid traditional gender roles. Many heterosexual couples rely on the gender roles dictated by societal norms to determine who cooks dinner, who comforts the children, and who downgrades their professional aspirations to make room for the other partner’s work demands. The norms shape the marriage early on, and the roles calcify into permanent responsibilities, despite the many ways in which life evolves and gets complicated over time. Ruth and Marty remained fluid. Early on, Ruth cooked, and later, Marty took over. Early on, Marty’s career dominated, and then Ruth’s took over. For his time, Marty was an extraordinarily progressive husband, well known for his vocal and active support of his wife’s career.
When my female MBA students seek career advice from me, I often encourage them to consider the lifetime commitments they make with great care. I tell them that nothing will affect their career more than decisions they make about life partners, and whether they are willing and able to negotiate with those partners about domestic responsibilities. Marty Ginsburgs are neither easy nor impossible to find (I am fortunate to be married to one myself). Because today’s societal norms still do not support true egalitarianism in a marriage as evidenced by many studies of domestic division of labor, any redistribution will have to come from within the marriage itself. I imagine Justice Ginsburg would counsel everyone in or considering a marriage to be ready to resist norms and be fluid in their roles, particularly men married to women.
One danger of the iconic narrative that is dominating pop culture about Justice Ginsburg’s life is that it glosses over the day to day challenges she faced as a working mother in a society which did not support her or her husband’s choices, despite their valiant efforts to be fluid. When Ginsburg’s son’s principal kept calling her alone when issues arose at school, she reminded the principal that her son had two parents and asked that they alternate which parent was called. She faced both overt and subtle gender bias in the workplace, and frankly, many of us might have been overcome by attending a law school with no female restrooms and being shunned by law firms despite being first in your class. To support her husband’s career, she moved to New York City before completing her law degree at Harvard, and her female-student-resenting dean would not allow her to remain a Harvard student. Many would have dropped out, but she found a way to attend Columbia Law School instead. The only reason she had any job at all after graduating from the top of Harvard and Columbia Law Schools was that a determined faculty mentor used all his social capital to convince a reluctant judge to hire the recent graduate as a clerk. Many of us would have checked out professionally at this point. Again, Ginsburg did not.
Much has been written about opting in versus opting out, leaning in versus leaning back, staying in the game versus staying at home. I am making a different point, which is borne out by Justice and Marty Ginsburg’s example. Regardless of what life and career choices make sense for you and your loved ones, if you value your profession, stay connected and up to date. Do not completely check out. And pick a partner who will not let you check out. Because Ginsburg stayed connected to her legal work, albeit not in her chosen field of corporate law, and because her husband supported her doing so, her options were always expanding throughout her life despite the shut doors. I think she would encourage us to partner wisely and fluidly.
Advice for those who are older than they used to be
Justice Ginsburg is 86 years old, and like a number of women today (as highlighted in this recent article), she remains a powerhouse. She was already 60 years old when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, making her the oldest junior justice at the time of appointment amongst the current justices; the others were originally appointed between the ages of 43 and 56. I suspect some of the Senators who supported her nomination (96 to 3 votes voted to confirm her nomination) would have put up more resistance if Justice Ginsburg had seemed less like their unconscious stereotype of a petite grandmother and more like their unconscious stereotype of a formidable adversary. Her relatively smooth confirmation could be an example of what I have called the “stereotype tax”, an instance when stereotypes are costly to the stereotype holder (which is not partisan, I suspect senators of both parties feel victim to this unconscious bias).
Still, studies show that ageism is a real force that each of us will (hopefully live long enough to) eventually face. How does Justice Ginsburg counter this bias? I believe that her lifelong multi-tasking, side hustle habit – which she may or may not have intentionally adopted – plays a role. Justice Ginsburg has always juggled multiple professional and family commitments. She was a mother and caregiver to her husband (diagnosed with cancer) during law school, noting that her caregiving responsibilities were an advantage as they forced a widening of interests and shifting of focus. Later, she was a professor at Rutgers and Columbia Law Schools while working as an attorney arguing cases with the ACLU, expanding her network and impact outside of her academic circles. In the moment, the stress of multi-tasking was countered by the emotional buffer of having multiple identities.
Justice Ginsburg’s multi-tasking appears to have been borne of necessity but it has played an essential role as she has gotten older. At ages when she might have voluntarily or involuntarily been aged out of full-time roles, she was consistently being exposed to new people, new issues, and new opportunities. She was still trying and learning new things, including beginning to work out in her 60s and 70s. She was not dependent on any one institution or person for her income or her identity, making her more likely to take the kind of risks that advance one’s career, as she did in multiple pathbreaking legal battles, long before she joined the Supreme Court.
A recent CBS This Morning segment argues that side hustles are an important way to counter ageism, and Justice Ginsburg’s career would support this advice. Here is the life and career coaching that I glean from Justice Ginsburg’s example. As you approach your 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, what opportunity can you add to your life that will broaden your interests and increase your visibility? What interest can you pursue that will deepen your skills while diversifying your sources of emotional well-being? What income source can you generate that will create an alternate path when your industry is disrupted, your skills become obsolete, or you are deemed “non-value-added”?
Advice for those who are in the minority
Justice Ginsburg has a vivid recollection of seeing “no dogs or Jews” signs when she was a child. She came of age during the Holocaust and in the 8th grade, she wrote an essay for her synagogue bulletin about how “we are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered”. Later in her life, she spoke of the connection she saw between anti-Nazi-ism and the civil rights movement in the United States. Fighting injustice has been a critical focus of her life, whether for herself or for others.
She appears optimistic, perhaps because of her deep respect for what has come before her and the progress which has been made. Her writing and speaking is rife with historical references. This investment in knowing how things were before and whose tired shoulders one is standing on seems to have served Justice Ginsburg well as she faced anti-Semitism both as a child and adult. I imagine that it is what has helped her retain a tenacious sense of hope, even when facing tremendous odds against her and the cases she fought for. She seems hyper-aware of injustice and committed to fighting it, and yet patient in the face of it.
I struggle with this a bit, worried that patience in the face of slow progress is the kind of advice that those not overtly harmed by lack of progress are likely to give. It can be code for complacency or concessions. But, a close examination of Justice Ginsburg’s life and work suggests this was not what was happening with her. Her patience should be confused with acceptance. She consciously took on a role of educating others, even in adversarial legal contexts. She is not known for overwhelming charisma or humor, but her interpersonal superpower is that she can separate the task from the person. To this, end, Justice Ginsburg’s friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia has become legendary. They spent New Year’s Eve’s together and relished conversations about the opera, despite their diametrically opposed views on many issues. They were able to separate what conflict researchers called task versus relational conflict, a skill which leads to improved group performance when conflicts are kept in the task domain.
Not all of us can do this, and frankly, not all of us want to do this. As I write about in my book, there are both heat-based (more confrontational) and light-based (more educational) approaches to change, and many of us prefer one versus the other. Effective social change requires both. But for those who can and will, Justice Ginsburg would likely coach us to take advice she received from her mother-in-law – about being “a little deaf” at times. Her ability to compartmentalize away exactly that which she is working to change allows her to sustain her own energy and build alliances. For those in minority groups for whom this approach is amenable, Justice Ginsburg would likely coach us keep teaching people.
Whether you are in or considering marriage, older than you used to be, or in a minority group, Justice Ginsburg’s example has much to offer about your life partner, your side hustle, and your approach to injustice. Love or hate her views, there is much to be learned from her example.