When the “Ideal Worker” is a White Man, Everyone Else Has to Work Harder

By Rachel M. Korn, Joan C. Williams, and Cecilia L. Ridgeway

When President Biden announced that he would be nominating a Black woman for the upcoming vacancy on the US Supreme Court, there was an almost immediate public backlash. In one high-profile example, Senator Roger Wicker was quick to claim that the future justice will be the beneficiary of affirmative action quotas, while Senator Ted Cruz called the suggestion offensive and insulting to Americans.

The criticism began before the names of any potential Black women candidates were suggested, which means that the actual qualifications of any particular candidate were not the cause of the backlash. Clearly, the assumption of these detractors is no Black woman in the entire county could possibly actually be qualified for the job. The other piece of the assumption is that a Black woman being chosen for Supreme Court Justice must have gotten an unfair advantage in the form of lowered standards.  Since the creation of the supreme court, 94% of justices have been white men. If any Supreme Court Justices are getting a pass on qualifications due to their race and gender, they’re the white men.

Let’s take a step back. Imagine a Supreme Court justice. Or a brilliant architect, savvy tech entrepreneur, or high-powered lawyer. If you’re like most people, what jumped into mind was a kinda tall white guy. This means that all other groups have a harder time navigating the workplace. These non-prototypical workers face a routine burden of extra work to get ahead in the workplace – a burden that is largely invisible to the white men around them.

Our research, reported in our recent article in Gender & Society, explored six forms of workplace bias in the profession of architecture: Prove-it-again reflects assumptions about who is competent – and who isn’t. Tightrope bias reflects that authoritativeness and ambition are more readily accepted from white men than from other groups, who consequently face more complicated office politics as they walk a tightrope between being seen as “too meek” or “too much.” Other forms of bias include a lack of fit with the dominant culture, exclusion from the information-sharing networks, being expected to do emotion work (like acting as the peacemaker), and being constantly interrupted.

We surveyed men and women architects from five racial groups about their workplace bias experiences and the results highlight the impact of intersectionality. Over and over again we found that the experience of women of color typically diverges the most from that of white men, with the experience of Black women often diverging the most as compared with other women of color. White women and men of color tended to fall in between, but typically reported experiences closer to women of color’s experiences than to those of white men. The notable exception was Latinos, who often reported experiences similar to those of white men (perhaps because architecture is such a class-conscious profession and Latino architects come from upper class families? We aren’t sure). We see these intersectional patterns very clearly, for instance, in how often women of all races and men of color reported having to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as their colleagues, or that they get less respect for the same quality of work. These are vivid, everyday examples of routine prove-it-again bias that white men were much less likely to report experiencing.

Tightrope bias means that white men typically are seen as a good fit for leadership roles, while others are expected to be deferential worker bees. Conforming to such expectations takes work: self-editing in order to prioritize the comfort of others in the workplace can be taxing and exhausting. While workers who are closer to the image of the ideal worker may be free to act authentically, other groups have to put energy into coming off as competent without being seen as “too aggressive.” Women of all races and men of color, for example, were less likely to say that people expect them to play leadership roles, and more likely to say that they get pushback for behaving assertively.

From the Supreme Court to architecture firms, those who don’t match the prototype of the ideal worker find they need to put in more effort and energy in order to have the same outcomes as white men. That extra work tends to be invisible to those in charge but it doesn’t have to be. Our work is a step towards making the routine burdens visible, and making them easier to undo – from architecture workplaces all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Rachel M. Korn is the Director of Research at the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Joan C. Williams is a Sullivan Professor of Law, Hastings Foundation Chair, and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Cecilia L. Ridgeway is the Lucie Stern Professor of Social Sciences, Emerita, in the Sociology Department at Stanford University.