Sunday night’s episode of The Good Wife took on the central question of the series: how did Alicia Florrick, after 13 years of stay-at-home parenting, get back into the workforce and become a high-powered partner in a major law firm in just four years?
In its early days, the show sustained some criticism over this premise. Alicia coasted back into the workforce, a far cry from real stay-at-home moms who take a few years off only to find themselves shut out permanently. Women who do manage to find work are vastly overqualified and underpaid; horror stories of former partners taking unpaid internships or part-time sales jobs abound.
The Good Wife, however, rejects the idea that Alicia’s ascent is normal, or happened because she was simply better than other women trying to opt back in. In Sunday’s episode, “A Few Words,” the American Bar Association has asked Alicia to share her secrets about opting back in in a keynote address. The problem is, Alicia knows she was only able to re-enter law because Will, a former love interest from law school, threw her a lifeline. In Will’s own flashback, we see how he fought for Alicia, talking her up to the partners and burying criticism from her prior employers, simply because he liked her.
This plot point lines up with many women’s lived experiences. A recent New York Times’ profile of “the opt-out generation” — several real-life Alicia Florricks who left high-powered careers a decade ago — made clear that women who wanted back in relied heavily on networks they had developed through childrens’ schools, old colleagues, and friends to find jobs. The women who succeeded are the “superelite,” who were lucky enough to have friends in high places and cultivated influence in the right circles, while those who were less connected struggled. Women also tend to be less comfortable exploiting these connections and more likely to feel like they haven’t earned their spot.
Alicia is clearly uncomfortable with this path to success. She imagines a different scenario in which she, as an empowered woman, won her position by arguing that she deserves a chance because “women are under-represented in this business.” But in reality, she recalls how she played on Will’s affection for her, wearing a slightly sexier outfit to her meeting with him and laughing a little too hard at his jokes. In the back of her mind, her mother-in-law stands in for her guilty conscience and admonishes her for being a “slut” and a “whore.”
Alicia’s secret self-doubt sounds a lot like “the imposter effect” described by Lean In guru Sheryl Sandberg, which makes even the most accomplished women feel that “it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are — imposters with limited skills or abilities.”
Yet connections like Alicia’s and Will’s are undeniably crucial for job-seekers of all genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Indeed, research suggests that as much as 60 to 80 percent of workers land their jobs through personal connections. As a result of this framework, the people at the top — predominantly white men — are more likely to help their friends, who tend to have similar backgrounds and life experience. And just like that, the boy’s club is formed.
The “imposter effect” makes women and people of color feel like they don’t deserve to be in that privileged club, and makes them less likely to advocate for themselves as forcefully as young white men who have been taught all along that they belong in it. In her speech, Alicia recounts how Will told her to “stop arguing against myself” and “pointing out reasons why I shouldn’t be hired.”
Yet even after beating the odds, Alicia isn’t exactly willing to throw open the doors to others like her. The young, cocky Cary Agos, who has always served as Alicia’s foil on the show, illustrates this bias. “Who would you hire if we had to hire someone today?” he asks her. She thinks for a second and admits, “You.” He agrees, “Yeah, me too…and you wouldn’t hire you either.”
As highlighted by recent criticism of the lack of hiring diversity at media startups like Vox and FiveThirtyEight, this cycle of marginalization is often unintentional, but still damaging. Cary, a handsome white man from a wealthy family who oozes confidence and charm, is the obvious winner by the standard hiring metrics. In real life, many employers justify rejecting female candidates because they don’t “fit” the office culture or that they simply aren’t qualified enough. The problem is, the culture and qualifications are shaped around traditionally male qualities, like arrogance and aggression. Alicia, for example, is criticized by her former employer because she “lacked a killer instinct” and “wasn’t tough enough.”
Yet research suggests that keeping the club exclusive to people who possess those traits is bad for a company in the long run. Paradoxically, groups have a tendency to reward overconfident and narcissistic people, even though those qualities actually make them worse leaders. Across a wide variety of fields, the most effective leaders tend to be humble and collaborative, yet leaders with those characteristics are few and far between. The fact that the vast majority of leaders fail suggests that we need to transform our definition of valuable work experience — and maybe even broaden it to include 13 years of raising children and running a home.