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The Ideal Worker

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In her book, Unbending Gender, law professor Joan Williams describes the workplace as having been built around “ideal workers” who are available continuously and full-time—because they have no responsibility for housework or childcare.1 For the executive-level positions held by the Lost Leaders, the ideal worker is expected to be available to work long hours and be able to travel and relocate. Williams argues that this constitutes discrimination against women, since they are also expected to take primary responsibility for childcare and other needs of maintaining a home for their families. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s demanded equal access to jobs, but stopped short of addressing the fact that, once we got the jobs, we had to deal with these competing expectations. Even when they did not have families to care for, women are often viewed as less than “ideal,” due to the cultural norms that expect women to eventually assume domestic duties. Williams believes that men are also suffering from the requirements of being ideal workers, and that both men and women find it difficult to succeed without conforming to this standard. Here is how Williams describes the alternatives available to women under this system:

They can perform as ideal workers without the flow of family work and other privileges male ideal workers enjoy [because they have wives]. This is not equality. Or they can take dead-end mommy-track jobs or “women’s work.” That is not equality either. A system that allows only these two alternatives is one that discriminates against women.2


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  1. Joan C. Williams, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

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© 2013 Rebekah S. Heppner

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Heppner, R.S. (2013). The Ideal Worker. In: The Lost Leaders. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

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