The Psychology of Workplace Bias in "Partner Track"
The Netflix show honestly portrays the fallout of implicit bias at work.
Posted November 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- "Partner Track" stood apart for its incisive portrayal of the minority point of view when coping with a competitive workplace.
- Implicit bias is based on outward characteristics like race, gender, and age, and our socialized stereotypes and expectations about them.
- We should be open-minded and reflect on our mistakes and limitations, try to learn where our biases come from, and keep questioning them.
"Partner Track" is a glossy rom-com series that came and went on Netflix without much fanfare or media attention, perhaps partly due to its lack of known stars or its subject matter: the tribulations of young, ambitious attorneys in NYC who face various marginalizations in a predominantly white male sphere.
Based on a novel by Helen Wan, the show’s main protagonist is a highly successful, Ivy-educated, fashion-forward, Korean American 20-something lawyer named Ingrid Yun who wants to make partner at her shiny corporate law firm while coping with a tangled love life. While in some ways the show is fluffy soap opera in the vein of "Emily in Paris," the one way the show stood apart from most was its incisive and honest portrayal of the minority point of view when coping with competitive workplaces.
In the first episode and throughout the series, the viewer, through Ingrid’s eyes, is smacked with microaggressions that are all too familiar for those who don’t fit the usual mold. A male assistant casually steals her chair at a meeting, meant only for the lawyers. He builds instant social rapport with the other bosses and some other lawyers (including the designated favorite partner-to-be and arrogant frat bro, Dan Fallon) and already gets invited to their gatherings despite his lower work rank below Ingrid and her best work friends, Rachel, a white woman, and Tyler, a gay Black man.
Eventually, Ingrid and another colleague (and love interest) Jeff Murphy are assigned to a major project that will likely seal the deal for partner if it goes through. Ingrid is seen clearly working much harder and with savvy ideas multiple times that end up saving the fragile deal, compared to Murphy.
In the meantime, Dan Fallon presents a comedy routine at an evening work party, mocking the concept of white fragility, after Tyler and he had a tense confrontation over an earlier racially charged incident. The bosses laugh at the routine, while Tyler and Ingrid walk out of the party in anger. When they attempt to confront the higher-ups on the situation, their concerns are typically gaslighted, minimized, and swept under the rug. Tyler quits in frustration (despite also being on a promising partner track), but Ingrid decides to stay and play token patsy for a superficial diversity initiative at the firm because she wants to make partner so badly. She ends up losing her friendship with Tyler and Rachel because of her selling out. She ultimately helps land the large corporate deal, with some questionable moral fallout for the smaller business partners involved (including an Asian American-owned firm).
Everything backfires when, spoiler alert, she is passed over for partner, and Murphy and Fallon are chosen instead. Tyler is also emotionally broken by the fallout of his resignation; in depression, he cheats on his partner and ends up restarting his life from scratch. Ingrid is painted as the erratic troublemaker whose entire career is jeopardized when she also quits in anger and sabotages the deal to help the small company she had betrayed earlier. Rachel, after being the center of gossip due to a workplace relationship gone bad, decides to also quit and become a full-time writer. While perhaps it is good on some level that these talented lawyers decide that the cutthroat and immoral corporate world is not for them, it is also a reflection of the way that world refuses to let them change or improve or even fully enter it.
The facts are that elite leadership levels in numerous powerful fields of society remain predominantly white and male in the United States—Congress, law firms, academia, hospitals, filmmaking, business companies—it goes on. Asian Americans, in particular, despite their success in education and professional careers, do not enter leadership positions in proportion to their credentials. Per a Vox article by Li Zhou from September 2022 on "Partner Track": “Overall, Asian Americans comprise 13 percent of the professional workforce and only 6 percent of executives, per data from the Ascend Foundation.”
"Partner Track" helps vividly illustrate the phenomenon of implicit bias. Per the definition listed on the National Institutes of Health’s diversity Web site, implicit bias “is a form of bias that occurs automatically and unintentionally, that nevertheless affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors. Research has shown implicit bias can pose a barrier to recruiting and retaining a diverse…workforce.” The bias is based on outward characteristics like race, gender, and age, and the stereotypes and expectations that have been socialized into us accordingly about them.
Folks do not necessarily mean to be overtly prejudiced or racist when they make decisions about whom they promote or interact with work. It is just that there are systemic and prejudicial factors that end up influencing those decisions. In "Partner Track," the white males end up already having a comfortable berth due to their numbers and familiarity with each other; they socialize more naturally, and their empathy for microaggressions or racial/gender-based concerns is more limited because they haven’t had to experience those issues for themselves. They see leadership potential in each other because they already are leaders and mentors for each other. Their choices for future leaders are often based more on likeability and familiarity than actual merit or talent.
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Accordingly, those who fall prey to implicit bias become demoralized, hurt, and isolated, which only heightens the sense to their colleagues that they are not likable or are problematic and negative. Many of these promising people may simply give up and choose different goals for themselves, which is fine in its own way but deprives the world of innovative or more diverse ideas and talent in influential positions and the chance to role model and mentor others more like themselves. This self-reinforcement of a particular clique becomes a vicious psychological cycle.
Combatting This Cycle
How does one combat this cycle? "Partner Track" does not offer significant solutions and was unceremoniously canceled after one season. However, there are lessons to be learned from the tribulations of its main characters. People of all backgrounds need to be educated and made aware of the influences of implicit bias and how it impacts each member of our society. People, instead of being defensive about their own biases, should be open-minded and reflect on their mistakes and limitations, try to learn where those biases come from, and keep questioning them.
If one is in an influential position at work, one should reflect critically on how these biases affect choices and promotions, and how people, particularly in marginalized groups, may be affected by these decisions. Overt initiatives to diversify leadership roles and mentor people from diverse backgrounds should be highlighted and streamlined transparently for all people, instead of relying solely on informal “insider” networks to do so.
It’s not an easy task at hand given human nature and the existing systems in place. There is a lot of backlash and resentment as it is from people who do not understand or like change, or who do not want to feel like the “bad guy.” But, ultimately, the goal is mutual understanding and working together toward common initiatives and improvement for all people. The way to start reaching that goal is to be aware and empathetic that these psychological dynamics are happening in workplaces everywhere in America.