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All in a Day's Work

By Kate Tyler

Jennifer Pierce ventures directly into the workplace to explore intriguing puzzles about in equality.

For a time in high school, Jennifer Pierce toyed with the idea of becoming a mathematician.

“I liked puzzles,” says Pierce, an associate professor of American studies. She also loved the elegant formalism of trigonometry and calculus. “Math was unlike life, which I could see was messy and complicated,” she explains.

In her hometown of Pueblo, CO, people in the 1960s and 1970s were reeling from waves of layoffs at the steel mill that anchored the town. Like many rust-belt cities nationwide, Pueblo was hit hard by downsizing in the steel and auto industries. Pierce grew up seeing many family friends and neighbors lose their jobs and struggle to come back financially. Laid off slightly ahead of the droves, her own father was able to land a decent job and go back to school—he eventually became a physician. But most of the people Pierce knew were not as lucky. By the time she was in junior high, “the town was filled with laid-off workers who couldn’t find jobs—there just weren’t anymore.”

Against all that real-life complexity, “just plugging in the numbers to solve math problems started to look way too easy,” Pierce says. That observation was reinforced when she started college, at the University of Denver. As a scholarship student at this private Rocky Mountain college—filled with wealthy students who’d rather ski than hit the books—“I was confronted with the issue of class for the first time,” Pierce says. “In my town, everyone was working class. I had never thought about what that might mean in the larger context of society.” The lectures on class stratification in her first sociology class changed all that. They gave Pierce what she calls “a whole new lens for understanding the world”—as well as a new outlet for her puzzle-solving inclinations.

Since then, Pierce has focused her attention not on calculating trig’s tricky triangles, but on working through some of society’s most intriguing and complicated social dynamics. Pierce, who joined the faculty in 1993, is a social ethnographer who studies the daily realities of the global workplace. Through fieldwork and interviews, she sleuths out the messy lived experiences—especially around gender, race, and class issues— that get lost in statistical abstracts or pro-and-con pieces on the op-ed page.

Explaining sex segregation

Many of Pierce’s research projects have exposed the fault lines of race and gender that run through the workaday legal world. Her much-cited first book, Gender Trials, is a micro-level analysis of the sex-segregated dynamics of two corporate law firms.

Class hierarchy is deeply entrenched in corporate law, says Pierce, who conceived of her study after working her way through college as a paralegal at a 350-attorney firm in the Bay Area. Pierce showed how that hierarchy hinges on a pair of gender-polarized archetypes: “Rambo litigators” (mostly men) and “mothering paralegals” (mostly women).

Rambos rule, says Pierce, while the paralegals are expected “not just to work long hours doing incredibly demanding work, but also to be cheerful and nurturing and to stroke the egos of the litigators” (that is, to do “emotional labor,” as sociologist Arlie Hochschild has put it).

“All the paralegals generally are treated very badly by attorneys, but the few male paralegals aren’t treated nearly as badly as the women,” says Pierce. The gender stereotypes keep the women stuck: the more they conform to the “mothering” ideal, the more exploited they are; but failure to conform can bring criticism and negative job reviews.

Documenting this no-win bind, Pierce’s study helps explain why corporate law has remained strongly sex-segregated even as women earn law degrees in almost equal proportion to men. In such a gender-stratified realm, women attorneys face a distinctly uneven playing field, Pierce stresses. Those who ape the male-identified “Rambo litigator” ideal are seen as unacceptably brash; those who don’t are scorned as weak.

Passion for storytelling

Pierce’s book was widely hailed for its cutting-edge empirical and theoretical insights. Much to Pierce’s delight, reviewers also praised its engaging prose. “It’s important to me that I tell the stories well,” Pierce says.

Influenced by her mother, a voracious reader (and talented artist), Pierce read her way through the Pueblo town library as a child, and her earliest ambition—even before her infatuation with math—was to be a writer. “For a while, most of the books I checked out of the library had to do with women writers—Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the memoirs of Lillian Hellman,” recalls Pierce. “I was also writing short stories. I think I turned to math when I realized writing novels wasn’t a real job.” As a storytelling sociologist, Pierce sees her work as “a way of filling in the complete picture of social relations, and especially presenting a more nuanced picture of what work and the workplace look like. So much history is told by people in positions of power—heads of state, political parties, corporations. But there are many other points of view.”

Interdisciplinary scholarship

Storytelling is itself a central theme of Pierce’s forthcoming book on affirmative action in post-civil rights America.

Her new project focuses on a decade in the life of the legal department of a large California corporation, one with a federally mandated affirmative action program. Her innovative approach combines ethnography with something akin to literary analysis. Using fieldwork and interviews conducted 10 years apart—in 1989 and 1999—she presents a complex picture of workplace racial dynamics, and then homes in on the stories people tell to make sense of race and inequality.

“This study demonstrates why I was a good fit for American studies,” smiles Pierce, a highly interdisciplinary scholar who came over from the sociology department in 1998. In classes she teaches on such subjects as the global economy, ethnography, and affirmative action, she routinely assigns works by novelists, historians, and cultural theorists alongside sociological texts.

“I want our students—and we have terrifically smart students in American studies, by the way—to conceive of the world broadly, not narrowly,” explains Pierce. “I want them to examine many viewpoints, ask hard questions. With affirmative action, for example, we get such simplistic views from the media— either you’re for ‘hard work’ or you’re for ‘special privileges.’ Civil rights and racism are portrayed as yesterday’s story; today’s story is about ‘individual success.’ The realities are so much more complicated, and insights from different disciplines are helpful in seeing that.”

The messiness of affirmative action

In her study, Pierce discovered right off the bat that the corporation’s legal department had lost almost all of its employees of color (and well over half the women attorneys) over the course of the decade. (In contrast, nearly two thirds of the white male lawyers remained). But why?

From white attorneys still in the company, Pierce heard that one of the departed African American attorneys, Randall Kingsley, had been lured away by a great job in a prestigious corporate firm—that he made a high salary, drove a pricey sports car. Yet when she tracked down Kingsley—who, as it turned out, earned a modest salary in a two-person practice and drove a VW Rabbit—she heard he’d left the company in weary frustration after enduring a long history of slights and disparate treatment.

Pierce says that the firm “was by no means overtly racist, and it did have an affirmative active program.” Yet Kingsley and the other attorneys of color all told of being badly mentored compared with their white counterparts, of getting crummy case assignments and the least competent secretary, of being routinely stood up for lunches with colleagues.

“I found that white attorneys tended to see these things in isolation,” Pierce says. “I’d hear, ‘I guess I did forget a lunch with the guy once, but what’s one lunch date’? Randall was just ‘oversensitive,’ they suggested. But for Randall and the other attorneys of color, it wasn’t one lunch date. It was the sum total of lots of missed lunch dates, in conjunction with a lot of other stuff as well.”

One interesting finding is that whites in the company held misconceptions about the qualifications of their attorneys of color. Many, for example, told Pierce that Kingsley had attended an inferior law school, and they attributed his having landed a job at the firm to affirmative action. But in fact, Kingsley had earned his degree from one of the country’s most prestigious institutions.

Put all this together, says Pierce, and “You get a telling picture of racial relations in the workplace. The white attorneys had these individual success stories—‘ I worked hard, I went to a prestigious school, I made the law review, I landed this good job.’ The narrative is very much the story of liberal individualism. It’s in keeping with the conservative view that hard work is everything and that gender or race or class has nothing to do with success.”

The white attorneys tried valiantly to make sense of Randall’s departure within this framework, says Pierce. Yet the “Randall left for a better job” story not only was untrue, but also conflicted with the prevailing tale about Randall’s “inferior credentials”—a myth, says Pierce, “that would seem to reflect racial stereotypes.”

Pierce’s working title for her project, Racing for Innocence, is based on Kingsley’s observation that the white attorneys seemed to be “working like crazy to be the most hip, non-racist white guys.” As Pierce sees it, “Many white professionals simply don’t recognize the connections, opportunities, and class dimensions that figure into their success. They don’t see their whiteness, or the privilege that goes with it. It’s a story of hard work—they have no other framework. This precludes them from seeing—or taking responsibility for— patterns and practices that systematically exclude people.”

Surprising ambivalence

Pierce’s study is most boundary-breaking in its second phase: unearthing the sources of the stories people tell about race. “People’s stories always have personal and idiosyncratic elements,” Pierce notes, “but they also draw from broader narratives in the culture.”

The narrative of individual success has figured prominently in the backlash against affirmative action., she observes. In contrast, “during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s there were strong narratives about eliminating structural barriers in society.”

Her work will illuminate the cultural and historical contexts for these viewpoints through a content analysis of scores of newspaper op-ed pieces, magazine commentaries, and popular films.

One of the most intriguing insights from her ethnographic research is that white professionals do acknowledge the persistence of racial discrimination in America, but are hard-put to explain it within their bootstrap framework.

Says Pierce: “Affirmative action is just a messier issue for people than we’re led to believe by Gallup polls, pundits, and talk radio hosts.” Many of the white male professionals she interviewed “would talk about meritocracy, color blindness, about the importance of hiring the best person for the job.”

But, says Pierce, “I also heard things like, ‘I do think there’s been discrimination in the past and that it sometimes happens now,’ and ‘it troubles me that we don’t have more black attorneys—I don’t believe in quotas, but I think we should hire more.”

For Pierce, an intellectual sleuth with an underlying bent for social justice, this finding has powerful implications. “I ask my students to consider what might happen if people develop smart counternarratives that capitalized on the real ambivalence people feel about affirmative action. That could blow the whole debate about affirmative action wide open.

“That’s what I hope all my work does—prompt us to think much more deeply about issues of social inequality.”