In 2020 the economist Robin Ely and the sociologist Irene Padavic wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled “What’s Really Holding Women Back?” exploring “why women remain so dramatically underrepresented in the senior ranks of most companies.” The pair interviewed more than 100 employees from a global consulting firm over 18 months and found that the main culprits holding women back are an unyielding, 24/7 culture of work and gendered assumptions about how women — and particularly mothers — should behave.
When women had children, the expectation, from their co-workers (and society), was for them to put their families first. For many, this meant taking the superficially well-meaning accommodations of part-time or internal-facing roles that ultimately prevented them from reaching the upper echelons of corporate power, Ely and Padavic found.
For women who didn’t want to take a step back, there were two additional barriers to success. One was “the pressure to give up what they saw as their relational style in favor of the hard-charging ‘masculine’ style the firm venerated in client interactions.” The second was that the mothers who did make it to partner were “routinely” belittled by colleagues as bad mothers and bad role models.
Ely and Padavic interviewed one man who was, in their words, “resolute in his conviction that women’s personal preferences were the obstacle to their success.” This left him “unable to account for such anomalies as childless women, whose promotion record was no better than that of mothers. In his calculation all women were mothers, a conflation that was common in our interviews.” In earlier research, Ely, along with the Harvard Business School’s Colleen Ammerman and the Hunter College sociologist Pamela Stone, found that another factor holding high-achieving women back at work was that in dual-earning couples, they allowed their husband’s jobs to take precedence over their own.
I was thinking about all this research when I saw the new Netflix movie “Fair Play.” It felt at times as if the writer and director, Chloe Domont, must have had a stack of dog-eared copies of Harvard Business Review in her desk drawer. In an interview with Leah Greenblatt for The Times, Domont said that she was inspired to make the film by her experience moving up the ladder in Hollywood and discovering that “my success didn’t totally feel like a win, because of the kinds of men I had been dating — that me being big made them feel small.”
“Fair Play” is about what happens when a woman declines to follow the expected script when it comes to work and life: She puts her career above her relationship, loses her soul in the process and is punished for her gender deviation. While there are no children involved in the story, there’s definitely an implication among the characters that an ambitious woman is not wife material. (Some spoilers ahead, but I’m doing my best to leave enough mystery for those who haven’t seen it.)
The movie tells the story of Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who are co-workers at a financial firm with a brutal culture. They get engaged early on in the film, but their relationship is a secret; they have been carrying on behind everybody’s back at the office. Emily pointedly takes her engagement ring off before she leaves their shared apartment.
At first, Emily and Luke have the same job title. They both expect that Luke will get promoted, and she is truly excited for him. They proceed as if that’s the natural order of things and talk about their plans. Instead, Emily — who is clearly more skilled and better liked by management — is promoted and becomes Luke’s boss.
Luke can barely pretend to be happy for her; her other male co-workers suck up to her to her face and deride her behind her back. Luke becomes cold and distant and begins to undermine her. Emily’s response is cringe-worthy: As Amy Nicholson explains in her review of the film for The Times, “There’s nothing she can say, or do, to make her fiancé smile, and her disastrously obnoxious attempts to relieve the pressure just make things worse.”
While her relationship is disintegrating and her fiancé turns into something of an incel, Emily tries to prove to her boorish co-workers that she’s just one of the guys and partly succeeds. As the movie goes on, the overall mood feels increasingly sinister. In one heated moment, Luke tells Emily that she stole “his” job and that she couldn’t have possibly earned it herself.
I won’t spoil the climax; suffice it to say that no one comes out looking particularly moral or decent. And yes, “Fair Play” is dramatized. I’m not suggesting that in real life, the tension that men and women experience between their work lives and their personal lives is quite as naked or ugly. The movie is an excellent thriller that has something smart to say about power; it’s not a policy paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
But still, there is a deep and uncomfortable truth embedded in the film: Some men are happy to be equals with women but are very unhappy to be surpassed by them. And this truth has echoes in economic research like that of Claudia Goldin, this year’s winner of the Nobel in economics. This week, in an interview about her award, she said, “We’re never going to have gender equality until we also have couple equity.”
Real equity would require more men to pull back from so-called greedy work with long inflexible hours as much as women do and to take an equitable share of domestic labor, parenting and caregiving. “Fair Play” at least understands that we’re a long way from that happening.