Gender and Race Inequality at Work: Research Academics Gather to Share and Communicate their Findings at SnO

12 June 2017

The Inequality Conference organized by the Society and Organizations Center (SnO) was hosted for the first time by HEC Paris on May 19-20, 2017. This kind of conference serves as reminder that inequality is not fully understood. There is evidence that inequality is still present in organizations, and that there is work left to be done to ensure that minorities have access to jobs, and that, once they are employed, their outcomes are not systematically different than those of their comparable peers. 

Inequality Research Conference - SnO May 2017

This was the overarching theme of the first Inequality Research Conference, a two-day conference that brought together 30 scholars to present their most recent research at the HEC Paris campus “Le Château”. Participant researchers were at different career stages, from doctoral students to professors, and represented both US and European universities. 

The morning of the first day started with a warm welcome from the hosts, Rodolphe Durand and Roxana Barbulescu. The element of surprise was provided by the special message of the new French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, in which he invited researchers and academics to France and expressed the belief in the potential of scientific inquiry to help solve relevant problems. This video went viral in February 2017 after its release, and is known as “I have a message for you guys.” 

The first talk of the conference was offered by Frank Dobbin (Harvard University). He presented the main reasons why most diversity management practices fail to have the desired effect, and which alternative solutions may work . The problem with diversity practices is that they are aimed to change, control or restrain individual’s actions. Such policies rarely manage to improve the diversity quotas in the organization. Instead, making individuals part of the diversity management efforts and allowing them to engage with this topic voluntarily are the solutions to achieving a more balanced workforce in terms of race and gender composition. After this keynote presentation, the remainder of the conference was organized as four sessions of 3 or 4 presentations of academic studies grouped around different aspects of inequality, with a discussant for each section. The topics of each section covered issues from gender inequality in top management teams and on boards, to the effects of networks on inequality, and market and organizational mechanisms driving inequality. 


The types of work covered in this conference were both novel research, presented for the very first time at the Inequality Conference, as well as articles already published in top scientific journals. The methods used to address inequality issues were both qualitative and quantitative. The empirical settings where participants studied inequality were just as diverse, covering sectors from professional firms to sales firms, from the fashion industry to the movie industry or online job platforms. Data was gathered in the US, Denmark and Germany.  

Starting at the top of the organization, there is extensive evidence of gender inequality. Studying men and women that are incumbents of top managerial positions in organizations in the US and Germany is useful to understand when and how some men and women make it to the top, and what are the professional identities of women on boards. Rocio Bonet (IE Business School) presented work on the gender differences in the speed of advancement of men and women working in executive positions: on average, women’s speed of advancement is higher than men’s. Marta Elvira (IESE Business School) and Cristina Quintana-Garcia (University of Malaga) presented further evidence that women’s higher speed of advancement is one important mechanism that helps close the gender wage gap at the top. However, once women make it to the board of an organization, gendered interactions continue to exist, and very often women need to find a role for themselves on the board and overcome the stereotype of token women, as evidenced by Anja Kirsch’s study (Freie Universität Berlin). 

The overarching idea of the session about inequality and networks was that career outcomes are not exclusively determined by individual’s characteristics or actions, but also by social context. Individuals’ networks, their job search strategies and anticipatory action, and their career experience will affect their career outcomes in a cumulative way, rather than constitute independent events. Thus, the observed gender inequality in Silicon Valley is the result of a combination of supply, demand and matching mechanisms between job seekers and employers, as is evidenced by the work presented by Olenka Kacperczyk (MIT/LBS). Outcomes of career success, such as awards won or number of jobs awarded, are a result of both the individual’s characteristics, as well as the network that individuals are embedded in. In the Hollywood film industry, the probability of a director winning an award is determined not only by the director’s ability, but also by the diversity of her team, as well as the experience that the members of a team have working together, as studied by Mark Lutter (Max Planck Institute). Finally, Frederic Godart (INSEAD) presented evidence that a fashion model with more diverse relations based on transitory, societal or organizational connections will be hired more often than her peers in the fashion industry. 

Gender stereotypes and inequality mechanisms do not only affect career outcomes, but they may also lead to market failures. Biases regarding the existence of specifically male versus specifically female-typed jobs can lead to market failures in matching labor demand and supply in the context of online job platforms, as presented by Ming Leung (University of California, Berkley). Moreover, in the context of increased acceptance of boundaryless careers and increased acceptance of mobility in the labor market, specialist career profiles are beginning to be disadvantaged when it comes to promotions. Evidence presented by Jennifer Merluzzi (Tulane University) suggests that specialist career profiles are found for married women, thus exacerbating unequal outcomes for this particular group. 

Inequality producing mechanisms do not only affect hiring and promotions, but they may also affect wages. Mental health problems are one important factor that leads to unequal wage trajectories. However, these unequal outcomes can be partly mitigated by access to treatment, as is evidenced by the research of Michael Dahl (Aarhus University) studying a sample of the Danish population. 

After an enjoyable dinner in Versailles, and a good night’s rest, the second day of the conference started with a session on organizational mechanisms of inequality. Despite the apparent egalitarianism, meritocracy and transparency of open source software organizations, even in this setting there are unequal outcomes in men’s and women’s promotions. Alexandra Kalev (Tel Aviv University) presented statistical evidence that women’s objective contributions are being devalued with respect to men’s. However, Adina Sterling’s (Stanford University) study found that gender inequality in wages can be mitigated through internships. Internships in a large sales organizations in the US are found to attract a more diverse pool of applicants in terms of both race and gender, as they allow employers to learn about their workers prior to extending a full-time offer. Increasing gender diversity in a job may have negative effects, however. Evidence from jobs in the advertising industry supports the conclusion that those jobs with more gender diversity are more likely to be dissolved or recombined into new positions, as in the work presented by Matissa Holister (McGill University). Finally, Forrest Briscoe (Pennsylvania State University) argues that the gender wage gap in organizations may be due to the political ideology of the top executives of the organization in the context of US human-capital intensive sectors. A proposal for future research is that diversity efforts can be framed such that they are more palatable to individuals with different political ideologies. 

To conclude, there is ample evidence that gender and race inequality is still present in organizations in developed countries. The causes and mechanisms of inequality are diverse, and often contain supply and demand-side factors. The effect of these factors is highly dependent on the social context. Much remains to be studied about inequality, and events like the HEC Paris Inequality Conference, which allow researchers on this topic to interact, are a necessary step forward. In short, this conference is a reminder and an invitation to keep working in the hope of achieving equality of opportunities and ensuring equal rewards for equal jobs.***


More about: 

Dobbin and Kalev HBR article "Why Diversity Programs Fail"

The organizer, Roxana Barbulescu, SnO member and professor at the human resources department

Becoming a Managing Director: A qualitative study of the promotion practices in Canadian banks at the Managing Director level

Society and Organizations Center (SnO)

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