Race, Gender and Careers: Why ‘Stuffing the Pipeline’ Is Not Enough

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Their research was somewhat limited by the scarcity of minority senior partners at the firm, the professors note. They also emphasize that their results are best generalized to other professional service organizations where human capital is critical, senior sponsorship is coveted and competition is intense. Still, the analysis of junior-senior mentoring among women at the firm produced the most concrete results.

“Past research finds that workplace demography affects members of traditionally high-status groups — men and whites — differently than it does those from traditionally lower-status groups — women and racial minorities,” the paper states. “Our research offers insights into why this is so. In the firm we studied, both men and women expressed a need for senior sponsorship, but the presence of females in leadership positions offered a vital signal in addition to their sponsorship. Higher proportions of same-sex seniors were more important for women than for men because the presence of female partners in the work group provided [signs] to junior women that they could succeed, while junior men took the possibility of success for granted.”

Essentially, when people are considering their chances of promotion, they look around their work environment for cues. “Our conclusions are that our hypotheses are largely supported,” Milkman says. “Having mentors and role models who look like you is important. But, more interestingly, we see these negative effects associated with being in a work group with lots of competitors for promotion who resemble you demographically.”

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Playing on Different Courts

The research suggests that the clustering of same-sex or same-race employees into work groups in order to foster a sense of cohesion or community is a practice that managers may want to reconsider. “Stuffing the pipeline,” as Milkman says, is not enough. “Our results call for organizations to attend to the ways in which policies and practices invoke competition and comparison within demographic categories,” the professors write. “Attempts to design employment practices that are blind to the demographics of candidates are likely to succeed only if all candidates perceive and receive equal mentoring, sponsorship, and peer support regardless of their race and gender.”

Milkman shares her personal experience at Wharton to relate her point. “I’m in a department that’s very male,” she says. “That’s not to say Wharton doesn’t have female professors. There are many female professors who were hired at the same time I was, but they are in different departments. It’s been fantastic to get together without any competitive element because we know we’re not up against each other. There’s no anxiety about competition, but we get the benefits of social cohesion, and that’s been amazing. I’ll bet if these women were in my court, I would have a different point of view and a different relationship with them.”

Milkman’s career choice inspired her to study the effects of race and gender on career mobility. In turn, that research has led her to ask more questions about the role of discrimination in business and economics. It’s a tough area to explore, she acknowledges, but worthwhile if it can lead to greater understanding, better management practices and increased parity for underrepresented employees.

“Gender and race issues are really salient to me now,” she notes. “As a result of doing this research, I got really interested in discrimination. The flip side of the issues studied in this paper is to ask what decisions do potential employers or mentors make about a person because they are a women or a minority?”

Milkman is currently analyzing data from an experiment on the role that race and gender play in patronage. She sent emails to 6,500 professors at academic institutions across the country from someone requesting their help as a role model. The emails came with signatures that indicated whether the “student” was male, female, white or a minority, and they asked the professor to spare time for a 10-minute meeting. The requests varied on whether the student wanted to meet that day or next week.

“The first high-level finding is that even in academia, where people might not expect to see it, we find significant rates of race and gender discrimination,” Milkman says. “Females and minorities received significantly fewer responses from prospective mentors. And when the professors were asked to reflect a week in advance, that’s where the discrimination really showed up. The results are quite stunning.”

For Milkman, the ultimate goal is as clear for her now as her career path was years ago. She hopes her work will make a difference. “Both of these projects are asking the same question,” she notes. “How do we change it?”

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Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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