• 05 Mar 2010
  • Working Paper

Will I Stay or Will I Go? Cooperative and Competitive Effects of Workgroup Sex and Race Composition on Turnover

by Kathleen L. McGinn & Katherine L. Milkman

Executive Summary — Inequalities in the senior ranks by sex and race remain rampant in up-or-out knowledge organizations such as consulting firms, law firms, and universities. HBS professor Kathleen L. McGinn and Wharton School professor Katherine L. Milkman focus on patterns of voluntary and involuntary turnover over six years in one such organization to untangle the multiple ways in which social identity influences career mobility. Predicting that higher proportions of demographically similar supervisors will reduce the likelihood of subordinate turnover, while higher proportions of demographically similar peers will increase the likelihood of turnover, the researchers find evidence of the hypothesized effects. They suggest that integrating research about social cohesion and social comparison enhances understanding of racial and gender inequality within organizations and facilitates organizations' ability to reduce that inequality. Key concepts include:

  • Senior sponsorship is vital for junior professionals in up-or-out organizations.
  • To address the problem of persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities at the highest levels, knowledge organizations need to attend to the ways in which policies and practices invoke competition, rather than social cohesion, among demographically similar peers.
  • Clustering same race or same sex junior employees to provide an increased sense of community may have the opposite effects of those desired unless accompanied by similar or greater increases in the diversity of senior professionals.
  • Studies of organizational sex composition and career mobility need to consider effects at multiple levels.

Author Abstract

We develop an integrated theory of the social identity mechanisms linking workgroup sex and race composition across levels with individual turnover. Building on social identity research, we theorize that social cohesion (Tyler, 1999; Hogg and Terry, 2000) and social comparison (Festinger, 1954) lead to well-known cooperative effects within subordinate-supervisor pairs of the same sex and race, but potentially competitive effects among demographically similar peers. Analyzing longitudinal human resource data on professionals employed in a large up-or-out knowledge organization, we assess the distinct effects of demographic match with superiors and demographic match with peers on the exit of junior professionals. We find largely cooperative effects of cross-level composition-junior professionals who work in groups with higher proportions of same sex senior professionals are less likely to exit. At the peer level, however, these effects are reversed, and professionals are more likely to leave as the proportions of same sex and race peers within the workgroup increase. The effects hold across demographic groups, but vary by majority/minority status, disproportionately affecting women and underrepresented minorities. 48 pages.

Paper Information