Looking Up and Looking Out: Career Mobility Effects of Demographic Similarity among Professionals

by Kathleen L. McGinn & Katherine L. Milkman

Overview — While women and racial minorities have increasingly crossed the threshold into professional service organizations, the path to the top remains elusive. Why do inequalities persist? McGinn and Milkman study processes of cohesion, competition, and comparison by looking at career mobility in a single up-or-out professional service organization. Findings show that higher proportions of same-sex and same-race superiors enhanced the career mobility of junior professionals. On the flip side, however, higher proportions of same-sex or same-race peers increased the likelihood of women's and men's exit and generally decreased their chances of promotion. This research highlights how important it is to look at both cooperative and competitive effects of demographic similarity when trying to address the problem of persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities at the highest levels in organizations. Key concepts include:

  • Social comparisons lead to measurable effects on individuals' careers, in turn shaping the demographic composition at the top of professional service organizations.
  • Organizations should attend to the ways in which policies and practices invoke competition and comparison within demographic categories.
  • Clustering same-race or same-sex junior employees to provide an increased sense of community may have the opposite effect of that desired, unless accompanied by senior professionals' active sponsorship of juniors across demographic lines.
  • 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.
  • Among peers, the potentially positive role for social cohesion could be compromised by minimal interaction in day-to-day work, while limited opportunities for choice assignments and promotion lend a distinctly competitive edge to the work environment. Junior professionals perceive that they are easily replaced by peers.

Author Abstract

We investigate the role of workgroup sex and race composition on the career mobility of professionals in "up-or-out" organizations. We develop a nuanced perspective on the potential career mobility effects of workgroup demography by integrating the social identification processes of cohesion, competition, and comparison. Using five years of personnel data from a large law firm, we examine the influence of demographic match with workgroup superiors and workgroup peers on attorneys' likelihood of turnover and promotion. Survival analyses reveal that higher proportions of same-sex and same-race superiors enhance junior professionals' career mobility. On the flip side, we observe mobility costs accruing to professionals in workgroups with higher proportions of same-sex and same-race peers. Qualitative data offer insights into the social identification processes underlying demographic similarity effects on turnover and promotion in professional service organizations.

Paper Information