Who Gets Promoted and Who Gets Fired?
Sociology professor’s research provides new insight into certain types of discrimination
Discrimination can come in many forms. It can be based on sex, race and even factors such as pregnancy.
Researching discrimination and teaching students about it is the focus of Sociology Professor Reggie Byron’s work.
Byron began studying discrimination while working on his master’s degree at The Ohio State University. Researchers there were able to obtain data from more than 60,000 employment and housing discrimination complaints made to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission between 1986 and 2003 that were investigated and closed.The data included both quantitative variables and rich qualitative narratives, which is particularly rare.
To date, the researchers have generated eight articles and one book based on this data. Byron’s first solo paper based on the data appears in the November 2010 issue of the international sociological journal Work and Occupations.
The paper compares the rate and process of discrimination in public and private work sectors. Theoretically, one might expect to find more discrimination in the private sector because private companies do not typically have as many formalized practices as public sector employers. But others hypothesize that the competitive search for productive but inexpensive labor might inhibit race and sex discrimination more in private firms. Byron’s paper tests these conflicting theoretical perspectives.
In the end, Byron found that the overall rate of discrimination does not vary much by sector, but specific types of discrimination do vary by sector. For example, he found that there are more cases of promotion discrimination in the public sector, but more cases of firing discrimination in the private sector.
“Employees in the public sector have between 2.1 and 2.5 times higher odds of promotion discrimination relative to other types of discrimination,” he said. “Working in the private sector increases one’s odds of firing discrimination relative to other types of discrimination between 2.8 and 4.7 times, depending upon the segment of the private sector.”
By reading some of the promotion discrimination complaints filed in Ohio, Byron found that public sector employers often shift the weight of evaluative criteria to make “soft skills” such as appearance, diplomacy and dedication more important to selection than objective qualifications like workplace seniority. This particularly hurts Black applicants, who may be perceived to be deficient in these areas.
“Such practices, whether conscious or unconscious, systematically close women and minorities out of positions,” Byron said.
Another way public sector employers promote the candidates they want as opposed to the most qualified candidates is to name people to selection committees who they know will support their preferences. Or, they may use an exam that has never been used before that they know a certain candidate will do better on.
“Formalized promotion policies are good, but they can also be used to justify discriminatory practices,” Byron said. “It is important to study how people work around the system because it can help us find new ways to prevent discrimination.”
When it comes to firing, Byron found pregnant woman in the private sector are particularly vulnerable because they are regarded as a financial liability and employers invoke firing leeway granted to them by the employment-at-will doctrine. According to his data, differential treatment of pregnant women is not reported at all in the public sector. He thinks this is likely because public sector jobs have more generous maternity leave policies.
Because many discrimination complaints go unreported, Byron cautions that his quantitative figures are “certainly an underestimation of all real-world discrimination.”
Byron works his research into the classes he teaches on sociological theory and social problems. He said he even had his students read his paper before it was submitted.
“It is important for them to see how research can inform teaching,” he said.
Byron hopes to expand his research to include other states. He is currently working with Southwestern senior Victoria Dominguez on a paper that considers how firm-level and industry-level demographics influence the process of sexual and general workplace harassment.
“There has been a lot of speculation about these processes, but there is room for more empirical research,” he said.