Expert Commentary

Cracking the glass cages? Workplaces and inequality

2009 study by the University of Arizona in the American Journal of Sociology on more fluid work environments and effects on management diversity.

Workplace (iStock)

In recent decades, some American corporations have promoted team work and encouraged looser job roles. By 2002, up to 80% of medium- to large-sized workplaces had put in place cross-boundary structures that increased collaboration across work functions. These programs have often given non-managerial women and minorities the opportunity to interact with a wider range of workers, managers, and jobs across their organizations.

A 2009 study from the University of Arizona published in the American Journal of Sociology, “Cracking the Glass Cages? Restructuring and Ascriptive Inequality at Work,” looked at structural changes at more than 800 American organizations over the past 20 years to see how these more fluid work environments impacted problems of gender and racial disadvantage. The study looked at a variety of new workplace programs and the effects they ultimately had on management diversity.

The study’s findings include:

  • Overall, the percentage of white male managers fell from 75% in 1980 to 62% in 2002, while the percentage of white females rose from 19% to 26%, black females from less than 1% to 2%, and black males from 2.4% to 3.1%.
  • The introduction of self-directed work teams was associated with a decline in the probability of white male managers by 8% and an increase in the odds of white female managers by 9%, as well as an increase of black female managers by 3.5% and of black male managers by 5%.
  • The adoption of cross-training, which provides workers with knowledge of and experience in different jobs, improved the probability of white women, black women and black men of being a manager by 4% and decreased the probability of white men by 7.5%.
  • The adoption of problem-solving teams — which, in contrast to self-directed work teams, often emphasize bringing experts together — did not foster racial diversity: the promotion of such structures diminished the odds that managers were black women by 3% and black men by 6%.

The study’s author concludes that certain types of cross-boundary structures allow established hierarchies to change “organically” as workers “collaborate and cooperate rather than give and accept assignments.”  The findings provide “strong support for the argument that restructuring work to weaken job segregation improves the access of women and minorities to management.”

Tags: women and work