Leveling the Playing Field? Developmental Practices and Minority Representation in Professional Service Firms

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.3.03 (Tower Two)
Elizabeth H. Gorman, Sociology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Fiona Kay, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada
Despite an extensive body of research illuminating the causes of racial and gender inequality, there is little consensus on how to design employment practices that work to reduce it.  Most attention in this area has focused on programs that are targeted at women and minority employees, but employment practices that are not specifically targeted at disadvantaged groups may also make a difference.  In this study, we advance knowledge about “what works” to increase diversity by investigating how organizational approaches to employee development influence the representation of three racial and ethnic minority groups in professional service firms.  

In most professional and managerial occupations, many important skills are gained not through schooling but on the job.  Minorities are likely to be disadvantaged in access to on-the-job developmental opportunities that arise informally, such as mentoring, sponsorship, and selection for “stretch” assignments.  Both in-group preference and group stereotyping are likely to bias senior employees’ choice of junior co-workers for developmental opportunities.  As a result, whites may gain skills necessary to function in positions of greater responsibility while minorities do not.  Organizational efforts to make professional development available to all may help to level the playing field.  Relevant formal practices could include formal training programs, formal mentoring programs, rotation-based assignment systems, and a longer or shorter “track” to partnership or promotion.  Relevant informal practices could include a cultural commitment to professional development and a norm of delegating responsibility to junior employees at early stages of their careers.

We investigate the relationships between these practices and the presence of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans at the junior level (associates) and senor level (partners) of the organizational hierarchy using data on large law firms across the United States.  Data on hundreds of law firm offices are collected annually by the National Association for Law Placement.  We utilize data gathered in 1996 (N = 884) and in 2005 (N = 1,394).  We conduct cross-sectional analyses in both years as well as a longitudinal analysis on the subsample of offices that are observed in both 1996 and 2005 (N = 627).

Taken together, the results provide little support for the idea that universalistic professional development practices can “level the playing field” for minorities by offsetting the advantage that whites enjoy in access to developmental experiences.  Formal training programs, formal mentoring programs, and assignment rotation—all of which are meant to ensure that all junior professionals have access to developmental opportunities—largely have either null or even negative effects on the representation of minorities among both associates and partners.  The same is true of informal commitments to providing professional development and norms of early responsibility.  A longer partnership track tends to decrease minority presence among associates but may increase promotion chances for those who persist, at least among African-Americans.