A view from the balcony and the dance floor

The book’s scope is sweeping:  it details a half century of the political landscape of social change and also attends to the micro–organizational and local–levels.  In other words, the authors successfully position themselves both on the balcony and the dance floor:  The balcony gives them the wide-ranging view, and the dance floor lets them show off the intricate footwork at the local and organizational levels.

There is much to like about this book.  Here are a few of my favorite findings:

  • Changing the law may be a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient to reset unfair organizational practices.  Pressures exerted by internal constituencies and external forces may be more powerful.
  • Screening for educational credentials–a proxy for actual merit–can reduce hiring bias.  For this reason, jobs with clear skill requirements, like the professions, are less subject to hiring bias than jobs like manager, with diffuse skill requirements, which may explain why women and minorities have had better access to professions.
  • A peeve of mine is the tendency to call for more research on intersectionalities instead of actually doing it.  This book does the opposite:  it conducts the research without describing it as intersectional.  The index goes straight from “international union, UAW” to “investment industry.”  That juxtaposition happens to catch the change in eras nicely, but it should have been interrupted by “intersectionalities,” since the book’s contributions here are enormous.  For example, a perturbing finding is that the past 50 years have witnessed racial re-segregation among women.  More generally, of the four groups they analyze, progress has been slowest and most easily reversed for black women.  This is solid intersectionalities research.
  • Students tell us that sociologists are better at generating critiques than solutions, but bold solutions are on tap here.  Noting how accountability offers one of the few hopes for change, the authors ask why the EEOC, with its incredible analytic capacity, can’t identify the top 100 firms in terms of desegregation or managerial representation.  Why, in fact, they ask, can’t it identify the laggards?  Publishing such lists would be a likely spur for change.

I also have a few criticisms.

  • As Martin Kilduff and Ajay Mehra said in 1997:  “No method grants privileged access to truth.”  Different insights come from field and laboratory, qualitative and quantitative, and inductive and deductive approaches, and none is inherently preferable.  Yet the author’s stint on references to qualitative research that has been important in helping us understand inertia and desegregation.
  • The authors claim that stereotypes themselves don’t matter.  Practices matter.  They note that since stereotypes are so widespread, they aren’t useful for explaining variation.  But inertia is a typical outcome, and stereotypes affect it.  Since stereotypes are so important in the field–some say they are the fundamental cause of discrimination–unpacking their role in segregation would have been useful.
  • The presentation offers a historic sweep–epic, even–that covers the last half century.  Yet it seems to not encompass some of the phenomena that have upended the employer-employee relationship.  Sociologist Christine Williams recently mentioned career maps, teams, and networks as the features employers use to “gender” occupations.  Bidwell and his colleagues  described incentive pay and outsourcing that holds employment relations at arms’ length as examples of market infiltration into the employment relationship. There’s a new organizational logic in town, but the effects aren’t covered here.

These criticisms are minor compared to the achievements Stainback and Tomaskovic-Devey have garnered in creating this important contribution to our field.


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