Gender Inequality in Relational Position-Taking: An Analysis of Intra-Organizational Job Mobility Networks

Annika Wilcox, Steve McDonald, Richard Benton, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey


Despite renewed attention to organizations as contexts in which inequality is generated and sustained, few researchers have examined patterns of internal job mobility as a relational claims-making process. We argue that the structure and outcome of internal “position-taking” is central for understanding the unequal distribution of resources within an organization and helps to reveal the character of inequality regimes. Drawing on Relational Inequality Theory, we propose that position-taking within organizations is structured by a) the gender composition of jobs, b) the income hierarchy of jobs, and c) the relative gap in wages between occupants of supervisory and non-supervisory jobs. Based on data from distribution centers from a large U.S. supermarket chain, we investigate job mobility as a network of movements of workers among jobs, focusing on gendered job mobility specifically. We examine these movements through value-based exponential random graph models (ERGMs), which estimate the flow of workers between jobs as a function of job characteristics, while controlling for network dependencies (e.g., density, reciprocity, and transitivity). We use meta-regression analysis to assess variation in these relationships across different organizations, specifically examining how organizational income inequality moderates gendered job mobility. The results offer several important findings. First, workers tend to move between jobs with similar male/female ratios. Second, we observe that mobility lattices tend to be more ladder-like for male-concentrated jobs, but more circuitous for female-concentrated jobs. Third, organizational units with higher levels of wage inequality tend to have greater obstacles to mobility. Specifically, we find less upward mobility overall in organizational units with higher levels of wage inequality. Furthermore, mobility out of female-concentrated jobs tends to be less common in high inequality working environments. Although our analyses do not directly observe discursive claims on positions, the findings are consistent with predictions from Relational Inequality Theory. Gender composition of jobs appears to influence the claims that incumbents make on new positions, leading to unique mobility pathways for occupants of female-concentrated and male-concentrated jobs. These pathways help to explain gender inequality in promotions and wages. Moreover, the impediments to upward mobility for workers in low wage and female-concentrated positions are greatest in high inequality organizations. This suggests that position-taking claims are moderated by inequality regimes. In workplace contexts where group boundaries are reinforced by large resource differentials, claims on higher wage and higher status positions are less successful. As such, our research helps to advance theory on gender stratification within and across organizations.

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