How network recruiting may help fix workforce gender imbalances

April 16, 2021

Better gender balance in the workforce might come from network recruitment rather than from more traditional methods. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Job recruitment through professional networks might improve gender balance instead of reinforcing existing workplace segregation, according to new research out of Sweden that challenges prevailing theories about gender balance in the workplace.

Offering a counterexample to prevailing theories in social science literature that consider gender balance in the workplace, a study published April 16 in Science Advances found strong evidence that network-based recruitment reduced rather than increased gender segregation in the Stockholm-region workforce between 2000 and 2017. The results imply that a move by one individual that may initially reinforce segregation has the potential to set in motion a chain of desegregating moves across the labor market.

Peter Hedström, a professor at Linköping University, the director of the university's Institute for Analytical Sociology and a senior research fellow at Oxford's Nuffield College, said that before starting this project, he and his fellow researchers bought into the widely held belief that network-based recruitment exacerbates labor-market segregation. 

Homophily, or the tendency for an individual to seek out others who are similar, is a fundamental mechanism governing many aspects of social life, according to Hedström, and it has long been applied to labor-market conditions as well. Until now, research suggested a self-reinforcing process: If an individual with property X joins an organization, then the probability of additional individuals with property X joining the same organization will increase as a result. 

One factor overlooked by prior studies, however, is that opportunity constraints within organizations often trump individual preferences. This effect can alter patterns of who follows whom in professional moves between organizations, but it is more difficult for researchers to quantify. 

"The reason why the Trojan-horse mechanism [has] been overlooked until now, at least in part, can be explained by the type of data social scientists usually have access to," Hedström said. "The operation of this mechanism only can be studied if one has access to detailed data on the gender composition of the workplaces as well as detailed data on individuals' mobility histories."

Hedström and his co-authors had access to precisely such data, drawing from a Statistics Sweden database containing demographic and socioeconomic information, as well as records of employees moving to new employers, for every individual and organization in the greater Stockholm metropolitan area between 2000 and 2017. This included between 20,000 and 30,000 organizations per year and about 700,000 individuals at any given time.

The researchers found that the vast majority of employees who left an organization in which they were part of a gender minority subsequently moved to organizations with higher proportions of same-gender individuals. Members of the original mover's professional network who relocated to the hiring organization from the same place of origin were more likely to be of another gender, lessening gender-based imbalance in the destination organization.

When employees left an organization in which their gender was in a strong majority, on the other hand, they tended to move to less gender-segregated workplaces and were often followed by others whose moves also improved gender balance in the destination.

According to the study, the Trojan-horse mechanism could also apply to segregation based on ethnicity, social class and other characteristics, as well as to non-Swedish settings. For example, Hedström said he expects similar factors to influence the U.S. labor market, though extrapolation remains difficult without correspondingly detailed data on firms and employee mobility.

"Social processes often are driven by complex sequences of events," Hedström said. "In order to move social science theory and research forward, we have to move beyond the current, rather simplistic focus on the direct effects of one type of event on another."

Looking ahead, Hedström believes the Trojan-horse mechanism can provide recruiters and human resources departments with valuable insight into diversity and networking. 

"A recruiter should pay attention also to the organizations of origin of candidates," he said. "Do these organizations employ many minority-group employees or not? Or, more generally, are you recruiting from organizations that are diverse? These questions are important, because if your organization recruits from organizations that do not employ many minority employees, this may hinder your efforts of increasing the diversity of your workforce." 

Networks can be a useful tool for recruiting high-quality employees, Hedström added, "and if you target organizations that are diverse, they will become a natural channel to recruit more minority-group employees as well."

The study, "The Trojan-horse mechanism: How networks reduce gender segregation," published April 16 in Science Advances, was authored by Martin Arvidsson and Peter Hedström, Institute for Analytical Sociology, Department of Management and Engineering, Linköping University; and François Collet, People Management and Organisation Department, ESADE, Ramon Llull University.

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