Research

Workplaces produce and amplify inequality

4 Jun 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

Researchers have found that organisations play as crucial a role in social inequality as government policies

Workplaces promote societal inequality thanks to “highly institutionalised myths” that pervade organisational life, according to a paper co-authored by academics at the University of Edinburgh, the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and Cambridge Judge Business School. 

The review suggested that the role of organisations in social inequality was just as crucial as government policies or free market capitalism. It said three myths about how companies operated – those of efficiency, meritocracy and the positive nature of globalisation – reproduced inequality in workplaces. 

For example, the research challenged the widespread belief that organisations are basically meritocratic, finding that hiring, promotion and pay were all influenced by social and cultural factors. It also noted the “myth of meritocracy” is internalised by both those who rise to the top, and those who don’t. As a result, the paper suggested, workers who were passed over for promotion or poorly paid ended up blaming themselves and lowering their aspirations, cumulatively making the company less dynamic.

The researchers said inequality did not receive anywhere near the same attention at business schools as other topics, and noted that organisational textbooks rarely mentioned the numerous race, gender and class-based barriers to upward mobility that pervade organisations.

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