The Inequality of Networks

How often do social contacts lead to employment? It depends on your race.
The Inequality of Networks

WHEN IT COMES to landing that perfect job, it’s often about “who you know.” But in a recently published study, two sociologists suggest that, when it comes to taking advantage of social networks, black job seekers and white job seekers don’t reap the same benefits.

David S. Pedulla of Stanford University in California and the late Devah Pager of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, examined survey data that tracked 2,060 job seekers in the U.S. over 18 months—of these individuals, 1,617 were non-Hispanic white or black. Job seekers reported how many applications they sent out, how they heard about job openings (including whether it was through someone in their personal networks or someone they knew at the organization), and whether they received job offers.

Pedulla and Pager discovered that, while similar numbers of black and white job seekers reported learning of open positions through their social networks, the applications of white job seekers were more likely to result in job offers. “The positive returns to network search are nearly twice the size for white respondents as they are for black respondents,” write the co-authors. “African American job seekers would need to utilize roughly twice as many network contacts as white job seekers to accrue the same labor market benefit.”

The study suggests two potential sources of this disparity: network placement and network mobilization. That is, people in the networks of black individuals might not be as strategically positioned or have as many applicable resources as those in the networks of white individuals. The researchers estimate that these two factors could explain approximately one-fifth of the black-white disparity in job offers that result from social networking.

The researchers mention other factors that could affect outcomes— for instance, people in a black job seeker’s network might be less likely to mobilize their resources if they suspect that potential employers discriminate based on race.

“Our findings point to the subtle processes at play in the perpetuation of racial labor market stratification,” the co-authors write. “Racial discrimination in hiring and other aspects of the employment process remain strong and persistent, but interventions that target these more subtle dynamics may also be important for reducing racial labor market inequalities.”

Race and Networks in the Job Search Process” was first published online November 7, 2019, in the American Sociological Review