Race, Self-Selection, and the Job Search Process

January 20, 2016
Race, Self-Selection, and the Job Search Process

Discrimination in hiring continues to limit the opportunities available to racial minorities. How do job seekers respond to this reality? Some argue that job seekers tailor their searches in ways that allow them to avoid discrimination. Others suggest that job seekers adapt by casting a wider net in their search. Until now, we have known little about this process, largely because no existing data source has closely followed individuals through their job search.

In new research, recently published in the American Journal of Sociology (with David Pedulla), we attempt to address this limitation by drawing on two original datasets that track job seekers and the positions to which they apply. Our findings demonstrate that African Americans cast a wide net in their job search, applying to a broader range of job categories (e.g., plumber, cashier, driver) and characteristics (e.g., occupational prestige, physical ability requirements, critical thinking requirements) than similarly situated whites.

The search strategy of African Americans appears very different from that of women. Women self-select into distinctive (and highly gendered) occupational categories, considering a narrower range of occupational types and characteristics over the course of their job search relative to similarly situated men. 

Together, these findings shed new light on key questions about race, gender, discrimination, and the job search process. But, they also raise important additional questions. For example, if discrimination, in part, drives the search behavior of African Americans, why do we not see similar adaptations by women, who also undoubtedly face varying forms of employment discrimination?

We suspect the answer is related to the more entrenched and explicit nature of gender inequality in the labor market relative to what is observed on the basis of race. Occupations remain highly segregated by gender, and individuals from an early age can identify male- and female-typed jobs. Whether motivated by preferences or perceived constraints, women’s self-selection into gendered occupations may allow them to avoid job types where they are more likely to experience discrimination. At the same time, this strategy reproduces gender segregation in the labor market, an important source of gender inequality.

For African Americans, by contrast, the occupational landscape is not quite so settled. Far from there being readily identifiable “black” or “white” jobs, the barriers facing African American job seekers can pop up across the occupational distribution. Under these conditions, the ability to reliably select into race-aligned job types becomes far more difficult. By contrast, a strategy of broad search allows black job seekers to reach otherwise difficult-to-identify job opportunities in which racial discrimination is less prevalent.

Together, the findings from our study suggest that decisions on the supply-side of the labor market play an important role in shaping, reinforcing, and sometimes counteracting prevailing systems of inequality. At the same time, these supply-side patterns cannot be fully understood without taking into account the broader context of demand-side constraints. As the comparison of race and gender suggests, the adaptations of individuals to labor market barriers can take different forms and have differing consequences. In the case of women, we see a contraction of search scope, reinforcing existing patterns of occupational segregation and gendered labor market inequality. By contrast, the broad search strategy of African Americans resists processes of segregation, but with potentially negative implications for the wages and career coherence of this group.

This research points to the importance of systematically examining both the supply- and demand-side of the job matching process if we hope to understand and rectify persistent racial and gender inequalities in the labor market.