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Network-based job recruitment has long been viewed as a crucial driver of gender and ethnic segregation. However, a study by François Collet at Esade in collaboration with Martin Arvidsson and Peter Hedström at Linköping University shows that it may be the opposite.

The authors have identified a previously overlooked mechanism, the Trojan horse, which shows that network-based recruitment reduces rather than increases segregation. The mechanism provides new insights into how networks can help to increase diversity.

The findings, published in Science Advances, could have important implications for social policy, say Collet and co-authors Martin Arvidsson and Peter Hedström.

The research is based on unique and extensive data on all individuals and workplaces in the Stockholm region over a 18-year period to identify the mobility patterns of workers. “We find strong evidence for the Trojan horse mechanism and illustrate how it contributes to desegregate the labour market,” says Collet.

The role of networks in the labour market

“Informal networks play a very important role in the labour market because recruiters use them to find highly qualified individuals,” Collet explains. “However, networks can also exacerbate gender and ethnic segregations because of the tendency people have to seek for others that share their own characteristics. Indeed, Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling showed that even a slight preference for one's own group is enough to produce neighbourhoods that are clearly segregated along ethnic lines.

The Trojan-horse mechanism shows that network-based recruitment reduces rather than increases segregation

Collet, Arvidsson and Hedström’s study, however, challenges the idea that networks foster segregation in the labour market. “What previous research has overlooked is that if an individual belongs to a minority within a group, only a correspondingly small number of same category contacts are available. Our analyses reveal that if the Trojan mechanism is commonly observed in a market, network-based mobility is likely to desegregate rather than segregate the market.”

The Trojan-horse mechanism explained

How does the Trojan-horse mechanism work? The Trojan-horse mechanism is a sequence of interlinked events through which the mobility of a minority group member triggers subsequent moves along the same network path by members of the majority group. To illustrate the mechanism, Collet provides a simple gender-based example based on the networks within Organisation A and Organisation B.

“Let’s consider Organisation B employs a large proportion of males,” he explains. “Let’s assume that Organisation B is recruiting a male from Organisation A, which employs a large proportion of females. This move, from A to B, contributes to segregate the labour market.

The entry of a male employee opens the gate for the entry of female employees, thereby changing the gender composition of the organisation in an unexpected way

“However, this move will also contribute to trigger other mobility events that will counteract the segregating effect of this initial move. Indeed, employees of Organisation A may have access to job opportunities in Organisation B via their former colleagues who recently joined B. This increases the chances that employees of A will then move to B; and because A employs many females, an employee who joins B coming from A is more likely to be a female.”

“This is why we call this mechanism the Trojan Horse. Like the soldiers in the Trojan Horse, the entry of a male employee opens the gate for the entry of female employees, thereby changing the gender composition of the organisation in an unexpected way.”

Implications for recruitment

The results of the study are relevant for recruiters, HR departments and professional associations.

First, notes Collet, the findings suggest that recruiters should pay attention to the ethnic and gender composition of the organisations they recruit from.

“Are you recruiting from an organisation that employs minority employees?” he asks. “Are you recruiting majorly from organisations that are diverse? Our study suggests that if you recruit from organisations that employ many minority employees, networks will then become natural channels from which you will be able to recruit high quality minority employees.”

The results also have important social policy implications, say the authors, as they can contribute to understanding the mechanisms through which societies become segregated along socioeconomic and cultural lines. 

Photo credit: Ming-yen Hsu/Flickr

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