Looking up and looking out: Career mobility effects of demographic similarity among professionals.

Workgroup sex and race composition affects turnover and career mobility.


Workforce diversity has been a major concern for managers, researchers and policy makers in recent years. An organization’s sex and race composition results from hiring, promotions, and turnover. Women’s and racial minorities’ greater likelihood of leaving a firm have contributed to their persistent underrepresentation. In this paper, the authors focus on voluntary and involuntary turnover in up-or-out organizations (consulting firms, law firms and universities). They examine the cooperative and competitive forces of demographics within and across organizational levels.


Workgroup sex and race composition drive both cooperative and competitive processes, affecting the turnover of junior professionals.

  • Having more senior members of the same sex decreased junior staff’s likelihood of exiting, especially for junior women. The number of same race senior workgroup members did not impact junior staff’s retention rates.
  • Junior staff, both male and female, left more often when they had peers of the same sex or of the same race; the latter was especially likely among racial minorities.

In short, a junior woman having a female boss increased her likelihood of staying, while having female peers increased the likelihood she would leave. Having a senior person of the same-race did not impact a junior person staying. However, having same-race peers did somewhat increase the probability of a junior person leaving, especially for underrepresented minorities.


The authors study cooperative and competitive effects of demographic similarity among co-workers at an organization they call KLM. Its primary asset is its employees’ knowledge and it is structured as a flattened pyramid with senior managers responsible for promotion decisions. During the years of the study, KLM employed an average of 511 individuals, 60% of whom were junior professionals. Entry-level professionals were largely similar, except for sex, race and some background. KLM had one main location and ten smaller locations. Within each location, professionals were divided into workgroups.

Data was collected from the Human Resources Department of KLM from the beginning of 2000 until April 2006. The records contained demographic characteristics for all employees. In addition, data from 264 exit interviews were obtained. Supplementary data was collected through observation and in-person interviews. The final sample included 609 junior professionals across 7 locations, 13 departments, and 55 workgroups.

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