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Intellect

BYU professor tests company's hiring and promotion practices

Studying long-term employment data with standardized job titles, wages and promotion patterns can reveal telling conclusions about a firm's commitment to gender equity, according to an analysis of a regional grocery store chain by a Brigham Young University economist.

Published this month in Industrial and Labor Relations Review, the paper looked at an unnamed chain's willingness to hire and promote women during the early-to-mid 1980s and found it lacking. The status of female employees improved after the filing of a class action lawsuit.

"Even though, on average, women seemed to be more qualified than the men in terms of seniority, the women were in lower-paying jobs," said Michael Ransom, BYU professor of economics, who coauthored the study with Ronald Oaxaca, professor of economics at the University of Arizona.

Because the chain's employees were unionized, their pay rates were largely dictated by their job titles. The researchers did not find cases of women being paid less than men for doing the same jobs – in fact, the women were often paid a little more than men, because the women, on average, had more seniority. The breakdown came, Ransom said, in promotion patterns. "The women didn't get much of a chance of moving into more responsible positions."

For example, only two of the company's 173 management slots were held by women in 1982, although 40 percent of the company's employees were female at the time.

In what could be the precursor of a current trend in the retail industry, the company's promotion decisions changed after the initiation of legal action, the researchers found.

"It certainly looks like the filing of the lawsuit made the firm wake up in increasing patterns of promotion that resulted in women getting some of these higher-paying jobs," Ransom said.

Ransom acknowledged that one of the study's strengths is also a limitation. Because he and Oaxaca looked at only one firm, they had the benefit of consistently defined job titles. But comparisons to other companies in the present are difficult to make, Ransom said. "It can be useful to look at this pattern, which may still be relevant to studying employment practices today."

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