Revealing and Addressing Unaccounted Configurations of Inequalities in the World of Work

  • Umeh, C. (Chair)
  • Lilian Otaye-Egbede (Organiser)
  • Eddy Ng (Organiser)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventConference


Studies on the difference between individuals and groups (e.g., ethnicity/race, gender, class) and links to workplace inequalities have mostly been derived from empirical studies of organisations in the Global North (Healy and Oikelome, 2007; Tatli and Ozbiligin, 2012). These studies mostly reveal salient configurations of discrimination experienced at work (e.g., gender pay gap, career stagnation of ethnic minorities) and proposed equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives that create an inclusive and participative workplace, improve representation across work areas and activities, reduce perceived unfair hierarchies, foster feelings of respect, and build an environment free of discrimination and bullying (Farndale et al., 2015). However, gaps remain. Specifically, how new or unaccounted formations of inequalities may emerge within or outside salient/extant inequality configurations and be variedly experienced by interactants in different sociocultural and organisational contexts remains poorly understood. Indeed, although insights into these inequality dynamics remain fundamental for developing more impactful EDI initiatives, they remain underexplored. These gaps are linked to notable challenges in the literature.

The first is a conflation dilemma. It has been argued that in researching discrimination in the workplace, some identities and inequalities linked to them are often conflated. For instance, racial inequalities in many studies are often erroneously synonymised with ethnic inequalities (Randle et al., 2015). Frequently, the theory of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) is invoked to suggest that individuals belonging to social categorisations such as race (but also class and gender) experience overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. However, it has been argued that sociocultural categories differ widely across time and space. When generically labelled as race, they may become meaningless for identifying people, practices and manifestations of inequalities within and outside established sociocultural and historical contexts (McKinney, 2003).

The second is the conceptualisation problem. Specifically, identities such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, among others, which underpin differences, are frequently viewed and explored as demographic variables (Kenny and Briner, 2007). For instance, several studies draw on Acker’s (1990) theory of gendered organisations to suggest that workplaces present advantages and disadvantages through patterned distinctions between male/masculine and female/feminine. However, focusing on salient identities linked to group membership limits more nuanced insights into the power dimensions and configurations of inequality that arise when these identities intersect with or are projected through symbolic identities often linked to group affiliation. In investigating identity-linked inequalities, much emphasis is placed on salient aspects of identity with less on symbolic elements like gestures, silence, tone, and dialect (Cohen, 2013). The conceptualisation problem is rooted in an often flawed fusion of inequalities that results from an individual belonging to a salient group (identity membership) versus identifying with that group – often through symbols/symbolism (identity affiliation) (Umeh, 2019; Verkuyten, 2005).

The third is the contextualisation challenge. It has been argued that frequently, in studies that examine experiences of workplace inequalities, the socio-historical context within which salient inequalities emerge and new formations of inequalities manifest are neither robustly implicated, explicated or problematised. Lawler (2014:1161) argues, ‘we need to analyse the history and politics involved in making identities (and distinctions between identities) rather than simply considering the effects that flow from people belonging to identity categories. Some scholars have invoked Foucault’s (1977;1988) critical discourse and Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977;1986) critical sociology. While these theories differ in many regards, both suggest that through manifest and subtle ways, inequalities related to distinct identities become legitimated and enforced through negotiation and resistance as social resources are distributed or denied.

However, linking social resources to specific identities as a basis for determining the form or type of inequalities remains problematic because of the changing landscape of ethnic identity construction in specific contexts. For instance, in some postcolonial Global South countries, using geographical roots as the basis for determining ethnic identity/membership seems to have progressively paled in relevance and applicability compared to self and inter-group ascription and referencing (Umeh et al., 2022). Even in some countries in Europe, such as the UK, firmly in the Global North, there remains the conflation of White identities and specific inequalities, which often leads to assumptions of White privilege for frequently marginalised groups like White Irish and White Eastern Europeans (Bonnett, 1998; Lawler, 2014). That is, a focus on salient identity distinctions often obscures the emergence and manifestation of more covert inequality experiences of interactants within existing relational configurations.

Consequently, very little is still known about the diversifying potential of identity-linked inequalities, specifically what and how new inequality formations emerge within or outside existing configurations and are experienced and reported by interactants in specific settings. Indeed, the implications for EDI theory, practice and methods utilised to research inequalities remain under scrutinised. This sub-theme will seek contributions focused on addressing these research gaps by applying critical perspectives to explore varied manifestations of inequalities in the workplace. We welcome conceptual, empirical, and methodological contributions, drawing on a variety of theories and using diverse research methods. The focus should be on emergent/hidden inequality dimensions/configurations at work in organisations in different sociocultural contexts (Global North or Global South) and how EDI initiatives can reveal, challenge and address rather than explain these inequalities away (or blur-blend-bridge). Although the list below is not exhaustive, possible topics for submission include:

How can the inequality experiences of disadvantaged individuals/groups be examined to address the conflation dilemma?

What new inequality dimensions/configurations could emerge in different work contexts, and how can these be theorised?

How can different dimensions of inequalities be problematised, such as inequalities that result from an individual belonging to a salient group (identity membership) versus identifying with that group (identity affiliation)?

What research methods can be utilised to address the conceptualisation problem and the contextualisation challenge in a way that will reveal and address salient and hidden forms of inequalities?

How can EDI practices be applied or adapted to deal with extant and emerging inequality configurations in specific sociocultural/organisational contexts, and what can be considered successful outcomes?


Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organisations. Gender & society, 4(2), 139-158.
Bonnett A (1998) Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness. Ethnic and Racial Studies 21(6): 1029-1055.
Bourdieu P (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu P (1986) The forms of capital. In: Richardson J (ed) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. London: Greenwood Press, 241–258.
Cohen AP (2013) Symbolic Construction of Community. New York: Routledge.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics (Vol. 139). University of Chicago Legal Forum.
Farndale, E., Biron, M., Briscoe, D. R., & Raghuram, S. (2015). A global perspective on diversity and inclusion in work organisations. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26(6), 677–687.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Sheridan, A London: Allen Lane.
Foucault, M. (1988) Technologies of the Self. Lectures at University of Vermont Oct. 1982, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.
Healy G and Oikelome F (2007) A global link between national diversity policies? The case of the migration of Nigerian physicians to the UK and USA. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 18(11): 1917–1933.
Kenny EJ, Briner RB (2007) Ethnicity and behaviour in organisations: A review of British research. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology 80(3): 437-457.
Lawler S (2014) Identity: sociological perspectives. Cambridge: Polity Press.
McKinney KD (2003) “I Feel ‘Whiteness’ When I Hear People Blaming Whites:”: Whiteness as cultural victimisation. Race and Society 6(1): 39-55.
Tatli, A., & Özbilgin, M. F. (2012). An emic approach to intersectional study of diversity at work: A Bourdieuan framing. Inter-national Journal of Management Reviews, 14(2), 180–200.
Umeh C, Cornelius N and Wallace J (2022) Exploring equality, diversity, and inclusion in multiethnic settings: A context‐sensitive approach. Human Resource Management Journal, 1-22.
Umeh, C. (2019). The ethnicisation of identity. In J. Mahadevan, H. Primecz, & L. Romani (Eds.), Critical Cross-Cultural Management – An Intersectional Approach to Culture. Chapter 11. Routledge.
Verkuyten M (2005) The Social Psychology of Ethnic Identity. Hove: The Psychology Press.
Period4 Jul 20246 Jul 2024
Event typeConference
Conference numberSub-theme 64
LocationMilan, ItalyShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational