Abstract: How Discrimination Works: Strangers, Networks, and Opportunities

Pamela W. Laird


Networking typically restricts business opportunities. Insiders can repel, even abuse, outsiders for the converse of all the reasons people cooperate within networks: distrust, misunderstanding, discomfort, conflicting goals, arrogance, and control over scarce resources, including information. When exclusionary discrimination lost its legal and moral standing in America during the civil rights and feminist movements, strangers invaded entry-level positions. Before long, however, they discovered a "glass ceiling." Most assaults on this barrier to promotion have sought to break through it from below. Yet, nobody rises above that ceiling without pull from network insiders. When gatekeepers cannot perceive outsiders as possessing "potential," they do not pull them up into their own ranks. Network-based dynamics have always dominated both recruitment and promotion in small businesses. In bureaucratic corporations, they continue to control promotions to higher levels, where objective personnel criteria do not apply. Thus, discrimination functions not only by pushing candidates away but also by failing to pull in and up those who are outsiders to gatekeepers' networks.