Race and Inequality at Work: An Occupational Perspective

Jennifer L. Nelson, Steven P. Vallas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent research on racial inequality at work offers fruitful insights on the organizational conditions that reproduce racial segregation, racial disparities in wages, and racial hierarchies in the labor market and the workplace. Much less is known, however, about the specifically occupational influences that impinge on equitable work outcomes by race. In this paper, we explore three processes at the occupational level that relate to racial segregation, racialized access to resources, and status in one's line of work. We review research on racial inequality at work over the last 20 years to elucidate what is known, and remains to be seen, about these occupational processes. First, we review how occupational members get selected, and attempt to self-select, into occupations via recruitment, licensing, credentialing, or certifications. Second, we consider how occupational incumbents teach, govern and evaluate new entrants, and with what consequences for racial inclusion/exclusion and retention in careers. Third, we examine research on client- or service-based work, and highlight how workers navigate not only their roles, but also racial dynamics, vis-a-vis clients. We conclude with suggestions for how future research can harness occupational analysis to advance understanding of racial inequality at work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12926
JournalSociology Compass
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • client–service provider relationship
  • occupational community
  • occupations
  • race and ethnicity
  • racial inequality
  • sociology of work
  • workplace learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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