Chan & Anteby (2016). Task Segregation as a Mechanism for Within-job Inequality: Women and Men of the Transportation Security Administration

Curtis K. Chan – Harvard Business School
Michel Anteby – Boston University

Lindsey Cameron – University of Michigan Ross School of Business
Winnie (Yun) Jiang – Yale School of Management

Article link:

Question 1. One of the most mysterious aspects of qualitative work is gaining access to a field site. Can you share how you gained access to the TSA and what challenges, if any, arose while navigating the relationship? Your paper also discusses some of the practical (and negative) implications of task segregation. How did you present your findings to TSA and how did they respond to your findings?

You’re right that field site access is one of those mysterious aspects of qualitative work that deserves more consideration! On this topic, by the way, we’d recommend a book by Martha Feldman, Jeannine Bell, and Michele Tracy Berger called Gaining access: A practical and theoretical guide for qualitative researchers (2004).

There are vast variations in the extent to which field sites present challenges to access, and the TSA was one of those field sites for which gaining access was both easy and difficult. The relationship developed after sending a letter requesting field access to a top TSA official at the airport we studied. The official (who was familiar with academia) immediately agreed to meet us and discuss our joint-interests. So, initial contact upfront was easy. It took, however, another year to establish trust and to design the project.

Interestingly enough, initially, we wanted the project to entail us joining an incoming cohort of officers, training with them, and shadowing and participating with them on the job. But our university’s Institutional Review Board did not think it was wise for us to make decisions that could affect national security. At that stage, to proceed, we opted to conduct interviews and not to become participant-observers.

It is true that our research presents problematic aspects of the TSA, and presenting the findings to TSA stakeholders was not always comfortable. But the data were strong and compelling, and we showed them the proliferation of direct interviewee quotes underlying our arguments. (At the same time, of course, we protected the anonymity of participants by removing identifiers from the quotes.) In retrospect, our key contacts may have found our findings a bit of a rude awakening, but we reiterated many times to TSA leaders that we owed it to our interviewees to convey an accurate image of their daily lives. Overall, we believe that TSA leaders understood where we came from and appreciated our honesty.

Question 2. The main argument of your article is that task segregation – the situation in which a group of workers is disproportionately allocated, relative to other groups, to spend more time on specific tasks in a given job – serves as a potential mechanism for generating both proximal and distal outcomes in terms of job quality which exacerbate within-job inequality. Your findings support this argument by showing that female TSOs who were segregated to perform more “pat-down” task experienced more negative outcomes compared to male TSOs who were not segregated. However, another way to explain the gendered outcomes in this context is that while male TSOs could rotate between a variety of tasks, female TSOs had to spend more time on this single “pat-down” task, and task variety can be a motivating factor in a job (Hackman and Oldham, 1975). Have you considered this possibility while writing this article? And how did you decide to frame the findings as outcomes of task segregation rather than the differentiated outcomes of task variety vs. task monotony?

Great point! There are a couple of things to be said here.

To your question of whether we considered the job design literature as part of the explanation for our data: yes, indeed. In fact, the job design literature inspires some of our theoretical framing around the importance of work content, and so from this perspective we did consider the job design literature as an explanation for our study. We found the job design literature to be a terrific starting point for our justification for why the inequality literature ought to pay more attention to work content, because work content matters for worker outcomes. As you probably noticed, in the article we cite the Hackman and Oldham piece you mention in this capacity.

You pose a thoughtful question about why we chose to frame around task segregation rather than framing the findings as outcomes of task variety—or “skill variety”, as Hackman and Oldham (1975) call it—versus task monotony. We think that, although the job design literature offers good insight into the notion and the ways in which work content matters for worker outcomes like satisfaction, by framing solely around this notion of skill variety rather than task segregation, we would have been missing out on several important facets of our field site and data.

First, while skill variety would predict an outcome of a psychological state of experienced meaningfulness of work (Hackman & Oldham, 1975), the most salient gender inequality outcomes in the data were not experienced meaningfulness of work but rather female TSOs’ experienced work intensity, emotional exhaustion, and lack of coping resources. While these latter outcomes are possibly related to experienced meaningfulness of work, we thought that the explanations most grounded in the data ought to explain these latter outcomes. Thus, to be more grounded in our data, we came to explain female TSOs’ poorer outcomes in terms of the processes of physical exertion, emotional labor, and relational strain, which were processes that resulted from women being segregated to the particularly undesirable task of pat-downs.

Second, framing around task segregation was also a deliberate choice to hopefully make a more novel contribution to our target scholarly literature about workplace inequality. As we mention in the paper, we felt that the inequality literature missed out on the importance of work and task content in explaining inequality outcomes at a within-job level. And because our empirical case was an “intensity case” (Patton, 1990) that manifested an interesting phenomenon of a group of workers spending relatively more time doing a particular task within a job, we wanted to leverage this novelty in our theoretical framing and motivation. Doing so meant framing around this phenomenon, which we called task segregation, as the theoretically novel contribution to the inequality literature.

Question 3. We think that a very surprising finding in this study is that being segregated to the pat-down task made female TSOs experience feelings of bitterness toward not just men, but also women. Given that much research has shown that shared experience fosters positive outcomes, why do you think the female TSOs experienced these feelings toward women, instead of showing understanding and support to each other?

Yes, it was surprising, wasn’t it? Certainly there is research that shows that shared experiences can foster positive outcomes. For instance, as Randall Collins writes in his theory of interaction ritual chains, “mutually focused emotion and attention producing a momentarily shared reality” can “generat[e] solidarity and symbols of group membership” (2004, p. 7).

Yet, regarding whether such a relationship between shared experiences and positive outcomes occurs in a particular situation, as with most things in social and organizational life: it depends. And often what it depends on are the conditions that modulate this relationship. At the TSA, we suspect that there were particular cultural conditions of distrust and suspicion that exacerbated the processes of relational strain between women and other women in the pat-down task. Note, though, that such a culture of distrust would not explain the differences between the outcomes of men and women, because we found that the effects of the culture of distrust did not vary between men and women. Nevertheless, this would have been an interesting condition to add into our paper. But one of the things that you might find as you go through various review and editing processes is that there are often constraints on the amount and kinds of material that is to be included in any given paper. We believe such constraints can be quite productive and can lead, we hope, to more focused and stronger papers, but this also means that not everything can be put into a single paper.

Question 4. The interviews suggest that both female and male TSOs, leads, and supervisors agreed on the difficulties and strains associated with performing the pat-down task. Then why do you think they did not express much understanding and empathy toward female TSOs who had to spend longer time performing this task? From the interviews, did you get a sense of what the culture was like in this unit of TSA (e.g., whether female TSOs felt comfortable to voice their discontent to their managers and how they thought their managers would respond)? Do you expect to find different outcomes in settings where the culture is more understanding, supportive, and caring?

The culture of TSA was certainly very interesting at that time, and as you intuit, the cultural environment involved a lot of mutual distrust and lack of empathy between workers and management and even within the worker corps. Such a culture would explain why managers did not typically empathize with the task-segregated female TSOs. And to your last question about whether we’d expect different outcomes in a different cultural setting: yes, we would. While in our paper we posit the processes through which task segregation can lead to unequal worker outcomes, these processes can always be modulated by different conditions. And certainly we’d expect that a different cultural setting characterized by understanding, support, and care would attenuate some of the adverse processes we observed at TSA.

Question 5. As you described in the article, the female TSOs often expressed being drained or burned out at the end of the day. Did that affect your decision on when to conduct the interviews? Also, other than the negative experiences, from the interviews, could you identify any aspect of the work that the female TSOs actually felt positive about and were meaningful?

This question is nice because it speaks to some of the less prominent but quite important features of doing field research. When conducting field research, one ought to consider to the best of one’s ability the ethical ramifications of collecting data, including the key question of whether there would be negative economic, psychological, or social consequences for informants. To this end, in one of our footnotes, we described that we compensated interviewees for $40 per interview, with each interview generally lasting about an hour, since we realized that interviewees were potentially giving up the chance to work overtime in order to have an interview with us.

And indeed, as our paper emphasizes, economic outcomes are only one part of the picture in understanding quality of life. A more holistic picture involves subjective, noneconomic outcomes, and certainly the emotional exhaustion of female TSOs was a key outcome we analyzed in our study. But to your point, female TSOs might also be particularly exhausted at the end of the day. We have two responses to your question of what this meant for our decision on when and where to conduct interviews. First, in setting up interviews with informants, we asked informants to list some interview timings and locations that would be most amenable to their lives. We did our best to accommodate interviewees in whatever ways—temporal and geographic—they felt most comfortable. So we ended up often meeting with informants outside of their workplace at places like cafes, restaurants, and even at their homes, and also at their scheduling convenience, meeting with them morning, day, or night, depending on their preferences. Some TSOs wanted to meet us before their shifts, some after; it was up to the interviewees themselves.

Second, interviews can be surprisingly rejuvenating for interviewees! Interviewees have often described interviews as “like therapy,” noting that they get to talk about their problems with an attentive and nonjudgmental interviewer. Interviews, then, we hope and believe, can be in and of themselves emotionally beneficial for interviewees.

As for whether female TSOs found any aspect of work positive: yes, there were elements of work that female TSOs did not mind and reported actually enjoying. For example, as we point out in the paper, there were particular tasks that TSOs—male and female—seemed to like, such as the travel document checker task. As a female TSO said: ‘‘Doing tickets, I don’t find that stressful. . . . [Passengers] are always so pleasant when they come up to the [travel document checker] podium. Have a little chat, and smile and laugh’’. So the next time you walk up to TSA agents, why not consider smiling and thanking them for their efforts? You will make their day!

Thanks for your questions!



Collins, R. (2004). Interaction ritual chains. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Feldman, M. S., Bell, J., & Berger, M. T. (2004). Gaining access: A practical and theoretical guide for qualitative researchers: Rowman Altamira.
Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1975). Development of the job diagnostic survey. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60(2), 159-170.
Patton, M. (1990). Purposeful sampling Qualitative evaluation and research methods (pp. 169-183). London: Sage.

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