traveling with task segregation

Now that Thanksgiving is right around the corner, Americans are girding themselves to visit family and friends. For some, this will mean getting screened by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). Just in time for this, check out Curtis K. Chan and Michel Anteby‘s forthcoming ASQ article “Task Segregation as a Mechanism for Within-Job Inequality: Women and Men of the Transportation Security Administration.” (Bonus: ungated/free PDF!)

Here’s the abstract:


In this article, we examine a case of task segregation—when a group of workers is disproportionately allocated, relative to other groups, to spend more time on specific tasks in a given job—and argue that such segregation is a potential mechanism for generating within-job inequality in the quality of a job. When performing those tasks is undesirable, this allocation has unfavorable implications for that group’s experienced job quality. We articulate the processes by which task segregation can lead to workplace inequality in job quality through an inductive, interview-based case study of airport security-screening workers in a unit of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at a large urban airport. Female workers were disproportionately allocated to the pat-down task, the manual screening of travelers for prohibited items. Our findings suggest that this segregation led to overall poorer job quality outcomes for women. Task segregation overexposed female workers to processes of physical exertion, emotional labor, and relational strain, giving rise to work intensity, emotional exhaustion, and lack of coping resources. Task segregation also seemed to disproportionately expose female workers to managerial sanctions for taking recuperative time off and a narrowing of their skill set that may have contributed to worse promotion chances, pay, satisfaction, and turnover rates for women. We conclude with a theoretical model of how task segregation can act as a mechanism for generating within-job inequality in job quality.

Chan and Anteby reveal how because of understaffing, female TSA officers are more frequently assigned to the physically and emotionally-intensive tasks of physically patting down female passengers, whereas male TSA officiers are more evenly assigned to a mixture of tasks (i.e., x-ray screening and exit monitoring) that are less physically and emotionally-demanding.

Here’s a snippet of TSA officers’ (TSOs) thoughts on undertaking work that some airline passengers view as illegitimate and invasive:

Because female TSOs spent a disproportionate amount of time doing patdowns, women were disproportionately exposed to the emotional labor of this task. One female TSO said, ‘‘I think a lot of people take their anger out on us directly because we’re the person they see. We’re in the uniform. . . . So we get a lot of that confrontation for [doing pat-downs] probably’’ (108_TSO-F). Likewise, a male TSO recognized the difficulty that female TSOs face due to the emotional challenges of the pat-down task: ‘‘Females are in very short supply because the work they do is very difficult, embarrassing, demeaning . . . ‘Okay, now you’re going to go up to the lady and feel every private part of her body, and then, you know, smile’’’ (226_TSO-M).

A source of potential support, fellow co-workers, erodes under the strain of understaffing:

Female TSOs reported that being segregated to the pat-down task made them resent male coworkers who appeared to be doing comparatively less work. One woman captured this frequent relational strain: ‘‘At a small checkpoint with twelve people to run it, and there’s only one female. What are you [female TSOs] doing all day? You’re patting down females. . . . We [female TSOs] feel it a lot more, because there’s twelve of them [male TSOs]. They’re not doing
anything . . . so we’re doing everything. That’s how it feels (109_TSO-F). A quote from another female TSO supports this notion. After describing her physical exhaustion of ‘‘running around’’ doing pat-downs, she said, ‘‘And the guys are just standing there, like twiddling their fingers, making jokes, doing nothing’’ (310_TSO-F).

Those of us who are in the academy will recognize how these workers’ experiences mirror concerns over the quality of life and advancement of women and underrepresented minorities. Chan and Anteby explain how their concept translates to such settings, but they do not mention how fellow faculty could (1) help push back on particularistic service demands or (2) help with other forms of service that run the department/program/university:

Task segregation also has the potential for naturalistic generalization, in which readers might see affinities between the concept and their own or others’ experiences (Stake, 1995: 85). Evidence suggests, for example, that female faculty advance more slowly, are paid less, and are tenured at lower rates than men, across a variety of fields (Valian, 1999). One mechanism that could explain some of these differences would be task segregation of female academics to committee service (Menges and Exum, 1983). Such an example illustrates how a theory of task segregation might be useful and how our modeled processes and conditions may be used as ‘‘sensitizing concepts’’ (Blumer, 1969) to elucidate what may be happening in other cases.

Applying our theorized conditions of task segregation as sensitizing concepts, we see committee service as discrete from other tasks like conducting research or teaching. The urgings of administrators may disproportionately allocate female faculty to, say, diversity committees. Administrators might draw on a rationalized justification for such a disproportionate allocation. They might argue that female faculty are uniquely qualified to serve on diversity committees and should be matched to them. Administrators might also further point to the insufficient number of women in the department and thus the need for a given female faculty member to be allocated to the task of committee service.

If female faculty are indeed task-segregated in this regard, our theory might also provide sensitizing concepts for processes through which they are disadvantaged. Serving on diversity committees may not be physically exhausting in the same way that pat-downs are, but knowledge work can be surprisingly draining (Michel, 2011). Also, emotional labor may result from feeling torn between personally held principles and pragmatic needs to concede over potentially sensitive issues of diversity. Cohesion with coworkers could become strained if committee members experience resentment of other faculty unburdened by this duty. Furthermore, task-segregated faculty members might find their skill set narrowed, as their time spent on committees gives them less time to hone research skills. Ultimately, task segregation might then help explain adverse distal outcomes of promotion, pay, satisfaction, and turnover for women. Although these hypotheses ought to be empirically tested, our model provides sensitizing concepts for future inquiry of contexts like academia, and we encourage scholars to consider other settings in which our model might have naturalistic generality.

To be more specific – certain committees, especially hiring committees, may require diversity to be documented by completing a form that includes information about which racial/ethnic groups and genders are represented among themselves. If a hiring committee is not deemed diverse enough by administrators, the committee may be “recalled” and a job search suspended until the committee can be reconstituted and approved. While having a diverse committee may tamp down the tendency towards what Kanter calls homophily (when people hire or support those who are like themselves), this may also mean that an individual faculty member, particularly in smaller or more homogeneous departments, will be called to serve on such committees more often than others.

Happy and safe travels, folks!

Bonus tip for traveling families: Recommended reading for flying with babies.

Written by katherinechen

November 22, 2015 at 11:45 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. They (the women) signed up to be brown shirts. That they are now suffering because of it is good. I just wish the men were also suffering.



    December 3, 2015 at 3:41 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: