Sub-theme 38: Inequality, Institutions, and Organizations

Kamal A. Munir
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
John M. Amis
University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Corinna Frey-Heger
Erasmus University, The Netherlands

Call for Papers

Our intent in this sub-theme is to build on a stream of work focused on the relationships between inequality, institutions and organizations (e.g., Amis et al., 2020; Amis et al., 2017). In so doing, we connect directly with the Colloquium theme that calls for us to organize for a more inclusive society. Although the relevance of organizational research to societal problems has spawned debate for at least a decade, and has generated a proliferation of polemics and prescriptions (e.g., Amis et al., 2017, 2018, 2020; Bapuji et al., 2020; George et al., 2012; Lawrence & Dover, 2015; von Glinow, 2005), there has been insufficient serious, sustained theoretical and empirical engagement among organization scholars on questions that primarily relate to socially desirable values and configurations.
One dimension of organizations that profoundly determines the role they end up playing in social progress concerns how they impact inequality. In the past three decades, economic inequality has emerged as one of society’s most pressing challenges. According to Oxfam (2018), 42 people now control the same wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population or 3.7 billion people. Furthermore, 82% of all the wealth generated by economic growth in 2017 flowed to the wealthiest 1% in the world, while the poorest 50% received nothing. Such trends are problematic not least because higher levels of economic inequality are associated with higher levels of social and health problems including higher rates of mortality, mistrust, crime, obesity, mental illnesses, violence, and incarceration rates (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2015; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010) and weaker democratic institutions (Piketty, 2014; Wolf, 2017).
Given the strong connection between inequality and the well-being of society, it is particularly problematic to observe that inequality across social groups tends to persist and in places even increase from generation to generation. Class mobility in many countries seems to have gone down, the gender pay gap while certainly narrower, nevertheless remains in place, and minorities continue to fare worse than their white fellow citizens. The persistence of these differences point to underlying mechanisms that maintain inequality over time (e.g., Amis et al., 2017).
Organizations form part of this mechanism. It appears that organizations designed to enable economic development and progress often tend to exacerbate the effects of social inequalities that are embedded in underlying human systems. For example, the “working poor,” while “seemingly indispensable to the value creation model for firms in developed economies” (Leana et al., 2012: 901) are simultaneously constrained by these same systems with little chance of advancing beyond their current circumstances (see also Mair et al., 2012). Virtual workers have reported feeling less respected and more disconnected to the organizations that employ them than more traditional workers (Bartel et al., 2012; Marmot, 2015). Further, despite decades of awareness, women remain discriminated against in many organizations, leading to a perpetuation of unequal pay and severe under-representation in senior management positions (Belliveau, 2012; Ryan & Haslam, 2007). Racial disparities (Carton & Rosette, 2011; Cortina, 2008), sexual harassment (Berdahl, 2007; Raver & Gelfand, 2005), discrimination against stigmatized and marginalized individuals and groups (Martí & Fernández, 2013; Soule, 2012) and even exploitation that leads to “body breakdowns” (Michel, 2011) have also been reported as outcomes of pernicious organization-related and often institutionalized actions. Finally, the degradation caused to the natural environment as an outcome of political action, power dynamics, and investment decisions is also under-explored (Banerjee, 2012). As Adler (2012: 246) has stated, as well as being an enabling tool for required cooperative functioning, bureaucracies also remain a “coercive weapon for exploitation”.
Unfortunately, despite the tremendous growth in research over the past decades, the intersection of social inequality, organizations and institutions remains significantly under-examined. As such, we feel that scholars interested in institutions and organizations, from those who study the behavior of individuals to those who are interested in how societies are shaped and governed – and all levels in between – can and should contribute to our understanding of various types of inequalities and interaction across these. We are most interested in work that goes beyond static, macro comparisons to studies that unveil the dynamic processes, practices, innovations and changes that will in turn enable a richer understanding of the relationships between inequality, institutions and organizations. In particular, we are interested in papers that focus on how this process unfolds in the case of gender, class and race-based inequalities. These could touch upon, without being confined to:

  • Institutional and organizational foundations of inequality

  • How gender-based inequality is created and perpetuated in organizations

  • How class-based inequality is created and perpetuated in organizations

  • How race-based inequality is created and perpetuated in organizations

  • How do different dimensions like gender, race, and class intersect in organizational life

  • How does globalization of business impact intra and inter-country inequalities

  • How does the creation of new types of jobs, and new types of organizations impact various inequalities

  • The effects of technology on the persistence and creation of inequality

  • The role of elites in creating and/or reproducing self-serving structures of inequality

  • The institutional work of specific individual organizational actors to increase or decrease social inequality

  • The use and exposure of devices that disguise inequality

  • The legitimization of domains of activity that lead to greater or lesser inequality

  • The roles of power and political structures in the creation and maintenance of structures of inequality

  • Strategies that disrupt institutionalized structures of inequality

  • The implications of inequality for theories of organization studies



  • Adler, P.S. (2012): “The sociological ambivalence of bureaucracy: From Weber via Gouldner to Marx.” Organization Science, 23 (1), 244–266.
  • Amis, J.M., Mair, J., & Munir, K. (2020): “Organizational reproduction of inequality.” Academy of Management Annals, 14 (1), 1–36.
  • Amis, J.M., Munir, K.A., Lawrence, T.B., Hirsch, P. & McGahan, A. (2018): “Inequality, institutions and organizations.” Organization Studies, 39 (9), 1131–1152.
  • Amis, J.M., Munir, K.A., & Mair, J. (2017): “Institutions and economic inequality.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T. Lawrence & R. Meyer (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 705–736.
  • Banerjee, S.B. (2012): “A climate for change? Critical reflections on the Durban United Nations Climate Change Conference.” Organization Studies, 33(12), 1761–1786.
  • Bapuji, H., Ertug, G., & Shaw, J.D. (2020): “Organizations and societal economic inequality: A review and way forward.” Academy of Management Annals, 14 (1), 60–91.
  • Bartel, C.A., Wrzesniewski, A., & Wiesenfeld, B.A. (2012): “Knowing where you stand: Physical isolation, perceived respect, and organizational identification among virtual employees.” Organization Science, 23 (3), 743–757.
  • Belliveau, M.A. (2012): “Engendering inequity? How social accounts create vs. merely explain unfavorable pay outcomes for women.” Organization Science, 23 (4), 1154–1174.
  • Berdahl, J.L. (2007): “Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 641–658.
  • Carton, A.M., & Rosette, A.S. (2011): “Explaining bias against black leaders: Integrating theory on information processing and goal-based stereotyping.” Academy of Management Journal, 54 (6), 1141–1158.
  • Cortina, L.M. (2008): “Unseen injustice: Incivility as modern discrimination in organizations.” Academy of Management Review, 33 (1), 55–75.
  • Dover, G., & Lawrence, T.B. (2010): “A gap year for institutional theory: Integrating the study of institutional work and participatory action research.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 19 (4), 305–316.
  • George, G., McGahan, A.M., & Prabhu, J. (2012): “Innovation for inclusive growth: Towards a theoretical framework and a research agenda.” Journal of Management Studies, 49 (4), 661–683.
  • Lawrence, T.B., & Dover, G. (2015): “Place and institutional work: Creating housing for the hard-to-house.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 60 (3), 371–410.
  • Leana, C.R., Mittal, V., & Stiehl, E. (2012): “Organizational behavior and the working poor.” Organization Science, 23 (3), 888–906.
  • Mair, J., Martí, I., & Ventresca, M.J. (2012): “Building inclusive markets in rural Bangladesh: How intermediaries work institutional voids.” Academy of Management Journal, 55 (4), 819–850.
  • Marmot, M. (2015): The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Martí, I., & Fernández, P. (2013): “The institutional work of oppression and resistance: Learning from the Holocaust.” Organization Studies, 34 (8), 1195–1223.
  • Michel, A. (2011): “Transcending socialization: A nine-year ethnography of the body’s role in organizational control and knowledge workers’ transformation.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 56 (3), 325–368.
  • Raver, J.L., & Gelfand, M.J. (2005): “Beyond the individual victim: Linking sexual harassment, team processes, and team performance.” Academy of Management Journal, 48 (3), 387–400.
  • Ryan, M.K., & Haslam, S.A. (2007): “The glass cliff: Exploring the dynamics surrounding the appointment of women to precarious leadership positions.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 549–572.
  • von Glinow, M.A. (2005): “Let us speak for those who cannot.” Academy of Management Journal, 48 (6), 983–985.
Kamal A. Munir teaches Strategy and Policy at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom and has served as Dean (Humanities and Social Sciences) at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He has published several articles in leading organisational journals, and has been invited to present his work in numerous academic and policy forums around the world. Kamal was co-editor of an ‘Organization Studies’ Special Issue on “Inequality, Institutions and Organizations” in 2018.
John M. Amis is Professor of Strategic Management and Organisation at the University of Edinburgh Business School, United Kingdom. His research, largely focused on issues of organisational and institutional change, and inequality, has been published in leading organization theory and management journals. John is an Associate Editor at ‘Academy of Management Review’ and was a co-editor of an ‘Organization Studies’ Special Issue on “Inequality, Institutions and Organizations” in 2018.
Corinna Frey-Heger is an Assistant Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, The Netherlands. With her research, she seeks to understand new forms of innovating and organizing in the context of today's grand challenges and complex social issues, such as global displacement and inequality. Currently, Corinna is particularly interested in how well-intended responses to such issues may intensify the very problems they are meant to solve.