The Myth of a Class­less So­ci­ety

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - by An­drás Tilc­sik

De­spite the progress made to date, an in­di­vid­ual’s so­cial class of ori­gin con­tin­ues to play an en­dur­ing role in shap­ing life and eco­nomic tra­jec­to­ries.

— de­fined as one’s rel­a­tive so­cio-eco­nomic rank in SO­CIAL CLASS so­ci­ety — is one of the key fac­tors shap­ing ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic tra­jec­to­ries in a pow­er­ful way. Re­search shows that so­cial class of ori­gin — whether de­fined by parental in­come or ed­u­ca­tion — af­fects a child’s fu­ture ed­u­ca­tional, oc­cu­pa­tional and eco­nomic at­tain­ment as well as their men­tal and phys­i­cal well-be­ing. But the ex­ist­ing re­search ne­glects a vi­tal di­men­sion of eco­nomic strat­i­fi­ca­tion: em­ploy­ment.

Em­ploy­ers are the gate­keep­ers to jobs of­fer­ing vary­ing lev­els of eco­nomic and sym­bolic re­sources, and their hir­ing de­ci­sions shape in­di­vid­u­als’ eco­nomic tra­jec­to­ries. Work­ing along­side Pro­fes­sor Lau­ren Rivera of the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, I re­cently in­ves­ti­gated em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of so­cial class sig­nals in an elite U.S. labour mar­ket. Be­cause pre­vi­ous re­search sug­gests that ef­fects of so­cial class on in­equal­ity might de­pend on gen­der, we de­cided to ex­per­i­men­tally ma­nip­u­late job ap­pli­cants’ ap­par­ent so­cial class and gen­der.

In this ar­ti­cle I will sum­ma­rize our find­ings, which in­di­cate that so­cial class sig­nals do in­deed af­fect hir­ing, and that gen­der mod­er­ates this ef­fect.

Class In­equal­i­ties in Ed­u­ca­tion

The bulk of ex­ist­ing re­search on so­cial class in­equal­ity fo­cuses on for­mal school­ing. Schol­ars have shown that chil­dren from af­flu­ent or highly-ed­u­cated fam­i­lies — back­grounds we re­fer to as ‘so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally priv­i­leged’ — ben­e­fit from ed­u­ca­tional ad­van­tages that be­gin be­fore preschool and per­sist through­out col­lege, fa­cil­i­tat­ing higher lev­els of ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment.

Sim­ply put, stu­dents from so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally priv­i­leged homes are more likely than stu­dents from less-priv­i­leged fam­i­lies to at­tend high qual­ity schools. And within a given school, these stu­dents are more likely than stu­dents from less-priv­i­leged back­grounds to be em­bed­ded in aca­dem­i­cally-fo­cused peer net­works; to ob­tain cru­cial sup­port from par­ents, teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors that en­ables them to ac­cess val­ued aca­demic and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar tracks; and to wield cul­tural re­sources that fa­cil­i­tate pos­i­tive im­pres­sions from teach­ers.

Col­lec­tively, these pro­cesses af­fect an in­di­vid­ual’s col­lege prospects, be­cause stu­dents from priv­i­leged homes are more likely to have the types of care­fully cul­ti­vated aca­demic and ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ences that ap­peal to ad­mis­sions com­mit-

So­cial class of ori­gin con­tin­ues to play a key role in shap­ing eco­nomic and life tra­jec­to­ries.

tees at pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties. A miss­ing link in the re­search is the con­tin­u­ing role that so­cial class plays af­ter the com­ple­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion — when stu­dents en­ter the labour mar­ket and com­pete for jobs.

Past re­search in­di­cates that class is a mean­ing­ful sta­tus char­ac­ter­is­tic that in­flu­ences per­cep­tions of com­pe­tence and the dis­tri­bu­tion of val­ued re­wards. Stud­ies show that peo­ple rate in­di­vid­u­als who ap­pear to be from higher-class back­grounds as ‘more com­pe­tent’ and ‘wor­thy’ than those from lower-class back­grounds. Stud­ies also sug­gest that em­ploy­ers view in­di­vid­u­als from higher-class back­grounds as more de­sir­able work­ers.

In a study of hir­ing in elite pro­fes­sional ser­vice firms, Prof. Rivera found that when screen­ing re­sumes, firms favoured ap­pli­cants who dis­played higher-class ‘cul­tural sig­nals’ — such as par­tic­i­pa­tion in tra­di­tion­ally up­per-class sports and ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties. Ap­par­ently, em­ploy­ers be­lieved that this sig­naled an abil­ity to fit in with the elite cul­ture and clien­tele of these firms. How­ever, this study did not mea­sure so­cial class dis­crim­i­na­tion di­rectly, and thus we set out to sep­a­rate its unique in­flu­ence from the im­pact of other selec­tion cri­te­ria.

Head­ing into this re­search, we rec­og­nized that gen­der is also a pow­er­ful sta­tus char­ac­ter­is­tic that shapes per­cep­tions of com­pe­tence. In hir­ing eval­u­a­tions, women are of­ten rated less favourably than oth­er­wise-equiv­a­lent men. Given such bi­ases and women’s his­toric un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion in high-sta­tus ca­reers, we sus­pected that dis­play­ing sig­nals of higher so­cial class might be more im­por­tant for women than for men in elite labour mar­kets, be­cause the sta­tus of be­ing from a higher so­cial class might com­pen­sate for the ‘lower-sta­tus iden­tity’ of be­ing fe­male.

There were also rea­sons to ex­pect that com­ing from a higher-class back­ground could ac­tu­ally serve as a li­a­bil­ity for women. Re­search shows that peo­ple eval­u­ate in­di­vid­u­als based on two ba­sic di­men­sions: com­pe­tence and warmth. When mak­ing hir­ing de­ci­sions, eval­u­a­tors pun­ish women (but not men) whom they per­ceive as lack­ing in warmth, be­cause such women ‘vio- late’ fem­i­nine pre­scrip­tions of ‘nice­ness’. As a re­sult, stereo­types as­so­ci­ated with so­cial class might pose a par­tic­u­lar dilemma for higher-class women. As in­di­cated, peo­ple tend to rate in­di­vid­u­als from higher-class back­grounds as more com­pe­tent than peo­ple from lower-class back­grounds — but they also of­ten rate them as ‘colder’. Thus, while mark­ers of higher-class back­grounds may sig­nal greater com­pe­tence for both men and women, they may also sig­nal a lack of warmth that puts higher-class women at a dis­ad­van­tage.

Em­ploy­ers may also per­ceive higher-class women as be­ing less com­mit­ted to in­ten­sive ca­reers. The ‘ideal worker’ in many pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tions is com­pletely de­voted to work. Yet pro­fes­sional women, es­pe­cially moth­ers, may be per­ceived as less com­mit­ted to work than oth­er­wise-equiv­a­lent men. Given the norms of ‘in­ten­sive moth­er­ing’ that are preva­lent among so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally priv­i­leged fam­i­lies, em­ploy­ers may view women from higher-class back­grounds as more en­cum­bered — and thus less ded­i­cated and de­sir­able — than higher-class men or lower-class women.

Our Re­search

We set out to study dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of so­cial class sig­nals and gen­der in the ap­pli­ca­tion process for en­try-level pro­fes­sional po­si­tions in large U.S. law firms. We con­ducted a ré­sumé-au­dit study in this elite labour mar­ket by send­ing fic­ti­tious ap­pli­ca­tions to large law firms and ex­am­in­ing how sig­nals of so­cial-class back­ground and gen­der af­fected the chances of re­ceiv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to a job in­ter­view (i.e., a ‘call­back’). The 316 sam­pled of­fices be­longed to 147 dif­fer­ent law firms, and the three cities with the high­est num­ber of of­fices were New York City, Wash­ing­ton, DC and Los An­ge­les.

Our ex­per­i­ment fo­cused on sum­mer as­so­ciate po­si­tions, be­cause large law firms hire the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of their new as­so­ci­ates through these pro­grams. In 2013, for ex­am­ple, firms sur­veyed by the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Law

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