The Myth of a Classless Society
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.
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