Rotman Management Magazine

The Myth of a Classless Society

- 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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