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Is Class-Based Discrimination an Obstacle to Equal Opportunity in the Labor Market?

Social class origin remains one of the most powerful determinants of success in today’s labor market.  New experimental research suggests that employers’ own class biases may be a part of the problem.


Class divisions among American workers are as prominent as ever. In this post-Recession era, workers from economically disadvantaged families are struggling to gain access to the labor market opportunities afforded to the middle class.  Research shows that forty percent of those born into the bottom quintile of the income distribution will remain there as adults, and researchers and policymakers are scrambling to identify the obstacles that stand in their way.

How do we explain class immobility in the labor market?

Traditionally, scholars cite class-based differences in educational attainment and skill as the primary factors that divide labor market destinies along class lines.  The implication of this research is that workers who invest in the skills and credentials necessary to enter service industry jobs will be rewarded in the labor market, regardless of their class origin.

However, in my own research, I find that, in certain contexts, workers from less advantaged class background face an additional obstacle to their success: class-based discrimination.

How do workers signal differences in class origin?

While workers’ differing class origins may initially be obscured by similarities in education and skill, they can often be betrayed by the differing cultural backgrounds and traits workers bring to the labor market.  For example, workers from middle and upper class families are more likely to display an interest in, and familiarity with, highbrow culture (e.g. classical music, tennis, and museums) while workers from working class families are more likely to display an interest in, and familiarity with, popular or lowbrow culture (e.g. country music, bowling, television) (Mohr, John and Paul DiMaggio.  1995).

At the point of hire, these differing cultural interests and backgrounds can surface in all sorts of ways.  Often, they are embedded in workers’ résumés through the organizations they work for, the schools they attend, and the activities they are involved in.  In fact, high school and college students with limited work experience are commonly advised to include extracurricular activities in their résumés as an additional signal of initiative and leadership experience.

With this in mind, I set out to measure whether job applicants who signal differing class origins through the extracurricular activities they list in their résumés are treated differently by employers, despite having similar credentials and skills.

Istock, by Peepo

Do cultural signals of class affect hiring outcomes?

To measure the effect of cultural signals of class on labor market outcomes, I conducted a five-month audit study of callback discrimination in four large U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  I sent fictitious résumés to apply for customer-facing and non-customer-facing job openings posted on one of the largest employment websites in the U.S.  In total, I submitted 2,096 résumés and cover letters in response to 1,048 job openings.

Employers were sent two résumés a day apart: one résumé with typically higher class cultural indicators, including participation in a classical music club and tennis league, and one résumé with typically lower class cultural indicators, including participation in a country music club and bowling league.  I then tracked employers’ responses to the résumés and analyzed how employer responses varied according to the customer-orientation of the hiring position.

My results were twofold.  I find that job applicants with higher-class cultural signals in their résumés experience a significantly higher probability of employer callback if they are (1) women and (2) applying to customer-facing jobs.

I then distributed a survey experiment to 1,428 U.S. hiring managers to explore why higher-class applicants are favored in one context but not others.  Overall, I find that employers report a greater interest in interviewing higher-class applicants for customer-facing jobs because they expect them to have a more positive demeanor and greater levels of competence than workers with lower-class cultural traits.  Employers have also historically held women to a higher standard of demeanor than men, which may be why cultural signals of class only affect the outcomes of women.

I also find that hiring managers perceive lower class applicants to be much friendlier and more likable than their higher-class peers.  In combination, these findings highlight (1) the importance of perceived demeanor to the interview prospects of female, customer-facing workers and (2) the power of higher-class cultural traits, as a signal of demeanor, to counteract and even supersede the likability of lower class applicants.

What next?

Of course, the challenge of uncovering this class-based cultural bias in hiring is deciding what to do about it, particularly in a country where class neither an institutionalized nor legally protected status.  One solution would be to invest in educational or job training programs that promote access to the kinds of cultural knowledge and styles favored by employers in middle class settings.  However, this assimilationist approach also implies that the cultural traits of the middle and upper classes are more legitimate and worthy of our investment—is this the case?  A more transformative solution would be to encourage greater tolerance for class-based cultural differences in the workplace.  But is it our responsibility to protect and accommodate such differences?  At the very least, my research suggests that these are questions worthy of our attention and debate.

 



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