Research Findings

Who is the boss? The social class disadvantage for becoming a manager is big and it’s costly


December 10, 2020

Social class is arguably the greatest barrier to advancement at work, yet it is mostly ignored by companies’ diversity, inclusion and equity efforts. In a recent study with Jean Oh, we found that in the U.S., individuals from lower social-class origins face disadvantages at least as large as women and Black Americans in terms of becoming a manager. In most countries around the globe, we found, the social-class disadvantage is even greater than it is in the U.S.! And, the social class disadvantage impacts a lot of people—around the world, more people identify with lower than higher social classes.

Of course, individuals from lower social class origins suffer losses because they are less likely to become managers, as managerial roles are associated with job satisfaction, health, and income. But companies and countries also suffer from this exclusion.

Evidence indicates that individuals from lower social-class origins are in some ways better leaders, because they are less self-centered. So, companies that overlook them are neglecting a key source of talent that might improve innovation, productivity, and fair leadership, to the benefit of customers, employees, communities, and other stakeholders. Likewise, countries where the social class disadvantage is greater fare worse on outcome measures such as GDP per capita, and child mortality.

Since social class disadvantage is so costly to individuals, companies, and countries, we should be working to dismantle it. This requires understanding its origins.

Our analysis points to education as a key source of social class disadvantage—individuals with more education are more likely to become managers, and individuals from lower social class origins obtain less education. Why? It’s not because individuals from lower social class origins are less intelligent. Instead, they have lower stocks of “cultural capital” which is the know how necessary to get ahead in schools and companies. When individuals from lower social class origins receive help that aims to redress their deficit of cultural capital, for example, mentoring or coaching on how to succeed at college, they go farther at school. When they go farther at school, they are more likely to become managers, and better positioned to serve as mentors and coaches for others.

Cultural capital works in other ways to undermine the success at work of lower-social class individuals. Those individuals are understandably less trusting of companies and other institutions. They are also less likely to play office politics, viewing it as a selfish pursuit, whereas individuals from higher social class origins play politics to get ahead at work. Cultural capital is also used by companies to screen out individuals from lower social class origins who apply for jobs in prestigious industries. For example, recruiters in industries like finance and law favor candidates with elite hobbies such as sailing.

Given the decisive evidence we found for the social class disadvantage in becoming a manager, a puzzle is why it has not received more attention from researchers and practitioners. For example, for every study that examines the social class disadvantage in becoming a manager, there are approximately twenty studies that examine the comparable disadvantage experienced by women or racial minorities. To be clear, we think that the disadvantage that women and racial minorities face when becoming managers is real, important, and wrong. It is well worth the study it has received. But why, given that the social class disadvantage is at least as large, and affects so many people, has it received so much less attention from scholars? It is hard to resist the temptation to attribute this neglect itself to bias against individuals from lower social class origins.

The neglect is just as obvious among practitioners. Among the fifty companies recognized in 2019 by Diversity Inc as the top for their diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) efforts, not even one referred to social class or social-economic status in the context of its efforts to build a diverse workforce. Prominent institutional efforts to promote diversity at the top ranks of companies—like then NASDAQ stock exchange’s pending rule to require diversity among the boards of directors of listed firms—routinely focus on gender and race but ignore social class. The topic of social class disadvantage has been called ‘taboo’ by writers who have examined corporate DIE efforts. The evidence in our paper indicates that there would be great benefits—for individuals, companies, and even countries—from overcoming this taboo.

A start to practical efforts to reduce the social class disadvantage at work would be to measure the social class origins of employees and managers. This would allow companies to measure the extent of social class disadvantage in their organizations, and to track the success of efforts they may make to reduce it. The government of the United Kingdom has offered practical advice on this issue with a set of four implementable measures of an individual’s social class origins. One of these measures, whether an individual has a parent or guardian with a college degree mirrors one we use in our own analysis, which has been shown to be a powerful predictor of social class disadvantage.

You might wonder whether attention to resolving social class disadvantage will take away from efforts to promote equitable outcomes at work for other groups. Our research suggests the opposite. Black Americans suffer greater disadvantage from lower social class origins than do whites. So, efforts to promote social class equity would be most beneficial for Blacks. As the sociologist William Julius Wilson has argued, it may be impossible to resolve racial inequality without also targeting social class inequality.

The goal of our paper was to carefully analyze data from the U.S., and from around the world, to document the extent of the social class disadvantage for becoming a manager. The results show that the disadvantage is large, as big or bigger as that experienced by women and racial minorities. This evidence shows that it is time for researchers and companies to attend to social class as a barrier to equitable outcomes at work. Reducing the social class disadvantage would represent great gains in equity for individuals from lower social class origins, and great gains in efficiency, innovation, and good leadership for companies and economies.

Read more

Paul Ingram and Jean Joohyun Oh. “Mapping the Class Ceiling: The Social Class Disadvantage for Attaining Management Positions.” Academy of Management Discoveries 2020.

image: Stefan Fussan via Wiki Commons

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