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The class ceiling: the role of privilege in career selection and progression
A five-year U.K. study exposes the subtle and powerful ways that class and privilege influence hiring and success in elite professional settings
“The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others … good fortune thus wants to be legitimate fortune.”
– Max Weber
As a general rule, Americans think little, and argue even less, about the impact of social class in this country. As a nation, part of our self-image is the idea that we operate as a meritocracy — hard work and talent separate those who rise to the top from those who do not. People in the business world do not usually discuss class when looking at someone’s educational achievements or career progression. This lack of discussion is unfortunate, because there are times when a hard-headed analysis of the ways in which class affects the workplace can be illuminating. A book by US/UK researchers Sam Friedman (LSE) and Daniel Laurison (Swarthmore) makes the case for the relevance and importance of this issue.
The authors wanted to understand how class affects people as they leave university and progress into the workforce in the nation’s most exclusive companies. To find the answer, the authors arranged access into “a number of elite firms and conducted 175 interviews at a large multinational accountancy firm, a successful architecture practice, one of Britain’s biggest television broadcasters, and with self-employed actors.” They also analyzed years of data on hiring and promotion at these firms. The stories and statistics collected by the authors combine to outline three broad ways in which privilege allows some people to move faster through what are, on paper at least, meritocratic workplaces. [The following labels for the categories of advantages of privilege are mine, but I think they accurately capture the authors’ ideas.]
Advantage 1: Timing and Risk Subsidies
Let us say two young people are leaving university and hope to find jobs in television. Such jobs are notoriously hard to find, and a person might take a year or more of patient (and expensive) outreach to land one. The fact that one student has university debt that needs to be repaid immediately, while another student receives “a little help” from parents while waiting for the right role may already direct their destinies. Indeed, this type of advantage may have started even earlier, during high school summers, when the privileged student interned for free at a local TV station, while the poorer student worked to save money for school.
The authors explain just how this advantage works in real life:
…we consistently saw the profound advantages afforded to those who can draw upon “the bank of mum and dad.” This kind of financial patronage is pivotal in propelling careers forward, particularly in precarious areas like the cultural industries. Here money acts as an important early career lubricant, allowing the privileged to manoeuvre into more promising career tracks, resist exploitative employment and take risky opportunities – all of which increase their chances of long-term success. In contrast, those who lack the insulation of family money described the day-to-day of making a living in these areas a kind of economic chaos, or as one actor put it, “like skydiving without a parachute."
Advantage 2: Invisible Bridges
In the third Indiana Jones movie, there is a memorable scene in which Harrison Ford must cross an invisible bridge to get to the Holy Grail. It is a test of his faith, and the scene makes a fitting analogy for yet another way in which privilege helps a career advance. The authors call this effect “sponsorship,” and the term refers to the way in which members of elite professions who are themselves from privileged backgrounds subtly help some younger associates move from one stage of their career to another. Indeed, there are many ways in which the steps of these invisible bridges are formed, note the authors:
This process is simple; a senior leader identifies a junior protege and then, often operating beneath formal processes, is able to fast-track their career by brokering job opportunities, allocating valuable work or advocating on their behalf. This was particularly common at our accountancy firm, where most partners talked openly about “bringing through” younger staff to the partnership. And while this was often presented as innocent talent-spotting, we found that sponsor relationships were rarely established on the basis of work performance. Instead, they were almost always forged, in the first instance, through a sense of class-cultural affinity – shared humour, taste or lifestyle. And, as senior managers across our case studies were themselves overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds, this acts as another way that progression is rigged in favour of the privileged.
Of course, anyone who has spent time in an elite organization knows this phenomenon well: the partners who went to Harvard Law organize a breakfast for new Harvard alumni coming into the firm; the curator who earned a Ph.D. at Oxford calls Oxford to ask about promising candidates for upcoming internships; the Johns Hopkins surgeon who reaches out to his former professor to ask about “any good guys” to apply for a fellowship that is about to be posted. Indeed, these examples illustrate a major reason why this bridge-building is so powerful: it is invisible. If everyone saw these connections being made, the links would lose a lot of their power. The fact that they happen unseen allows the beneficiary, and the wider world around him, to maintain the fiction of merit. As the authors point out: “such muting, concealing and obscuring means that others working in elite occupations, and the public as a whole, are prevented from knowing the true extent to which elite careers rest on the support of others [italics mine].”
To be fair, some people being helped may not even realize that they are walking across invisible bridges until much later in life, though at least one person the authors spoke to named “Mark” certainly did:
Mark was legitimately exemplary in all the ways we conventionally think about “merit” – he had achieved highly in the education system, had worked hard, and had amassed a wealth of valuable experience. Yet as he freely admitted, he had been given a distinct platform to demonstrate these merits. There was the family money at the start, a safety net that “tided [him] over” when he was jockeying around for his first permanent contract. There were the senior colleagues who fast-tracked him at key moments. “It’s sort of medieval in television,” he explained. “I mean, I could almost give you my whole trajectory in sponsors.”
Most important was the sense that Mark’s package of merits, and the way he presented them, was readily recognised by senior figures; an instinctive sense that he could “sort of fit in with the telly tribe”, “connect” with colleagues, and understand what was really at stake in settings like the commissioning room. As he recalled of meetings on one high-profile news programme: “It was instantly recognisable to me, exactly like the common rooms at school and at Oxford. The rules are: it’s good to be right, but it’s better to be funny!”
Advantage 3: Codebreaking and Showcasing
A more subtle advantage the authors describe is the way in which children of privilege are helped to understand the often complex behavioral codes of elite organizations and are then given spaces in which to showcase that understanding. This type of support goes by many names, but it is often referred to as “fit” – that quality some new hires have, indicating to senior people that they are gelling with the organizational culture. As the authors point out, displays of “fit” are very often staged performances, well-coached and rehearsed, that allow a young professional to signal to senior managers their common background, education, and social compatibility.
Fully understanding the extent to which assistance with codebreaking and showcasing propel young people in elite careers fundamentally complicates our understanding of “merit.” We know from many settings that a rising associate needs not only to know the right things to say and do but also to be observed saying and doing such things. In other words, they need a stage on which to showcase their knowledge. As one interviewee from a working-class background said about her peers in television: “They’re all really talented, it’s not that. But the reason they are is because they have had the opportunities to be, kind of, seen as talented.”
The authors’ discussion of this crucial point is worth quoting in full:
To understand “fit,” it is first important to understand the dominant behavioural codes that prevail in elite occupations. These are rooted in the history of these occupations, in what type of people have done this work in the past and how, over time, they have been successful in embedding their own ideas about the “right” way to be at work. In accountancy, for example, and particularly in spaces such as the City (of London), the historical residue of an overwhelmingly privileged (white, male) majority is an enduring emphasis on corporate “polish” – encompassing formal dress and etiquette, interactional poise and an aura of gravitas. This, of course, is not assessed in any formal way, but instead discerned via an instinctive gut feeling, an intuitive sense, as one senior accountant put it, that some simply “feel like a partner.”
There was also another component – a particular highbrow way of talking about television. This was exemplified at the broadcaster during the “creative assembly,” where programme ideas were discussed in front of the executive team. The laudable aim of this weekly meeting was to bring staff together from different backgrounds to initiate what the chief creative officer described as a “collision of different ideas and perspectives.” Yet interviews revealed that the concept had dramatically backfired. Far from disrupting existing hierarchies, the assembly had become a crucible of the already anointed; a gladiatorial encounter where the discussion of television programmes simply acted as a vehicle for commissioners to underline their cultural prowess, jockeying to drop cultural references, or showcase an ever-more arcane mode of aesthetic appreciation. “It’s sort of a game of showing off,” one senior commissioner explained. “I’m like, how … why are we talking about Of Mice and Men in relation to a programme about lie detectors?”
I remember my own version of the “fit” phenomenon when I went to graduate school. I walked into a seminar to find myself surrounded by children of Ivy League professors who quoted authors I had only read but my new peers knew personally from their own personal family connections and histories. I had a similar experience when I entered management consulting and met first-year colleagues who were the offspring of senior partners.
The effect of the codebreaking/showcasing phenomenon is tremendous, note the authors, because high-achieving young people (whom the authors call “the mobile”) who do not come from privileged backgrounds are often tenuous in their self-image:
We find that when the mobile enters elite occupations, the lack of fit is deeply felt, and often generates a sense of unease that lingers. This emotional labour is important to register. And certainly, when examined through the lens of wellbeing rather than economic and occupational achievement, the success of social mobility is much more uncertain.
The effect of these complex forces has been to make it much easier for upper-class young people in the U.K. to enter and rise through elite professions, while making it much more difficult for people from working-class backgrounds to do the same. The data support this conclusion. As the authors note:
Only 10% of those from working-class backgrounds (meaning those whose breadwinning parent did “routine” or “semi-routine” work, or didn’t work) make it into Britain’s higher managerial, professional or cultural occupations — according to our analysis of more than 100,000 people in the Office for National Statistics’ labour force survey.
And access is particularly restricted in areas such as medicine, law and journalism. Only 6% of doctors, for example, are from working-class backgrounds, while the figure among the workforce as a whole is 33%. Some of this can be explained by the advantages enjoyed by those who follow directly in their parents’ footsteps. If you have a parent who is a doctor, you are 24 times more likely to become a doctor. The children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to go into law and the children of those in film and television 12 times more likely to go into these fields.
The Class Ceiling
A competitive cyclist will tell you that in a race you only feel the headwinds — never the following winds pushing you forward to victory. One reason the following winds are so helpful is that they allow you to conserve energy, which means you are able to do a better job of positioning yourself in the peloton, sizing up your opponents, and planning a strategy to win as race conditions evolve. Likewise, note the authors, a professional following wind in the workplace “acts as an energy-saving device that allows some to get further with less effort — deftly shaping career trajectories, delineating what courses of action are possible, what kind of support is available, and how one’s ‘merits’ are perceived by others.” Of course, not having that helping wind does not mean you won’t win the race, just that you’ll have to work much harder to do so — hard enough that you may just decide that you’re not really a good racer after all and drop out of the race.
While this research focused on elite U.K. workplaces, the recent college admissions scandal in the U.S. should remove any doubts that the U.S. has its own version of the class ceiling. As that sad story demonstrated, “side doors” into America’s elite schools are plentiful, and they all open with the same key. Furthermore, while a few parents were punished for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a freshman seat, those who spent ten times that amount, but did it in the form of “donations,” continue to be praised and rewarded. These parents know well that throughout their child's career at McKinsey or Goldman no one will ever ask how the person rising through the ranks toward partnership got into college or somehow manages to get the best projects and the best mentors at every step of the way.
This final point is the one we all need to consider, note Friedman and Laurison, because we can all be fooled easily into thinking that the following wind pushing a colleague along is “merit” or “talent” or “fit,” when all along it is a quiet call to open a position, or to give a loan to allow someone to spend a year in an unpaid fellowship, or to provide some subtle coaching before a first client briefing. Ironically, the authors point out, the class ceiling hurts both the privileged and the mobile: “the key issue is that when the following wind of privilege is misread as merit, the inequalities that result are legitimised.” This misreading leads those who have been fortunate in life “to believe they have earned it on their own, and those who have been less fortunate to blame themselves.” Here is the real shame: leaving this issue undiscussed may harm those whom privilege pushes forward as much as those it keeps behind.
The research carefully laid out in this compelling book should cause all leaders, especially those of elite organizations that are labeled as “meritocracies,” to take a moment to ask themselves about the following winds that blow through their own hallways. As the authors illustrate, what may look like a meritocracy may, in fact, be one class maintaining its privilege and sprinting ahead while another group struggles just to keep up.
Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison. The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged. Policy Press (2019).