Rotman Management

The Myth of a Classless Society

SOCIAL CLASS — defined as one’s relative socio-economic rank in 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

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