The “Class Ceiling” and the Myth of the Meritocracy

“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

 

It’s often said that the English are obsessed with class distinctions and Americans are not. Having studied and worked in the UK, I can attest to that general truism. However, there are times when a hard-headed analysis of the way in which class affects the workplace can be a startling and illuminating read for everyone. A recent article by US/UK researchers Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison (“The class pay gap: why it pays to be privileged“) is clearly in that category.

The authors set out to understand what role a privileged background plays in helping people progress through a career at the UK’s elite workplaces. That people from working class backgrounds struggle to reach the top levels of elite workplaces, even when they have all the required credentials, is borne out by the data. 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.

To find out just how a privileged start helps career progression, 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.” The information collected by the authors suggest to me three broad ways in which privilege allows some people to move faster through what are, on paper at least, meritocratic workplaces. The categorical labels are mine, but I think they accurately capture the authors’ ideas.

Advantage 1: Timing and Risk Subsidies

Let’s say two young people are leaving university and hoping to get jobs in television. Jobs in that field are notoriously hard to get, and it might take someone a year or more of patient (and expensive) outreach to find one. The fact that one student has student debt that needs to be repaid immediately, while the other student can ask her parents for “a little help” while she waits for the right role may already seal their destinies. Indeed, this 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 where Harrison Ford must cross an invisible bridge to get to the Holy Grail. It’s 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 any 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 got her PhD at Oxford calls Oxford to ask about promising candidates for upcoming internships; the Johns Hopkins surgeon reaches out to his old professor to ask about “any good guys” to get into a fellowship that’s about to get posted. Indeed, all these examples illustrate a major reason for why this bridge building is so powerful: it’s invisible. If everyone could see these connections being made, they 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 illusion 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 [emphasis 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

An even 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 of course, but it’s often referred to as “fit” – that quality some new hires have which indicates 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 her common background, education and social compatibility with the elite of the profession.

Fully understanding the extent to which codebreaking and showcasing assistance propel young people in elite careers fundamentally complicates our understanding of “merit.” We know from many settings that a rising associate not only needs to know the right things to say and do but also needs to be observed as such. 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’ve 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 got to graduate school. I walked into a seminar to find myself surrounded by children of Ivy League professors who cited experiences and quoted people I had only read about but they knew from their own personal family connections and histories. I was overwhelmed, and I struggled to understand how I, a child of the South Bronx, would ever survive in a world of people who seemed to be genetically engineered to do what I was barely daring to dream. Indeed, this was a feeling I experienced again when I got into management consulting, where more than a few of my first year colleagues knew (or were even related to) the 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 Class Ceiling

I have been a competitive cyclist my whole life, and it’s true 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, of sizing up your opponents, and of planning out 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.

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’s a quiet call to open a position, a loan to allow someone to spend a year in an unpaid fellowship, or some subtle coaching before a first client briefing. Ironically, the authors point out rightly, 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 leads those who have been fortunate to believe they have earned it on their own, and those who have been less fortunate to blame themselves.”

I hope all leaders, especially those of elite organizations that label themselves as “meritocracies,” will take a moment to read this article and to ask themselves about the following winds that blow through their own hallways. As these stories illustrate, what may look like a meritocracy may, in fact, be one class maintaining its privilege and racing ahead while another struggles just to keep up.

See this article on LinkedIn.

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Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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