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To interrupt inequality

22 March 2021
To interrupt inequality


Andrea Dittmann, Ph.D :
Many modern organizations have made it their mission to recruit and retain more diverse workforces to both fulfill a moral imperative to contribute to the betterment of society, and to benefit from the potential competitive advantages of diversity. Yet, these programs tend to focus on relatively observable forms of diversity, like gender and racial/ethnic group membership. While these identities are undoubtedly central to our understanding of diversity, they do not reflect the complete set of diversity characteristics that employers and organizations should care about. In fact, research is beginning to document a critical but often overlooked source of diversity in many workplaces: employees' social class backgrounds.
The picture this research paints is bleak. Even with college credentials, employees from lower-class backgrounds (i.e., those who were the first in their family to go to college) are four times less likely to be hired, 34 percent less likely to advance to leadership positions, and earn 17 percent less on average than their counterparts from higher-class backgrounds (i.e., those with at least one parent with a four-year college degree). Stop and think about this for a minute: these social class gaps are emerging even among people with the same level of educational qualification.
At this point, you're probably noticing a trend: we talk a lot about the obstacles that people from lower-class backgrounds face - and how these obstacles are disproportionately large compared to those faced by their higher-class counterparts. And it's clear that these obstacles are real and difficult to overcome.  
However, this is not the only narrative that I heard in my own research, when I interviewed people from different social class backgrounds who had all gained entry to professional and managerial occupations after college: while my interviewees from lower-class backgrounds readily acknowledged challenges they had faced at work as a function of their upbringing, they also identified unique strengths.
A Strengths-Focused View of Class Background
I think one of my interviewees, Adriana (name changed to protect anonymity) explained it best. She said, "Knowing that I came to my full-time job at a little bit of a disadvantage, I knew that I had to work a little harder. But at the same time, there were a lot of great skills and values that my parents taught me. So, it was just realizing that sometimes the disadvantage was an advantage." Adriana's realization that her class background could be both a source of advantage and disadvantage hints at an intriguing possibility: that people from lower-class backgrounds are not "deficient" or "lacking" in skills, as the common "deficit model" narrative of social class inequality in the U.S. tends to assume.
Instead, people might simply develop different skills and abilities as a function of the social class contexts in which they were raised. Accordingly, in my research and in this blog, in addition to documenting the obstacles that people from lower-class backgrounds face at work, I also seek to document the unique strengths of people from working-class contexts.
And what I'll argue is that this is not just an overly optimistic, "rose-colored glasses" approach to studying inequality. It's a necessary and critical step towards more fully understanding the causes of inequality - and, perhaps even more importantly - how we can effectively interrupt it.
A strengths-based approach also forces us to zoom out, and not focus all of our attention on individuals, which can easily lead us down that "deficit model" path - assuming that lower-class folks are somehow deficient or lacking. Instead, a strengths-based approach urges us to examine the broader contexts that individuals are participating in, and how those contexts are structured. Spoiler alert: they don't tend to be structured in ways that enable people from working-class contexts to have an equal opportunity to succeed.
Indeed, my coauthors and I find that organizations' cultures are not neutral, and can systematically disadvantage employees from lower-class backgrounds. However, if workplace cultures instead align with the behaviors and norms that are more common among people from lower-class backgrounds, we find that social class disparities can be eliminated, and even reversed: people from lower-class backgrounds can have better experiences than their more advantaged counterparts from higher-class backgrounds.
My research and those of others in this area adopt what has been termed a "hidden talents" approach: as Frankenhuis and Nettle explain, people in lower-class contexts "may have developed strengths that enhance their ability to cope with challenges in their lives." Indeed, research has identified a whole host of interdependent skills and abilities that people from lower-class contexts often excel at, relative to their higher-class counterparts: social responsiveness, resilience, and effectively integrating others' thoughts and perspectives in interpersonal situations, to name just a few.
What Organizations Have to Gain
Beyond merely documenting the existence of these strengths, this small but growing body of work is also beginning to shed light on what organizations stand to lose when they fail to recruit and retain employees from lower-class backgrounds. For example, some of my research finds that study participants from lower-class contexts are actually more skilled at working together (e.g., collaborating in teams) than their higher-class counterparts. This research highlights that employees from lower-class backgrounds bring distinct skills and perspectives with them to work that are in high demand in today's organizations, given the continued growth in collaborative work.
In closing, I hope that I've begun to convince you (or that if I haven't yet, that I might do so in the blog posts ahead!) that recruiting and retaining employees from different social class backgrounds is a key component to creating a diverse workforce. Join me here at Inequality Interrupted as we work together to flip the script on social class inequality in the U.S., and envision a more equitable future of work - one where the skills and abilities of people who come from diverse social class backgrounds might not only be recognized, but celebrated.

(Andrea Dittmann, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University's Goizueta Business School)

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