How Social Class Affects the Career Ladder

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Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with University of Virginia professor Sean Martin and Deloitte’s Thalia Smith about how social class and upward mobility shape careers, especially for people of color.

Sean Martin has lived his own research.

Martin, who is the Don and Lauren Morel Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, has spent years studying the effects of social class in the workplace, a topic that touches on his personal trajectory from a typical lower-middle-class kid in public school to an academic who earned his doctorate at Cornell University, an Ivy League institution.

“I found myself in a lot of situations on an upward path where I didn’t know how to behave,” he recalled. “I’d find myself at a fine dining institution or attending an educational information session for a prestigious university and realizing that I was very clearly the odd man out. I didn’t have the cultural knowledge of what to do and what to be. But I learned it.”

His story feels familiar to Thalia Smith, a partner at Deloitte and leader of MADE (Making Accounting Diverse and Equitable), the company’s newest initiative to cultivate racial and ethnic diversity in the accounting profession. Her mother was a school teacher and her father worked for the sanitation department. Inspired as a young girl by the accounting homework she found scribbled in her older sister’s notebook, she was the first in her family to go to college.

“I remember coming home from university and getting that initial offer to come into Deloitte. And when I looked at my starting salary, it was actually higher than the salaries of both my parents,” she said.

Smith and Martin joined Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary for her Leading Diversity at Work podcast series to discuss how social class and upward mobility shape careers, especially for people of color. (Listen to the podcast above. You can find more episodes here.)

“Unfortunately, one of the things that we continually see is people who come from lower-middle to lower social class backgrounds are often selected out in the workplace.”  –Sean Martin

The topic is important because social class is a source of bias and discrimination across all the stages of work: development, recruitment, retention, and promotion.

“Unfortunately, one of the things that we continually see is people who come from lower-middle to lower social class backgrounds are often selected out in the workplace,” Martin said. “They often don’t make it into prestigious organizations for reasons that have very little to do with performance. They have to do with these cultural associations we have with social class around who’s qualified to be here.”

Martin has written several papers on “social class transitioners,” defined as people who move from one social class to another over the course of their lives and careers. It can be challenging for upwardly mobile employees to navigate new spaces where they don’t fit in. A minority woman from a working-class background who lands a job at a big firm, for example, may be uncomfortable socializing on the golf course with her white male colleagues. Or an accomplished Hispanic employee may be passed over for a promotion because his white managers didn’t grow up listening to the same music or eating the same foods as he did.

Martin said firms have a responsibility to recognize and eradicate such discrimination. At the recruitment level, they must put systems in place to override the implicit biases of the decision-makers. At the retention level, they need to build fair and equitable workplaces where employees from underrepresented groups don’t feel ostracized.

“You can really burn out if you’re the only person who is a class transitioner in an elite group, because you’re constantly having to do work that isn’t actually part of your job description, where you’re helping people understand how someone else might be thinking and feeling,” Martin said. “You have to constantly be doing this navigating and code-switching. That’s tiring, so getting more people who can share in that work is incredibly beneficial and helpful.”

After 20 years at Deloitte, Smith said she’s come to realize how “lucky” she’s been to change her lifestyle through a college education and a great job. But she doesn’t want other people of color to rely on luck. That’s why the MADE program she’s heading up at Deloitte is expanding the pipeline for people of color to enter the field. Less than 5% of certified public accountants in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic, she said.

“This is our commitment to generate more career opportunities and leadership pathways, so it’s not just getting people in, it’s also moving people up into leadership for our Black and Hispanic and Latinx individuals,” she said. “We believe that we can create that next generation of accountants that is diverse and that demonstrates the equity and parity within the accounting profession.”

Deloitte is funding $30 million in scholarships for master’s programs in accounting, partnering with Black- and Hispanic-serving higher institutions, and developing a high school program to attract minority students to the field.

“We have a saying within the firm that one of my close partner-friends says all the time: Relationships are like currency.” –Thalia Smith

Smith, who earned her degree on a full scholarship, is excited about the program because she knows firsthand what financial help can do for college-bound students. She also wants to broaden the view of accounting as a promising career option for social mobility. She wants young people to think beyond becoming a doctor, lawyer, professional athlete, or entertainer in the pursuit of success.

“We know that teams made up of diverse and inclusive professionals are more powerful. And accountants are in the position to impact important business decisions,” Smith said. “They can drive real, positive outcomes across organizations, across economies, across society as a whole.”

Building Bridges, Building Relationships

Martin and Smith agreed that hard work is a given — success can’t happen without it. But they also offered key career advice for social transitioners who may feel inclined to sit alone at lunch or decline the invitation to the company picnic. Even though it can be difficult, it’s vital to build relationships at work.

“It’s critical not only because it helps fight off some of the social isolation that we talked about, but most of the data would suggest you’re actually uniquely suited to do that,” Martin said, explaining that people from lower social class backgrounds are generally found to be more “interdependent.”

“That is, they tend to care about the ‘we’ more than the ‘me,’” he said. “They tend to think about things in terms of how does this affect us and not just my own career, my own progression. So, there’s already a will to focus on other people.”

Smith said she learned that she needed to close the laptop every now and then and join her co-workers in whatever activity they were doing. If golfing or boating just isn’t realistic, then find something else to participate in, she advised.

“We have a saying within the firm that one of my close partner-friends says all the time: Relationships are like currency,” she said.

As social transitioners move up in the office, they shouldn’t leave their authentic selves behind, Smith and Martin added.

“Don’t feel like you have to wholesale trade out massively important elements of who you are, because I don’t think that you do,” Martin said. “I would recommend that you keep those things close, because it’s motivating to wake up every morning, put your feet on the ground, knowing that today you’re going to do you instead of trying to be what other people think you should be.”

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