Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, by Lauren A. Rivera

To become a Master of the Universe, you must work hard but play harder, finds Angelia Wilson

July 16, 2015
Book review: Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, by Lauren A. Rivera

Remember Brantley Foster and Tess McGill? Two of the most memorable creations of 1980s Hollywood, their rags-to-riches tales – he in The Secret of My Success and she in Working Girl – inspired a generation. Little Brantley, a smart graduate of Kansas State University, lands a job in New York City and moves from mailroom to boardroom in less than two hours on the big screen. Tess slides from secretary to mergers and acquisitions in the time it takes her condescending boss to recover from a minor skiing accident. Moral: be smart, work hard and succeed.

Forget Hollywood. Forget the American Dream. In Pedigree, Lauren Rivera discloses the harsh reality of landing a job on Wall Street. “The top and bottom rungs of America’s economic ladder are particularly sticky,” she observes. Those at the top are smarter, faster, stronger, better, so goes the rationale, and those at the bottom are lazy, feckless, individual failures. Rivera looks at those at the top and asks: are they really better?

She takes us behind the scenes to examine the hiring process of New York’s top-tier investment banks, management consultancies and law firms. Her unprecedented “all-access” pass includes participant observation of on-campus recruiting, interviews with senior partners and an “undercover” human resources position at a leading consultancy. Sociologists have already highlighted how upper-middle-class parents enrol children in an “arms race” of increasingly intense extracurricular activities. Bookstores are full of career-self-help detritus: How to Get Ahead in Business, How to Write a Resume, Interview Tips. But what actually goes on in hiring committees remains secret and “confidential”. In this valuable book, Rivera sheds light on that selection process, homing in on how employers contribute to elite reproduction.

The outcome is a highly informed analysis of class and cultural capital. Rivera doesn’t directly offer tips on landing an elite job. While this may disappoint readers consumed with worry about their children’s future, Pedigree does offer insight into the process at the same time as causing angst, at least for me, about why I allowed my child to play football rather than squash. Here’s why: once the application process begins, grades count less than culturally appropriate extracurricular activities.

First, elite firms hire only from elite universities, certain that if every employee’s CV includes Harvard Business School, top-notch clients will come knocking. “Outsourcing” the first stage of recruitment to university admissions officers is efficient business, as educational prestige is a strong barometer of “social, intellectual and moral worth”. As one attorney puts it: “number one people go to number one schools”. Each firm has a few “core” universities from which they choose most of their appointees, and a few “target” institutions whose graduates they might consider if the “core” cohort is lacking.

Companies spend millions to entice the “best” students with dreams of a “baller” (ie, footballer) lifestyle and six-figure salaries. The recruiting team includes full-time campus-based recruiters, current employees who are alumni of core universities and senior income-generating partners flown in for lavish recruitment events. “You make them feel like any other standard of life is unacceptable. And it works,” explains one lawyer. It gives students the “idea that they are going to be wined and dined for the rest of their lives”. Firms also pay hefty sums to the universities as “gifts” in return for student access. This “golden pipeline” funnels the “best” graduates directly to elite firms.

Those involved in recruitment have no formal training, but Rivera identifies informal evaluative criteria. As all applicants will have attended prestigious universities, culling the résumés consists of deciding: “Do they look like me?” As Rivera observes, “what counts as skill, ability and human capital…resides in the eye of the beholder”. Evaluators favour “time and resource intensive” activities. Previous jobs and internships help only if students have “high-status social connections”.

Likewise, interviewers do not use stringent evaluative criteria but, Rivera finds, broadly consider four increasingly subjective themes. Does the candidate show leadership through extracurricular activities (one recruiter noting that “captains of sports teams are great”)? Does the candidate have presence (“Could I put them in front of a client?”)? Do they have basic technical knowledge (“Common sense…not necessarily the smartest”)? And do they fit (“Do I want to play with them”)? Hiring, she observes, “is like picking a team on the playground growing up”. Moreover, candidates’ ideal answers to interview questions do not reflect the values of the company so much as shared “play styles”, and the process allows for significant socio-economic, and personal, bias.

The final evaluation discussions serve to reinforce class-based cultural differences and racial stereotypes. Minorities and women tend to not champion others “like them” for fear of endangering their own precarious positions in the firms. White, male alumni from core universities favour candidates who look, and play, “like them”. For the firms, this level of similarity makes for a cohesive and competitive team. Applicants outside this process, for example those responding to online advertisements, are never even contemplated. Employers consider only applications sponsored by “existing elites” – either carefully selected core universities or, occasionally, those advocated by “industry insiders”.

Businesses rationalise this recruitment as efficient and effective. However, as Rivera argues, it is far from fair. Successful candidates are not the “best” academically but those with “appropriate” extracurricular activities. While many of these firms have government contracts and are legally bound to be conscious of diversity, such gestures amount to “impression management”. They set up stalls at diversity recruitment fairs, Rivera says, but never hire from them.

Rivera’s argument doesn’t stop there. These hiring practices are not particularly effective. Elite hires tend to leave jobs sooner, particularly when the “routine nature of entry-level work” doesn’t match the aspirational lifestyle sold to them at recruitment. Without some standard evaluation and recruitment training, she asks, how can firms really expect to hire the best, rather than “someone to play with”?

Britons are well aware of the limited genetic pool linking Eton, Oxford, Parliament and the City. More importantly, our political history equips us with the language to articulate class privilege and strips us of the naivety necessary for belief in the American Dream. ITV and BBC Radio 4 have been abuzz of late with research linking unsuccessful job applications with regional accents. If you are Brummie, Geordie or Scouse, a blue-chip career is unlikely. In interviewing top London law firms, scholars Louise Ashley and Laura Empson found that 70 per cent of lawyers are privately educated, and most firms refuse to recruit beyond the Russell Group because working-class applicants “do not fit with the brand”. Or, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, are not “one of us”.

Watching the sausage being made isn’t easy, Rivera learns. In the US, the post-2008 economic crisis and the inexorable further enrichment of the 1 per cent is compelling a generation to awake from dreams of economic possibilities and deal with the economic hangover. Brantley Foster and Tess McGill are history. To be smart and to work hard is no longer enough. After publishing her initial findings, Rivera was reminded of The Rise of the Meritocracy – British sociologist Michael Young’s cautionary essay of 1958 in which only the children of the well resourced can achieve – when she received an email from a pregnant woman asking her to “map out a career plan for her fetus”. Damned by my own lack of planning, I wonder if it’s too late to look into children’s rowing lessons.

Angelia R. Wilson is professor of politics, University of Manchester.


Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs
By Lauren A. Rivera
Princeton University Press, 392pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691155623 and 9781400865895 (e-book)
Published 27 May 2015


The author

Author Lauren A. RiveraLauren Rivera was born and raised in Los Angeles, and spent several years as a child living outside Portland, Oregon. She now lives with her “wonderful and supportive husband David” in Chicago, where she holds an associate professorship in management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

As a child, she says, “I was not so much studious, but I always was very curious, especially about people. I’ve been told that I’ve been fascinated by people watching since kindergarten. Several teachers in high school really piqued my interest in writing, and later on a professor of mine at Yale, Joshua Gamson, sparked my interest in issues of class and culture.” 

She took her undergraduate degree at Yale University, recalling that “honestly, as an undergraduate I was sleep-deprived. I balanced two majors, lots of odd jobs, and tons of dance rehearsals.”

Rivera says that Yale, and Harvard University where she undertook her postgraduate study, “were not necessarily unwelcoming places, but they were challenging at times. When I started at Yale, a big change that had recently been made was implementing work-hour caps for financial aid recipients. However, we still had to work up to 20 hours per week to receive our aid packages.

“While that was a change in the right direction, working 20 hours per week while maintaining a full course load is not easy. What it meant in practice was that those of us on significant amounts of financial aid were less able to participate fully in the rich intellectual and social life that the school had to offer. We also had summer earnings minimums that we had to meet to continue our studies (on top of any money we needed to send back home to family members), which constrained the types of summer opportunities we were able to pursue. Financial aid was also more visible than it is now, through the types of jobs people held on campus and who you saw lined up at the financial aid and payroll offices – this was before the days of electronic forms and paycheques.”

Asked if she thinks things have improved of late for Ivy League students from modest backgrounds, Rivera observes, “Since I graduated in 2000, Yale and other institutions like it have made great progress in reducing the financial burden for low-income students, and formal barriers to participating fully in student life like these are now minimised.

“For example, some schools now waive tuition requirements for students from families earning less than $65,000 [£42,000] per year (a figure that is higher than the US median household income) and have forgone loans, mandatory work-study and summer contributions in some financial aid packages. These types of benefits help to level the experience of students on campus and prevent lower-income students from graduating with huge loan debts (or taking time off from their studies to earn enough money). But only a handful of institutions offer such generous financial aid packages.

“However, some challenges remain – the first of which, of course, is actually increasing socio-economic diversity, which these institutions have not had much success in doing despite improvements in aid dollars. But in addition, there are seemingly trivial factors that can make elite universities less than smooth sailing for low-income students. For example, some cut off heat or dining hall service (or close dorms entirely) during holidays. For students who can’t afford to travel to home (or don’t have a home to go to), this can create major problems.”

But a more widespread problem, she adds, “is segregation and isolation from peer networks. In my experience both as an undergraduate at Yale and later as a resident tutor at Harvard, I saw how many students from more affluent backgrounds (and even some administrators) take for granted the ability to explore social, academic, extracurricular, or internship opportunities without having to worry about how to pay the bills.

“People also often do not realise that the cost of certain activities – of going out to dinner or the movies, taking a spring break trip, studying abroad, going home for the holidays, paying membership fees to join a student club – can be prohibitive and serve as source of exclusion and social isolation for students from more modest backgrounds. This is not just an elite phenomenon. Sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton and Jenny Stuber have found similar class-based patterns in a broader array of American universities. Over the past several years, there has been increased dialogue about these types of issues on college campuses among students and administrators, which hopefully will lead to increased awareness. However, when it comes to social class inequalities in graduate education, universities still have a long way to go.”

On the subject of the elite firms Rivera studied for this book, and whether their hiring prejudices either reflect or influence what happens at other businesses, she says, “I think that class influences how people judge other people in a variety of workplaces, not just the types of elite professional service firms I studied.

“In general, people tend to prefer to work with people who are similar to themselves in class background as well as lifestyle markers. In addition, they tend to attribute greater competence to people from more affluent and educated backgrounds. That said, I do think that the degree to which class matters in hiring varies between different types of jobs as well as different types of hiring processes.”

She continues: “For example, the relative influence of class may be tempered in jobs that have minimal social requirements. Also, while class biases exist in general, the degree to which hiring processes are structured and incorporate systematic tests of job-relevant behaviours influence the degree to which people are able to act on biases (class-based and otherwise). And finally, the demographic composition and diversity of a firm or industry matter.”

One UK publication reviewing Pedigree suggested that its readers should look beyond the “gender theory and Marxist concepts of inequality” it contained in order to find something “far more useful – a guide on how to join the global elite”. Rivera counters: “The purpose of the book was to reveal how taken-for-granted ideas about what merit is and how best to measure it contribute to class inequalities at the top of the US economic ladder. I certainly did not intend for the book to be interpreted as a how-to manual.”

However, she adds, “given rising levels of anxiety about class position among the relatively advantaged and the high stakes of getting jobs in these firms, I’m not entirely surprised that some people are using it as a tool to try game the system. I encountered this type of response before on a much smaller scale when I wrote an article on the use of extra-curriculars in elite hiring several years ago.

“After the article received some press, my inbox was filled with messages from anxious parents requesting advice on how to best structure their children’s leisure time in order to maximise their chances of getting one of these jobs. The most humorous one was from a woman who asked me to develop a life plan to a specific firm for her unborn foetus. So no, it was not at all intentional, but it makes sense given the high levels of inequality –and the unprecedented stakes involved in class stratification – in US society.”

Does Rivera expect that this book’s findings will come as news to senior figures – in human resources, or in the “C suites” – at elite firms?

“I don’t think that the basic features of the hiring process that I describe in the book will surprise senior figures in these firms,” she responds. “However, some may be surprised by the class inequalities that these seemingly neutral processes generate. In the US, we lack a coherent language for talking about social class; many people still believe that anyone can make it to the top solely through hard work and effort.

“One of the most difficult parts about talking about social class in the US, whether with executives or otherwise, is that people frequently conflate the idea of a class structure with that of a caste structure and interpret any amount of mobility as evidence that the former doesn’t exist. And indeed, there is some – although much smaller most than people believe – movement between economic ranks. I’m sure some senior leaders in these firms will point to someone they know (perhaps even themselves) who came from a less privileged background but made it to the top of a corporation as evidence that class doesn’t really matter.

“But in line with what behavioural economists call the availability heuristic, we tend to overgeneralise from these familiar cases to believe that mobility is far more common and possible than it is. The reality is that in any class system, including in the US, mobility happens. But the deck is strongly stacked against it. And that’s hard for people – particularly those in positions of power – to digest.”

Are elite firms are simply happy to accept the loss of talent and potential that comes with hiring only “people like them”, while simply giving lip service to diversity? Will they eventually accept either the business case or the moral case for a more diverse workforce?

Rivera suggests that many companies “are satisfied with the status quo. Most of these firms (at least those that survived the financial crisis) are doing quite well, so many employees think that their personnel practices must be good enough. I hope that the book will inspire leaders in these firms (and other types of organisations) to take the issue of diversity more seriously. Right now, many organisations are content with pursuing diversity programming that is easy – such as one-off diversity trainings and affinity networks – which, although they are easy to implement, are not necessarily the most effective at enacting change.

“One of the key barriers in these firms in particular is that, due to stereotypes, many employers seem to believe that there is an inherent trade-off between diversity and employee quality. But they don’t see that the definition of quality they are using is itself very biased (and in some cases highly inaccurate). Until firms realise that they need to use less biased and more data-driven and reliable methods of defining and assessing applicant quality and are willing to look beyond traditional feeder schools, they are unlikely to have much success diversifying.”

Surely Rivera’s research, and the book that came from it, is likely to provoke anger and pessimism among academics and students. What could or should they do personally about this state of affairs?

Rivera replies: “Given the high rates of attrition in these organisations and the large volumes of students these firms hire each year, both schools and students – especially elite ones – actually have a fair amount of power. Firms are dependent upon elite universities and elite students for talent. Institutions or students could put pressure on firms to diversify. There are examples in the law school world of students boycotting firms that do not exhibit sufficient levels of racial or gender diversity (law firms, unlike consulting firms and banks in the US, often make their gender and racial composition statistics public).

“Also, the processes I document in the book are not unique to banking, consulting and law. Regardless of what industries they work in, I hope readers will think critically about how their employers – and even they themselves – hire and put into place concrete practices to minimise biases.”

Although Rivera works on issues of merit and status, inequality and class prejudice, she is a scholar in a renowned school of management rather than, say, a sociology department. Are her research interests are viewed with respect and interest by her colleagues, and by other scholars of management more widely?

“While the study of social class has a long history in sociology, management scholars in the US are just beginning to address issues of social class in the workplace. However, there is a growing movement within the business school world – partially driven by scholars, partially by students – to do more to understand inequalities in careers,” she replies.

What gives her hope?The increased public interest and dialogue surrounding issues of inequality that have taken place over the past several years,” says Rivera.

Karen Shook

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