When you think of diversity, equity and inclusion, does socioeconomic class come to mind? Probably not. And you are not alone. As an awakening on the importance of DEI has blossomed, the idea that economically disadvantaged people should be the beneficiaries of DEI has slipped by most of us. It’s time to change that mindset.
Let’s start by defining what we mean by socioeconomic status and class. The American Psychological Association defines “socioeconomic status as the social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income and occupation.”
Why is it so important to factor socioeconomic class into DEI?
There’s some compelling research that tells us that socioeconomic status and class have a direct connection to an employee’s experience in the workplace.
For instance, one piece of research indicates that workers with a low socioeconomic position “have a higher risk for health problems and premature dropout from the workforce.” And that “unfavorable working conditions and unhealthy behaviors are more prevalent among this group of workers.”
And a recent study by Paul Ingram, Kravis Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, shows a dramatic disparity in career trajectory that can be drawn directly back to a person’s socioeconomic background. The study indicates that, “Workers who come from lower social-class origins in the United States are 32 percent less likely to become managers than those who come from higher social-class origins.”
There are some significant ramifications around this lack of advancement. “Researchers have found that promotion to a managerial role creates substantial job satisfaction—as much as a 60 percent raise in pay would.” And “managerial roles are also associated with better health: Managers experience less stress and live longer than nonmanagers do.”
Interestingly, “One study found that simply labeling a participant as a “leader” rather than a “support person” before a task produced a better physiological response and better performance under pressure. Overall, the well-being benefits of hierarchical advantage are even greater than those of the accompanying boost in income.”
How a focus on socioeconomic class can help to combat other forms of disadvantage
Ingram and other experts argue focusing on socioeconomic class can reinforce efforts to combat other forms of disadvantage. How? Because economic disadvantage is one of the common realities faced by people who have been traditionally marginalized.
Consider these statistics on people who are most likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged.
- Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty
21.6 percent of disabled people were considered poor under the Census’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, compared with just more than 10 percent of people without disabilities.
- More than one in five Black Americans (21.3 percent) are in the third generation of their family to be poor compared to just 1.3 percent of whites experiencing third-generation poverty.
- Women in America are still 35 percent more likely than men to be poor in America, with single mothers facing the highest risk. Currently, 35 percent of single women with children live and raise their families in poverty.
In addressing socioeconomic class as part of the DEI effort, companies can cast a wider net that will encompass people who need the most support. In doing so, they can be sure to pinpoint the “most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged”— such as people who have come from a lower socioeconomic class in addition to being part of an underrepresented group.
As companies are increasingly becoming the community stewards of DEI, they are in a unique position to help break the cycle of socioeconomic disadvantage. And there are some specific reasons why they need to do just that.
The impact of socioeconomic status on workplace interactions
According to experts, the perpetuation of hierarchies has major significance in the workplace. Historian and economic writer, Walter Johnson, asserts that socioeconomic status can carry through to the workplace and impact how workers interact. “It affects how sub-groups are formed in the company and can affect the productivity of the organization. A firm might appear more as a loose organization of sub-groups than a unified economic company. The looser the organization and the more powerful the sub-group, the more difficult the company is to lead and motivate.”
6 ways to integrate socioeconomic class into your DEI efforts
There are some concrete steps that companies can take to address socioeconomic class in the workplace, improving the employee work experience, creating equity in advancement and cultivating a more collaborative and productive work environment.
1. Adjust systems and processes to exclude bias in hiring and advancement
Tackling socioeconomic class differences will mean looking at adjusting systems and processes, particularly in hiring and advancement. The best way to do this is through consistently applied criteria and an equitable decision-making process that eliminates arbitrary choices. Consider the manager who feels “most comfortable” hiring or advancing someone who is most like him or her. Maybe they gravitate toward people who share the same expensive hobbies (such as golf or boating) or have had the privilege of travelling extensively—all of which take the kind of resources that someone from a lower socioeconomic class could not afford. The creation of standardized criteria and job-related skills assessments can wipe out the possibilities of making hiring and advancement selections based on these kinds of personal biases.
2. Address stereotypical thinking and hidden biases about socioeconomic class
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, people in a higher social class have an exaggerated belief that they are more capable than others. And perhaps most salient is that this overconfidence can be misinterpreted by others (such as hiring decision-makers) as greater competence, thereby perpetuating social hierarchies. And the situation only grows worse for the socioeconomic disadvantaged with what Ingram calls “stereotype threat”— the phenomenon whereby people perform worse because of negative stereotypes attached to their identity. Dispelling such stereotypes and uncovering hidden biases is where education and training come in.