A Harvard professor whistles while graduating Ph.D. students celebrate.
A Harvard professor whistles while graduating Ph.D. students celebrate. - 
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When we think about the debate over inequality in this country, a central piece of American mythology comes to mind: anyone who works hard, regardless of social status, can get ahead.

But it's not that simple, and people from exclusive or affluent backgrounds often land the most prestigious jobs.

Lauren A. Rivera, an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has been looking at investment banks, consulting firms and law firms for the last decade for her upcoming book "Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs."

Rivera spent nine months as an ethnographer in one of these top firms, observing every aspect of the hiring process. She points out the firms may be missing out on top talent.

"If you want the best and the brightest regardless of social background, if you're not systematically looking at over half the best and brightest because they don't qualify in terms of social background, that is not necessarily an equitable or open process," she says.

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