Meet the Book Author: Class and Social Background Discrimination in the Modern Workplace: Mapping Inequality in the Digital Age

Angelo Capuano, Central Queensland University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Angelo Capuano, whose new book Class and Social Background Discrimination in the Modern Workplace: Mapping Inequality in the Digital Age was published in July 2023 with Bristol University Press.

What is the book about? 

My book aims to do two main things. First, it unpacks the law in Australia, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand to consider whether, and to what extent, the law in each country addresses discrimination in employment based on class and social background. Second, it examines the application of the law to new technology and practices, to expose how their use creates risks of this type of discrimination and how these risks can be reduced.

A number of technology-driven practices are examined in my book. This includes the use of social media to recruit, hire and fire people, the use of artificial intelligence (‘AI’) and algorithms to help automate candidate screening (recruitment tools such as asynchronous video interviews, gamification and contextual recruitment systems are analysed) and the post-pandemic shift to hybrid working.  

The analysis in my book exposes how these practices create risks of discrimination based on ‘social origin’ in Australian and South African law. It also reveals gaps in the law and makes the case for law reform by suggesting ways legislation can be modernised for the digital age. In relation to Canada and New Zealand, my book argues that the law in these countries has a lot of catching up to do if it is to better address risks of class discrimination from the use of AI and algorithms in recruitment. 

Why did I write it? 

When I was in high school going to university was the exception rather than the norm and none of my high school friends, their parents or my parents went to university. After law school I soon discovered the ugly reality of classism when I tried to get a job – for example, when a firm asked me to brainstorm the people in my network who could become clients of the firm (but I had none); when my pronunciation of words was ridiculed for not being ‘proper’ and then corrected; when a firm told me I didn’t get a job because the successful candidate showed more ‘commercial acumen’ evidenced by a share portfolio; and when I was told in an interview that I’d have to initially work for free if I wanted to get my ‘foot in the door’. 

I got my first job out of law school as the associate to Justice Peter Gray of the Federal Court of Australia and then I went to study law at Oxford University with the financial assistance of a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship. Being told that I was the first person from Melbourne’s traditionally working-class western region to win this scholarship since its inception in 1947 got me thinking about social mobility, and a jurisprudence tutor at Oxford encouraged me to pursue this through research. When I got back home to Melbourne, I received a PhD scholarship from Monash University where I completed my PhD on the concept of ‘social origin’ discrimination. 

The significant changes to the world of work brought about recently by AI, algorithms and the COVID-19 pandemic set off my alarm bells because I could see how these developments create new and emerging risks of ‘social origin’ discrimination. 

Getting a ruptured eye and being in the advanced stages of a degenerative eye condition was initially a spanner in the works to writing my book, but it also got me thinking about how digitilization and the changing nature of work from the fallout of COVID-19 creates disadvantages at various intersections, especially at the synergy of ‘social origin’ and disability. 

These life experiences before and during the writing of my book not only ignited a fire in my belly but they also gave me invaluable insights and an awareness of the issues.   

How did I go about doing this research?

From the outset I wanted my work to be accessible to a range of professionals and make a difference where it matters most – in judgments of courts, pleadings and arguments before the courts, employment policies and practices, government activities to promote human rights, law reform, etc. 

From my time working in the Victorian government in Australia I saw first-hand how the law works in practice and its capacity to influence social change, so I realised that it was important for a book to reach a wider audience than academia and get the ‘movers and shakers’ in society talking about the issue of class and social background discrimination in the digital age. 

The book draws on a range of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, computer science, linguistics and of course law, to expose how the use of certain technologies creates new and emerging dangers of discrimination and what can be done to address these dangers now and into the future.