There’s been criticism of late about nepo babies. Who benefits and where the line should be drawn isn’t as clear cut as we might think.
“Nepo Babies” are in the news of late. The term, short for “nepotism baby,” refers to the children of famous parents whose careers have benefited from their parents' connections. The fact is nearly everyone is a nepo baby in some way, it’s just a question of how useful our parents' connections are and in what way they are applied.
There are, of course, nepo babies in every field. Bush, and Kennedy are household names in politics. Ford may be a public company but there have been two Fords in addition to Henry Ford, who held the CEO position. This isn’t just coincidental.
Let’s first understand there are two types of nepotism which are often not explicitly distinguished. The first is a case of a door being opened; it’s getting someone an interview. The second is someone getting or keeping a job, especially if there are better candidates; it’s the application of a different standard.
The nepo babies debate began with the children of Hollywood celebrities getting jobs in the industry. Sophia Coppola certainly benefited from her parents’ (Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola) directing careers. However, she has won multiple awards over which her parents had no clear influence. She’s clearly a good director, although those early connections may have helped her stand out in a crowded field. On the other hand, George W. Bush is said to have got into Yale despite a below average application package because of his family. The door wasn’t simply opened for him, but a seemingly different standard applied altogether to let him go through it.
Most of us can’t get into an ivy with subpar grades, nor can our parents get us meetings with Hollywood producers. However, most of us have friends and family connections who can get us something. It could be access to union membership, a backstage pass, a parent on the police force so you get a warning instead of a ticket or being able to take over a rent-controlled apartment from a friend. Nearly everyone has some connections which is advantageous in certain situations.
When it comes to hiring for a job, this is not just helpful to the candidate, but also to the employer. Imagine two students from the same university with the same GPA and similar internship experience. The two seem indistinguishable. The transcripts, experience and interview can assess their technical capabilities for the role. What is much harder to tell during an interview is who, should there be a need to stay past midnight to finish a project for a big client, will cheerly say, “I know my part is complete, but I’ll stay I’ll do the coffee run to help the team” versus the one who complains about being stuck late at work. That information can, however, come from our network.
It’s important to make this distinction between access and execution.
It’s important to make this distinction between access and execution. True equality of access means no one should be able to open a door for us, all opportunities need to be given blind. It removes the signaling that comes from a network. Equality of execution means the same standard should apply, no matter who is in the role.
Most people feel strongly about equality of execution but are ok with equality of access. We don’t want to see an inferior candidate get the job because of a connection but are more understanding if the connection simply gets someone an interview they may or may not have gotten without the connection. The line is blurry because the dark side of equality of access is white privilege. My grandparents, although immigrants, had more access than their non-white peers and that access has trickled down to me. While many people today understand and want to minimize white privilege and related structural biases, generally no one wants to prevent people from picking up the phone to make a call to help someone out.
The challenge is that from the outside we can’t always tell if the nepotism was for access or execution. Did she get the job interview because her aunt helped her? Probably. Is she getting or keeping the job because her aunt helped her? It’s harder to say if you’re not in direct contact with her work.
I’ll end with this story from a remarkable producer I recently met, Hawk Koch. Hawk is the son of producer/director Howard Koch. Hawk worked on and produced some great movies like Chinatown, Wayne’s World, and Heaven Can Wait. Like his father, he was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And while his dad probably helped, directly or by his name, to open some early doors, you can’t get elected president of the Academy unless you put in the work to earn that recognition.
Hawk did share a story which sums up the fine line with nepo babies. Early in his career he was working on set and went to the bathroom. Two other crew members on set came in not knowing that he was in there. The first commented that Hawk was there because his father helped get him the job. The second replied, “Yeah, but he’s working his ass off and he’s really good at it so cut him a break.”
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