Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Social class advantages are well-documented in American society, particularly in education. However, little research has been done on how this advantage plays out in the workforce. This study finds that while higher-class applicants to large American law firms are largely seen as a better fit culturally, only for men does this translate into increased interview invitations. For high-class women, their social status triggers a “commitment penalty” where the prospective employer questions whether these women will be as committed as men to the long hours and high expectations through their child-bearing years.


Research on social class – defined in this study as one’s relative socioeconomic rank in society –inequalities has primarily focused on children’s academic success and access to higher education. This paper sought to examine how signals of social class affect employers’ hiring decisions. Social class is a meaningful status characteristic that influences people’s perceptions and expectations, as is gender. While research has shown that education has a significant impact on a person’s economic position, this paper seeks to examine how social class continues to influence a person’s economic trajectory beyond school. In particular, the authors were keen to identify any gender differences in how social class signals may help or hinder applicants for jobs.

The authors used a résumé audit experiment and a survey of law professionals to study how social class and gender influence the job application processes at large American law firms. In the résumé audit experiment, four résumés were developed with differences only in first name (to signal gender) and five additional aspects: last name, nature of financial aid received, campus activities, athletic participation, and musical taste (to signal social class). Over 300 applications for summer associate positions supposedly from law students at a selective but second-tier law school were randomly sent to elite law firms across the United States.

While all other aspects of the résumés were identical, the gender and social class indicators had a profound effect on the rate that applicants were called for interviews.

Of the four different résumés (higher-class male, higher-class female, lower-class male, lower-class female) sent out for consideration, the interview invitation rate for the higher-class male applicant was more than four times as high as the average invitation rate for the other three applicants (and this difference was statistically significant). Higher-class signals dramatically increased the chances of applicants being invited for an interview, but only for male applicants.

While these results were compelling, they gave no indication why this discrepancy exists. The survey of over 200 law professionals across the United States was designed to identify why higher-class male and female applicants were evaluated differently. The survey respondents rated the four applicant profiles used in the résumé audit study on competence and warmth, masculinity and femininity, commitment, and fit. The respondents were then asked who they would recommend for a summer associate position and why. Again, this survey found that higher-class male applicants were significantly more likely to be recommended for an interview than the other three applicant categories.

When it came to culture fit, higher-class applicants were seen as overall more compatible than lower-class applicants, but there were important gender differences. While the respondents did not rank the higher-class male applicant higher on competence or warmth, there was a clear difference when it came to commitment and fit. Higher-class male applicants were seen as significantly more committed than higher-class women to working and building a career at a law firm. In addition, higher-class women were also seen as a significantly less committed than lower-class women.

To gain additional insights on these results, the authors conducted interviews with law professionals and found that higher-class women are perceived as less committed (and therefore a higher attrition risk) because they are expected to leave to raise children or to pursue a less intensive career. In contrast, lower-class women were expected to have fewer alternative options and therefore seen as more likely to remain committed to the long hours and hard work.

In contrast, while attrition rates are high among law firm associates, there is no difference between the genders. Even while men are just as likely to leave a law firm as women, they are not perceived as less committed or more of a flight risk.

These findings reveal discrimination against higher-class women for their potential to become mothers, not their actual parental status.


  • Eliminate social class indicators before review – In elite labour markets like law, medicine, and business, expectations related to social class should be consciously avoided when reviewing applications for employment – for example, by eliminating information related to hobbies and extracurricular activities from the résumés prior to review. Culture fit can be better determined through the interview process and higher-class women, in particular, should not be penalized for expectations of their commitment or future behaviour related to child-rearing. Such perceptions lead to hiring based on bias and overlook candidates who may ultimately be the best choice for a company.


Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market


Lauren A. Rivera and
András Tilcsik


Northwestern University,
University of Toronto


American Sociological Review


October 2016


Research brief prepared by

Celeste Jalbert