Summary

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

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 committe