A job seeker discusses his resume with a recruiter.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It may not surprise anyone that people from wealthy backgrounds have an advantage in landing some of the most lucrative jobs in the country. Privileged families are often well connected, after all, and one elite lawyer might favor applicants who are from his or her alma mater or have similar interests and upbringing. But new research shows that, in many cases, class advantage evaporates if an applicant is a woman. In fact, it appears to hurt her career prospects. This does not reflect other advantages that wealthy women have, such as access to elite educations and influential networks; it just goes to show that when women are well-qualified, having a high-class background appears to give them no additional advantage, as it does for men.

As described in an article published this month in the American Sociological Review, Lauren Rivera, a sociologist at Northwestern University, and a colleague, András Tilcsik, of the University of Toronto, sent fake résumés to more than 300 of the most exclusive law firms in the United States, varying résumé details to see which ones attracted employers’ interest. A landmark 2003 study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan used a similar process to show that employers are far less likely to respond to résumés from applicants with names that sound African-American compared to those with white-sounding names.

But Rivera thought that this left plenty of room to examine how hiring managers respond to résumés that signal different levels of wealth and privilege. Hiring managers for these elite jobs are the gatekeepers to wealth, Rivera says, and they decide who will become part of the country’s top earners. Rivera’s past research has shown that most elite firms focus almost entirely on recruiting candidates from Ivy League schools, and how that tendency contributes to inequality.

She and Tilcsik decided to focus on applications for summer associateships—which are essentially internships for law-school students—at large law firms, as they usually lead to permanent, first-year associate positions, which command some of the highest salaries in the country. Anyone hired for one of these competitive positions, Rivera says, is instantly propelled into the top 10 percent of household incomes nationally, among all ages.

To eliminate biases toward Ivy League educations, all the fake résumés indicated that applicants went to selective second-tier law schools, but were still at the top of their class. Their academic and professional experiences were identical, but there were a few variations that signaled their level of privilege. For example, higher-class applicants volunteered as mentors to first-year law students, while lower-class applicants volunteered as mentors to first-generation college students. One fictitious student won a university athletic award, while another won a university athletic award for students on financial aid. Then came the section of the résumé people often spend the least effort on, even though it reveals so much to employers: extracurricular activities and interests. In the experiment, privileged applicants listed expensive, exclusive sports like polo and sailing, and mentioned a penchant for classical music. Less-privileged applicants preferred country music and track-and-field sports.

Rivera and Tilcsik sent the mock applications to 316 law firms, and of the 22 interview invitations they received, the privileged men had a call-back rate of 16 percent, which was more than four times the rate for privileged woman, less-privileged women, and less-privileged men combined. Though it’s not surprising that privileged men received an advantage, it was striking to see that advantage so clearly, considering they had identical professional and academic experiences as the other fake applicants. Further, belonging to a higher social class appeared to only benefit men in the hiring process, and penalized women.

To better understand the role of discrimination in the selection process, Rivera designed another experiment. In it, researchers surveyed 210 practicing lawyers, half of whom worked at a private firm, to evaluate the same batch of résumés based on four criteria: an applicant’s competence and warmth, masculinity or femininity, professional drive, and alignment with the culture and clientele of a large law firm. Then the lawyers were asked whether or not they would recommend someone for a job interview. They too were more likely to recommend privileged, male applicants for an interview. While they didn’t tend to score higher on warmth and competence or perceived masculinity, the privileged men were viewed as being more committed to their careers and a better fit for the culture of a large law firm, and that seemed to make the difference in getting an interview recommendation.

I spoke with Rivera about her research, and what seemed to unsettle her the most was how privileged women were viewed as being the least committed to their careers. She calls this “the female commitment penalty,” and she wanted to understand how it affected a woman’s chance of getting a job interview. So she and Tilcsik interviewed 20 attorneys who had direct experience hiring at some of the firms in their résumé audit, and found that this group held several assumptions about gender roles that shaped their decision-making. Almost all the lawyers interviewed perceived privileged women as less committed to legal practice, because of concerns that they would soon leave their careers to become stay-at-home mothers. The women were described as lawyers who were secretly “looking for a husband” or “biding time” before leaving their careers altogether. On the other hand, lower-class women were viewed as “hungry,” and were predicted to work hard for the money because they had “law-school debt to pay” and “mouths to feed.”

The group of attorneys also tended to believe that class background was an important determinant of whether an applicant would fit in. Many attorneys considered the lower-class applicants to be better suited for public-service and government positions and thought that they might not do well in the corporate legal world. Meanwhile, more privileged male applicants were repeatedly commended for their extracurricular activities and were viewed as being a great fit for the culture of a large law firm. One lawyer, upon being shown a résumé from a fake applicant who claimed to enjoy sailing, said, “My firm has a maritime orientation and sailing will also serve him well interpersonally here.”

These results give a troubling view of how the gatekeepers to some of America’s most lucrative jobs make assumptions based on an applicant’s social class and gender, says Rivera, yet many appear unaware that that’s what they’re doing. While it may not be illegal to discriminate against potential employees based on their wealth, gender discrimination is against the law. “I think a lot of employers have a hard time with gender discrimination and seeing how it’s related to biases about motherhood,” Rivera said.

Lawyers may not realize they are illegally discriminating against women as they scan their résumés. Or maybe they don’t care, as no one can read their minds to understand the assumptions behind their decisions. In the end, it’s hard to prove gender discrimination in the hiring process, whether through the courts or through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, because these personal filters are rarely verbalized or communicated. The process lasts only a matter of minutes, or seconds, as a hiring manager scans a résumé and then throws it away or shoves it in a drawer.

This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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