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.