Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market
Résumés signaling high socioeconomic class status made male applicants, but not female applicants, more likely to be selected for a job interview at elite law firms.
Employment discrimination has been identified across many axes of inequality such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, but has not been studied extensively for socioeconomic status. One study from the UK found that job seekers from high socioeconomic class backgrounds were more likely to receive a job interview than job seekers from lower socioeconomic class backgrounds. However, for female job applicants, higher-class signals might help or hurt them. On one hand, a higher social class might compensate for the otherwise lower status of being female. On the other hand, employers may perceive higher-class women as being more competent but less warm, and research has shown that women get penalized more for being perceived as less warm.
In this study, the authors experimentally investigate the role of employment discrimination based on gender and socioeconomic class in an elite labor market in the U.S by conducting a résumé audit study. This approach compares treatment of two fictitious job candidates who are matched on all characteristics except the ones under study. For example, in one audit study, researchers found that women perceived as being part of the LGBTQ community received fewer invitations to interview than those perceived as heterosexual with the same credentials.
In this study, almost identical résumés for fictional law students – only varying in their signals for gender and class status – were sent to elite law firms to examine the likelihood of being selected for a job interview. The authors also surveyed and interviewed practicing attorneys to further explore the mechanisms by which class status resulted in an advantage for male applicants but not for female applicants.
Résumés signaling higher class status made fictional male applicants, but not female applicants, more likely to be selected for job interviews at elite law firms. Follow-up surveys and interviews of practicing attorneys demonstrated that higher-class female applicants were perceived to be less committed to their jobs than equivalent male applicants.
- Résumés that signaled the applicant was male and had a higher-class background had a callback rate (i.e. ratio of interview invitations to job applications) four times greater than across all other conditions (16.25% vs. 3.83%).
- For male candidates, résumés with higher-class signals were associated with more interview invitations than résumés with lower-class signals (16.25% vs. 1.28%).
- For female candidates, there was no statistically significant effect of class although résumés with higher-class signals were associated with fewer interview invitations than résumés with lower-class signals (3.80% vs. 6.33%).
- In the follow-up survey experiment using the same fictional résumés, practicing attorneys gave stronger interview recommendations to higher-class male candidates (mean score of 6.06 on a 7-point scale) than to higher-class female candidates (5.65) or to lower-class male (5.55) or female (5.60) candidates.
- The survey experiment found no significant differences in perceptions of competence, warmth, masculinity, or femininity.
- However, there were significant differences in perceptions of commitment and fit.
- Higher-class female candidates were perceived as less committed to a demanding legal career than both higher-class male and lower-class female candidates.
- Regardless of gender, lower-class candidates were perceived as less compatible with the culture of a large law firm than higher-class male candidates.
- Perceived fit helped explain the positive effect of higher-class signals on interview recommendations. However, for higher-class females, the negative effect of their perceived commitment offset this benefit.
The authors conclude that men, but not women, who are perceived as higher class are advantaged in the elite job market of large law firms, even with the same educational credentials. For women, but not men, coming from a higher-class background triggered a “commitment penalty” due to negative stereotypes of “intensive motherhood.” Qualitative interviews confirmed that employers viewed higher-class female candidates as less committed to working and more likely than other candidates to leave employment after having children regardless of their actual parental status.
The authors prepared résumés of fictional law students at selective second-tier law schools describing identical academic and professional experiences, except that the law school and undergraduate institution were changed to match the city of the law firm office. Each résumé was randomly assigned to indicate male or female gender and high or low socioeconomic class status. Gender was indicated by the fictional applicant’s first name (James or Julia). Socioeconomic class status was indicated by a series of five minor items, including the fictional applicant’s last name (Cabot for high class status and Clark for lower class status), extracurricular activities (sailing for high class status and track and field for lower class status), and awards (a generic athletic award for high class status and an award for outstanding athletes on financial aid for lower class status). The authors pre-tested the résumés to confirm that they signaled class and gender differences but did not signal other differences. The authors then submitted the résumés to 316 law firm offices in 14 U.S. cities listed in the NALP Directory of Legal Employers who were hiring law student summer associates and did not require submission of law school transcripts. The authors tracked employer responses and interview invitations via email accounts and voicemail boxes set up for the fictional candidates.
To explore the mechanism behind the résumé audit results, the authors conducted a survey experiment of 210 practicing lawyers (52.4% male) in the U.S. The same résumés were randomly assigned to these survey participants, who then rated the fictional students on various dimensions on seven-point scales, including their perceived competence, warmth, commitment to their work, and fit with the culture of a large law firm. They also indicated their likelihood of recommending the candidate for an interview on a seven-point scale. Finally, the authors conducted qualitative interviews with 20 attorneys who had experience hiring at the law firms included in the résumé audit sample. In these interviews, the authors provided interviewees with a copy of one the résumés used in the resume audit and a description of the general findings of the audit and observed their reactions. They then asked the participants to reflect on their experiences concerning gender and class in their law firms.