Social class operates visibly and invisibly: Obvious signals include who your parents are, the neighborhood you grew up in, and the schools you went to. But there are less obvious clues, too, like what you do with your free time (playing polo or basketball) and the music you listen to (country or classical). Sending the right signals could lead to a career breakthrough — depending on how privileged your gender is.
This is the unsavory takeaway from a new study in the American Sociological Review lead-authored by Lauren Rivera, an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. With her co-author András Tilcsik at the University of Toronto, Rivera sent out job applications to 316 elite law offices across the U.S. Each office received one application, randomly assigned between gender (first name: James or Julia) and social-class background.
For the most part, the résumés were identical: a tour with Teach for America, an internship with the U.S. district attorney, a bachelor’s degree in political science, and finishing in the top one percent of their law-school class. Crucially, the authors selected tier-two law schools — listed between 50 and 100 in U.S. News and World Report’s 2014 Best Law Schools ranking — rather than the upper crust, so that they could, as they write, better “study the factors that shape the chances a person can enter an elite job without ‘super-elite’ educational credentials.”
Then came the social-class differences, as shown in the table below. Higher class and lower class were represented with a bundle of different signals: last name (“Cabot” versus “Clark”); undergraduate extracurriculars (“Peer mentor for first-year students” vs “Peer mentor for first-generation college students”; and personal interests (“sailing, polo, classical music” vs “track and field, pick-up-soccer, country music”).
Those 316 applications led to 22 interview invitations, good for a 6.96 percent callback rate. (This, the authors note, is consistent with previous studies on white-collar jobs and expectations for applicants who were at the top of their class but didn’t go to super-élite schools.) What was bananas, however, is how that rate skewed by gender: the lower-class male got just one callback, the lower-class female five, the higher-class woman three, and the higher-class man thirteen. That means the blue-blooded James had a 16.25 callback rate, while his nearly identical siblings had a paltry 3.83 callback percentage.
“Coming from a higher-class background only helps men,” Rivera tells Science of Us. “Given my prior research, we thought that social class background would lift all those people regardless of gender, and that was not the case.” To contextualize those results, the researchers interviewed 20 attorneys with direct experience at making hires for large law firms. Frequently, Rivera says, they’d cite cultural fit, or how well a potential candidate would get along with their co-workers, or possible rapport with clients. In regard to a high-class man, one said this: “If you look at the interests, it’s classic cultural capital. It would help with being around people who [he pauses] work hard.” With a lower-class woman, another attorney believed she’d be “immature on the phone” and not adequately show clients that “these are my ideas and they’re worth listening to.”
Rivera was most struck by how openly the hiring attorneys questioned whether a higher-class woman even wanted the job, and how many believed she might just be “looking for a husband” until she could leave law and “become a stay-at-home mom,” often of the helicopter variety. It speaks to “how people of a certain income bracket raise their kids, a certain kind of motherhood,” Rivera says.
In previous research on élite service firms — consulting, banking, law, and the like — Rivera has found that people hire those who remind them of themselves, who share a “spark of commonality.” This, she says, leads to “cultural matching”: Consciously or not, hiring managers select people with similar tastes, experiences, and backgrounds. Even if there’s diversity in terms of skin color, they still grew up in the same Zip Codes and play the same sports.
“When you look at the identity of people charged with hiring decisions in law firms, they tend to come from a certain segment of the population, tend to be privileged men, and they’re favoring people” — as well as the employee base and the clients — “who match them culturally,” Rivera says. But there’s another wrinkle, what she and Tilcsik call the “commitment penalty,” for high-class women: the assumption that even if you’ve got your JD, what you’re really looking for is your MRS.
To push this research forward, Rivera would like to see if the same trends hold for super-élite schools. “When you look at incoming classes of associates at top law firms, you see a 50–50 gender split,” she says. This suggests that firms are getting women from somewhere, and it’s not from second-tier schools — it must be super-élite schools where so much of the recruitment happens on-campus. “Perhaps having a degree from Harvard Law School is enough to assuage the worry that you don’t want the job,” Rivera says. She’s tempted to say that it may generalize to other all-or-nothing, best-paying professions, like management consulting and finance. The commitment penalty for women would (hopefully) hold less for younger, more purportedly progressive industries, like tech. Her practical, and also tragic, advice to the firms doing the hiring and the career-services offices doling out advice to leave out asking for activities on résumés. For female would-be applicants that do want to break into a patriarchal and lucrative profession like law, you might want to just use your initials.