A new quantitative study proves the advantage that employers give to candidates from a higher social class. For high-class women, however, this advantage is negated by employers’ perception that they are less committed to a career.
With social inequality in the U.S. only getting worse and with intergenerational mobility lower than in many other advanced economies, it is clear that individuals in the higher socioeconomic levels of American society have a distinct advantage over lower class individuals in economic trajectories — that is, they are given the most lucrative jobs and are able to build the most lucrative careers.
This advantage might be attributed to a class domino effect: as children, they go to the best grammar and secondary schools in the country; this early education advantage coupled with the ability of their families to pay any price tag gives them access to the most prestigious (and expensive) universities; the resulting elite education credentials are leveraged into the most lucrative jobs at the most prestigious companies.
But perhaps this domino theory is too simple. Is education the only differentiator? What if there are other reasons that employers prefer candidates from a higher social class? Perhaps employers feel that such candidates will function better in situations involving wealthy clients, such as the CEOs working with top-tier management consultancies or the wealthy who hire an elite law firm.
To explore these questions, researchers Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management and András Tilcsik of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management conducted the first quantitative study to measure social class bias in hiring decisions and uncover the reasons for such bias.
The study consisted of an audit experiment based on a fictitious candidate’s résumé sent to 316 actual law offices (each law office received only one résumé). The candidates were applying for summer associate positions, standard stepping stones to full-time jobs.
The educational backgrounds of these fictitious candidates were identical: they all went to the same second-tier law schools (ranked 50-100, so chosen to measure the chances of students with non-super-elite education credentials to receive elite jobs) and all finished in the top 1 percent of their class.
However, the résumés were differentiated through a series of social-class signals, from name (e.g., Cabot to indicate higher class, Clark to indicate lower class) to awards (university award for outstanding athletes on financial aid indicated lower class) to personal interests (higher-class résumés indicated an interest in polo and classical music, while lower-class résumés indicated an interest in pick-up soccer and country music).
The results of the study were revealing. More than 16% of higher-class male applicants were invited to an interview, compared to just 1.3% of lower-class men. On the other hand, only 3.8% of higher-class women were invited back to an interview, while a slightly higher number of lower-class women — 6.3% of the applicants — received an invitation. Thus, while the social class advantage for higher-class men was clearly evident, higher-class women did not get the same advantage.
The researchers conducted a second, complementary study to explore the reasons for the first study’s results. They recruited (through a professional survey firm) 210 practicing lawyers in the U.S. to evaluate a résumé, which they were told belonged to an actual law school student applying to a summer associate position. Using survey questions to frame their evaluation, the lawyers rated the applicants on: competence (e.g., do you believe the candidate is: confident? capable? efficient?); warmth (e.g., do you believe the candidate is: friendly? well-intentioned?); within-gender masculinity/femininity; commitment (e.g., do you believe the applicant: will be willing to put in long hours? is committed to building a long-term career?) and fit with the culture and clientele of an elite law firm (e.g., do you believe the applicant is able to conduct himself or herself professionally in front of clients?)
The respondents were then asked whether they would recommend the candidate for an interview. Once again, higher-class men were recommended more than higher-class women, lower-class women, and lower-class men.
Analyzing the criteria in the surveys, the results did not show any advantage for the higher-class men on competence, warmth or within-gender masculinity or femininity (e.g., the more ‘masculine’ men did not get more interviews). However, the participants considered higher-class candidates to be a better fit than lower-class men and lower-class women. And they considered higher-class women much less committed than higher-class men, and even lower-class women.
This advantage of higher-class men over lower-class candidates on fit and over higher-class women on commitment negated the fact that lower-class candidates were seen as equally committed, and higher-class women were seen as equally fit.
The bottom line: social class helps men, but women pay a ‘commitment penalty’ that negates any advantage.
Recognizing the business case for diversity, many firms are paying close attention to bias in recruiting related to characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. However, there is clearly another source of bias — social class — that may also be hampering a firm’s recruitment of the best candidates for the job. Human resource managers and other recruiters may believe that they are focused on educational and other credentials when in fact an excellent candidate may be excluded because he or she listens to country music! At the same time, the research reveals that high social class is an advantage for men but not women, further reinforcing the barriers that all women are facing in landing the best jobs in the best firms.
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