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by Derek Loosvelt | October 19, 2016


I don't sail the Cape, or play polo in the Hamptons, but maybe I should start. And maybe you should, too. But only if you're a man.

I offer this odd advice because, according to a new study led by a Northwestern University sociologist, resumes with an air of wealth and privilege are given top-notch treatment by hiring managers at elite firms; the catch is that this treatment only holds true for male applicants' resumes. Here's a little more on this apparently un-level playing field on the elite-job job hunt:

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.
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 find out the reasons why privileged women received different treatment from privileged men, the sociologists conducted a sneaky and smart follow-up experiment.

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.”

Perhaps even more disheartening, the experiment found a bias about sailors and polo players being a better fit for firms' cultures than land-lovers and those that don't ride ponies for sport.

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.”

I am suddenly feeling a bit seasick.

In any case, all of this is not so surprising, I guess. It's not exactly news to find out that many of us have a bias to hire those that are like us. However, it's an important finding in that it's yet more evidence of an area that's contributing to one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. today: income inequality.

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.

Of course, Rivera and Tilcsik could very easily have decided to focus on internships in other high-paying industries like technology and finance in which top firms also have a penchant for hiring "elite" candidates from "elite" universities. And if they had, I highly (and sadly) doubt that their findings would've been much different.

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