Photo by Kathryn Decker, Flickr CC

Economic inequality is at high tide in the United States, across numerous demographic lines. For example, privileged children often attend high-quality schools that lead to further advantages in adulthood like elite employment opportunities. However, does class status only impact elite employment prospects through education? Lauren Rivera and Andras Tilcsik use an experimental audit study to examine how class status influences employment likelihoods above and beyond educational credentials.

Rivera and Tilcsik sent random fictitious resumes to 316 summer associateships at large law firms. They manipulated the gender and the class status of the applicant, while other application items such as educational credentials and experience were identical across applications. Gender was signaled via the applicant first name (John vs. Julia) and class status was signaled through the last name (Cabot vs. Clark), extracurricular activity (sailing vs. track and field), athletic award (regular athletic award vs. athletic award for student on financial aid), and personal interests (e.g. classical music vs. country music). The researchers then measured whether the applicant was invited for an interview callback. 

The findings reveal that the effect of status markers depends on one’s gender: men who display markers of high social class are significantly more likely to receive a callback than high-status women. Rivera and Tilcsik followed up with a survey experiment and interviews to investigate why status works in the favor of men but not for women. Overall, firms saw higher-class applicants as better fits than lower class candidates, even though their credentials were the same. Although firms also saw higher-class women as better fits, they simultaneously perceived them as less committed to full-time, demanding careers. This “commitment penalty” offset the gains in callback likelihood that higher-class women get through perceived fit.

In the context of elite employment, the implications of class status vary based on an applicant’s gender.   The authors argue that the “commitment penalty” is a type of anticipatory discrimination, where employers, hiring in the ethos of time-intensive jobs, question women’s commitment due to the perceived potential for external commitments (e.g. motherhood), as well as gendered notions of work devotion. Overall, this research highlights how the interaction of class and gender, rather than either alone, pattern opportunities for elite employment.