American Sociological Association

Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market


April 13, 2017

Research on the mechanisms that reproduce social class advantages in the United States focuses primarily on formal schooling and pays less attention to social class discrimination in labor markets. We conducted a résumé audit study to examine the effect of social class signals on entry into large U.S. law firms. We sent applications from fictitious students at selective but non-elite law schools to 316 law firm offices in 14 cities, randomly assigning signals of social class background and gender to otherwise identical résumés. Higher-class male applicants received significantly more callbacks than did higher-class women, lower-class women, and lower-class men. A survey experiment and interviews with lawyers at large firms suggest that, relative to lower-class applicants, higher-class candidates are seen as better fits with the elite culture and clientele of large law firms. But, although higher-class men receive a corresponding overall boost in evaluations, higher-class women do not, because they face a competing, negative stereotype that portrays them as less committed to full-time, intensive careers. This commitment penalty faced by higher-class women offsets class-based advantages these applicants may receive in evaluations. Consequently, signals of higher-class origin provide an advantage for men but not for women in this elite labor market.

Social class—defined as one’s relative socioeconomic rank in society—shapes educational and economic trajectories in a powerful way. Economic inequality in the United States is now at its highest since the Gilded Age, and rates of intergenerational mobility are lower than in many other Western industrialized nations (Couch and Dunn 1997Saez 2008). Research shows that social class of origin—whether defined by parental income or education—affects children’s future educational, occupational, and economic attainment as well as their mental and physical well-being (Stephens, Markus, and Fryberg 2012). Social class of origin seems to be a particularly consequential source of stratification at the very top and bottom ranks of the U.S. economic and educational hierarchies (Pew Charitable Trusts 20122013Torche 2011).

Over the past three decades, sociologists have made theoretical and empirical headway in understanding the mechanisms that reproduce social class inequalities in the United States, especially those that provide advantages for the socioeconomically privileged (e.g., Armstrong and Hamilton 2013Lareau 2003Stevens 2007). However, research on this topic focuses primarily on class inequalities in formal schooling. Scholars have shown that children from socioeconomically privileged homes benefit from higher levels of economic, social, and cultural resources that facilitate academic success and admission to four-year colleges, which have become critically important for obtaining stable jobs and stable incomes in the twenty-first century (see Alon 2009Lareau and Weininger 2003Mettler 2014).

While extremely influential, existing research on the reproduction of class-based privilege in the United States largely neglects a vital dimension of economic stratification: employment. Employers are gatekeepers to jobs offering varying levels of economic and symbolic resources, and employers’ hiring decisions shape individuals’ economic trajectories (Bills 2003). Although qualitative studies suggest that employers pay attention to applicants’ social class signals when making hiring decisions (Kennelly 1999Neckerman and Kirschenman 1991Rivera 2015), scholars have yet to assess in a systematic way whether and to what extent social class discrimination in employment—that is, employers’ differential treatment of job seekers on the basis of social class signals—occurs in U.S. labor markets. Research on employment discrimination in the United States focuses mainly on alternative axes of inequality, such as race, gender, parental status, and sexual orientation (e.g., Correll, Benard, and Paik 2007Kang et al. 2016Pager, Western, and Bonikowski 2009Tilcsik 2011).

In this study, we undertake—to the best of our knowledge—the first field experimental investigation of employment discrimination on the basis of social class signals in an elite U.S. labor market. Using the résumé audit method—a technique used frequently in sociological research on labor market inequalities (Pager 2007)—we investigate discrimination based on social class signals in one high-stakes, prestigious labor market: that of new law firm associates. Because previous theorizing and research suggest that effects of social class on inequality might depend on gender (see Bourdieu 1984DiMaggio 1982Epstein 1981Lizardo 2006), we experimentally manipulate each job applicant’s apparent social class background and gender.

"Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market" written by Lauren A. Rivera and András Tilcsik

American Sociological Review, Volume: 81 issue: 6, page(s): 1097-1131 Article first published online: October 12, 2016;Issue published: December 1, 2016


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