Law firms are either very astute in the way they hire or they’re just plain sexist. Maybe both. I know there’s fatigue about the problems of the privileged set, but hear me out. According to new research featured in Harvard Business Review, the impact of social status on Big Law hiring varies by gender. Men who drop signs of wealth on their resumes (like references to sailing and tennis) are more likely to draw employer interest, while their female counterparts get shunned.
The study’s authors, Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management and Andras Tilcsik of the University of Toronto, sent out resumes to almost 150 firms for summer-associate positions. The fictitious applicants hailed from second-tier schools where they ranked in the top 1 percent of their classes and served on the law review. The only variables were gender and extracurricular activities that hinted at their economic status.
The upshot? “Even though all educational and work-related histories were the same, employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man,” write the authors. “He had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined.”
Hail to the rich (and probably white) guy! OK, maybe that’s not news. But what’s striking is how firms dissed well-heeled women, even though these women have no problems fitting in culturally. The reason: Firms regard them as “the least committed of any group” for a demanding job—”including lower-class women,” according to the study. In fact, firms perceived wealthy women to be “flight risks” who were likely to opt for a less-pressured job or leave work entirely for “family” reasons.
Is all this based on stereotypes? You bet. “That’s clearly a bias,” says Merle Vaughn, who heads the law firm diversity group at Major, Lindsey & Africa. But in her opinion, that prejudice is dying. “That’s a bias based on people currently in power, but that’s rather old school,” she says.
Perhaps so. Yet there seems to be some truth to the rich-women-opt-out stereotype. “I’d love to say that this is totally unfair and reflects bias,” says Los Angeles-based recruiter Sabina Lippman. “But to be honest, looking at it statistically over a large group, the answer is that well-off women leave the practice more often and firms are more reluctant to hire them.”
Indeed, research shows that female graduates of elite colleges and law schools, who tend to come from wealthier backgrounds, are less apt to stick with their careers. Last year, ALM Intelligence reported that women from the top 10 law schools dropped out of Big Law at a much higher rate than women from lower-tiered law schools. (Women from lower-tier schools not only stuck it out, but some—those who went to schools ranked 51 to 100—actually increased in numbers in Big Law over time.)
So what can women from privilege do to overcome these assumptions? The study’s authors suggest that women “ditch the extracurricular activities.” They also advocate disguising gender by replacing first names with initials.
All that strikes Vaughn as nonsense. “I tell people to put in stuff in their resume that will help them bond with other people at a firm,” she says. “I play golf and tennis and I’m a black woman, and I think firms might like that.”
Maybe the country club stuff helps minority women, but what about affluent white women? All this is hair-splitting, says a diversity director at a big firm: “There is discrimination, but I’m not sure if it’s directed at high-status women or women generally.” The reality is that having money—for either sex—changes the dynamics, says this director.
“If you’re comfortably off and halfway sane,” this diversity director asks, “why wouldn’t you take a less-pressured job or drop out?”