Applying for jobs: Hidden cues in your applications that could be ruining your chances

Researchers found that women were less attractive candidates than men because they're deemed a "flight risk"

Rachel Hosie
Tuesday 10 January 2017 13:03

It’s long been thought that candidates from more privileged social backgrounds are favoured when it comes to job applications, but more and more has been done in recent years to encourage social mobility.

In 2015, PwC scrapped A-Levels as their primary means of discriminating between applicants for their graduate schemes so as not to discriminate against those from a less well-off backgrounds, and the government is increasingly putting money into apprenticeship schemes.

But new research has revealed that despite these efforts, coming from an advantaged social background still helps when applying for jobs - but only for men.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted a study into the effect of social class signals in applications for the top US law firms, finding that “elite employers discriminate strongly based on social class, favouring applicants from higher-class backgrounds.”

Using a technique known as the ‘résumé audit method’, the researchers undertook a field experiment: they created fake CVs from fictitious candidates applying for summer internships and sent them to 316 offices of 147 top law firms in 14 cities across the US.

The CVs all contained different information, but all candidates were in the top 1% of their class and from second-tier law schools. Whilst gender wasn’t specified, it was made clear in the names of the fake applicants.

The researchers created the impression of a particular social class through awards and extracurricular activities - candidates from lower-income families were to shown to have won an award for student-athletes on financial aid, for example, and the CVs of higher class applicants featured hobbies such as polo and classical music.

Most importantly, all the fake candidates had the same educational, academic, and work-related achievements.

But despite this, employers “overwhelmingly” favoured not just the higher-class candidates, but the higher-class men, who were invited to be interviewed four times more than other applicants.

Most astonishingly, the higher-class man “did significantly better” than the higher-class woman, whose CV was completely identical except for the name.

HBR then conducted a further experiment to try and work out why this was the case - they asked 200 attorneys to explain why they would favour certain CVs, which this time suggested higher-class candidates of either gender would be equally good fits for their firms.

The reason was that such applicants were considered “better fits with the culture and clientele of large law firms”, unlike their lower-class peers who were seen as “misfits and rejected”.

What’s more, some attorneys even encouraged the less advantaged candidates to pursue careers in less lucrative and less prestigious parts of law, such as government roles.

Shockingly, the attorneys explained they were less likely to interview the higher-class women than their equally advantaged male counterparts because they’re seen as “flight risks” who are considered “the least committed of any group (including lower-class women) to working a demanding job.”

“Family” was believed to be the main reason such women would leave their jobs, with lower-class women actually being more attractive because they are associated with less intense parenting styles, apparently.

The results of the study may be depressing for anyone who isn’t a higher-class, privileged man, but it’s unclear whether such attitudes are present in all sectors or just law, across the world or just the US.

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