Carnegie Mellon University
November 16, 2022

In Hiring Process, Sponsors’ Gender, Tenure, and Candidates’ Gender Interact to Affect Probability of Getting the Job

Despite considerable progress in educational and professional achievements and qualifications, women remain underrepresented in the higher echelons of organizations and in competitive occupations. This may be the result of biases in the hiring process and limited support from professional networks. Sponsorship through referrals—when individuals in high-level jobs recommend a candidate for a job—can help address these challenges, but can also be affected by biases.

In a new study that examined the hiring of law clerks at the U.S. Supreme Court, researchers looked at how gender and tenure (i.e., length of time in a job) affected the effectiveness of sponsors’ referrals. They found evidence of gender bias against female sponsors, in that overall, candidates sponsored by females were less likely to advance as compared to candidates sponsored by males. However, the female sponsor disadvantage changed to a female sponsor-female candidate advantage as female sponsors gained tenure in their roles, such that when senior female sponsors recommended female candidates, those candidates were more likely to be hired than were female candidates sponsored by senior male judges or male clerks sponsored by both senior male or senior female judges.

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of California (UC) San Diego, is published in Academy of Management Discoveries.

“Our findings provide evidence for the dynamic nature of gender bias in the context of referrals and sponsorship, thereby contributing to understanding gender bias in labor markets,” suggests Brandy Aven, Associate Professor of Organizational Theory, Strategy, and Entrepreneurship at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, who co-authored the study. “Having a better idea of the impact sponsors have is critical to developing a more comprehensive understanding of inequities in the hiring process.”

U.S. Supreme Court clerkships are elite early career positions in the legal field, and most are filled by males, despite an abundant pool of qualified female candidates. Success in the application process relies on a strong recommendation from a judge with whom the candidate has worked, which makes it an ideal context for studying gender differences in the effectiveness of referrals by male and female sponsors.
Past research on referrals has assumed that they are effective for all candidates, regardless of the characteristics of the individual providing the referral. This assumption fails to account for the hirer’s judgment of the person making the referral.

In this study, researchers used the Judicial Yellow Book (an annual directory of judges and clerks) to identify individuals who clerked for a D.C. Circuit judge between 1995 and 2015. The D. C. Circuit is known as the most frequent “feeder” court to the Supreme Court, meaning the highest percentage of clerks that obtain clerkships with a Supreme Court justice come from the D. C. Circuit. Then, from the Supreme Court’s public information office, they identified Supreme Court clerks for the same period, indicating which clerks had moved up from the Circuit Court to the Supreme Court, and merged these names with those on the first list. In total, the study considered nearly 700 candidate-judge pairs.

In addition to considering the gender and tenure of referring judges and the gender of candidates, the study looked at additional characteristics of the judges (e.g., political ideology, senior status, education) and of the candidates (e.g., education, experience as editor of the law review). The gender and tenure of the judges, along with the gender of the candidates, worked together to influence the likelihood of the candidate receiving the clerkship, the study found.

Although candidates sponsored by female D.C. Circuit judges were less likely to be hired than candidates sponsored by male judges overall, this effect depended on the judge’s tenure and the candidate’s gender. Increased tenure of the referring judge was associated with better hiring outcomes only for female candidates recommended by female sponsors; other sponsor-candidate pairings did not benefit from sponsors’ seniority.

“Women’s longevity and success in their field is taken as a strong signal of their quality in a way that men’s longevity is not,” explains Rosalind Chow, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, who coauthored the study. “Highly tenured women are seen as having successfully overcome gender-discriminatory barriers, which people use to infer that they are ultra-competent. Their exceptional competence, then, qualifies them to identify junior women who can do the same.”

The study also found that compared to female judges, increased tenure for male judges not only failed to provide any additional value for candidates, but was associated with negative outcomes for both the male and female candidates they recommended.

“Our work makes an important contribution to research on gender bias in labor markets,” says Elizabeth Lauren Campbell, Assistant Professor of Management at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, who led the study. “It also identifies areas for future research in gender inequality in hiring.”

The authors note that their results are suggestive rather than definitive because archival data are generally limited in their ability to rule out confounds or isolate underlying mechanisms at play. In addition, given their choice of Supreme Court clerkships as the context, it is unlikely that their findings generalize to non-elite occupations.


Summarized from an article in Academy of Management Discoveries, From Exception to Exceptional: How Gender and Tenure Impact Sponsor Effectiveness by Campbell, EL (University of California San Diego), Aven, B (Carnegie Mellon University), and Chow, RM (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2022. All rights reserved.