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By magnifying gender- and socioeconomic status-based inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic caused stress and disrupted career progress for professional students. The present work investigated the impact of pandemic-related stress and prevailing barriers on structurally disadvantaged women preparing for a high-stakes professional exam. In Study 1, we found that among US law students preparing for the October 2020 California Bar Exam—the professional exam that enables one to become a practicing attorney in California—first-generation women reported the greatest stress from pandemic-related burdens and underperformed on the exam relative to others overall, and particularly compared to continuing-generation women. This underperformance was explained by pandemic-related stress they contended with most, as well as by structural demands shouldered most by first-generation test-takers regardless of gender. Even when controlling for the structural features of caregiving and working while studying, the psychological burdens experienced most by first-generation women predicted lower exam success. Study 2 investigated the February 2021 California Bar Exam. Consistent with Study 1, first-generation women test-takers reported the most pandemic-related stress, which predicted lower exam performance above and beyond structural barriers to exam success. We offer policy prescriptions to bolster the success of at-risk groups in the legal profession pipeline, a challenge magnified by the pandemic.


© 2022 The Authors. Journal of Social Issues published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

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