Employment Discrimination Blocks Pathways Into Organizations

Discrimination in the workplace is unfortunately still a problem that needs a solution. There is inescapable evidence that many types of people experience discrimination at various decision points in a career. For example, selection, salary negotiation, and promotions, are all decision points that provide an opportunity for measurable discrimination to appear. New research (Milkman, Akinola, & Chugh, 2015) focuses instead on career “pathways,” or the process that leads up to obtaining a job. If someone has a clear pathway to a job, he or she may be more likely to be hired when the selection decision is made. However, a pathway can be blocked with obstacles (such as discrimination) that make it difficult for a person to succeed at a later decision point.


In the study, the researchers conducted an experiment that focused on a specific pathway for prospective doctoral students. In order to gain admission to a doctoral program, prospective doctoral students are typically assessed for research ability and fit with a specific faculty member’s research interests. For this reason, it is advantageous for prospective students to contact professors in order to demonstrate research compatibility and to seek research opportunities. Although an initial attempt to contact and meet a professor is not a formal “decision point,” this meeting could provide a large advantage to a student when the ensuing selection decisions are made, as well as provide the student with the encouragement necessary to pursue admission and eventually enroll.

The researchers simulated the experience of prospective doctoral students seeking to make this initial contact. They created mock personas of prospective graduate students and emailed more than 6,500 professors at 259 institutions, spread throughout 89 different disciplines, to see if they would agree to an initial meeting. The mock students were given different names that indicated whether they were White, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese, as well as either male or female.


The study found evidence for discrimination that largely went against people who were not White males (i.e., racial minorities and women of any race). White males received significantly more responses in several different academic fields, including business, education, human services, and various sciences. Conversely, there was also evidence for discrimination against White males, as they received significantly fewer responses in the field of fine arts. The study also found that the above effects were stronger in fields that pay higher salaries, and in private schools compared to public schools. The authors predicted that when a school’s faculty had more women and minorities, that discrimination would not be as strong. However, the authors did not support this hypothesis; the racial and gender makeup of a staff had no effect on the extent of discrimination.


This research shows that racial and gender discrimination can occur earlier than we may have realized. Efforts to curb discriminatory practices at typical decision points, such as formal job interviews, may not be enough to truly curb the harmful effects of discrimination. If pathways into organizations are blocked for certain people, then our very best efforts to make sure that formal decision points remain fair and objective may actually be too little, too late.

Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678-1712.