What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Discrimination Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations

Katherine L. Milkman

University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School

Modupe Akinola

Columbia University – Columbia Business School

Dolly Chugh

New York University (NYU) – Leonard N. Stern School of Business; New York University (NYU) – Department of Management and Organizational Behavior


Little is known about how discrimination manifests before individuals formally apply to organizations or how it varies within and between organizations. We address this knowledge gap through an audit study in academia of over 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities drawn from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions. In our experiment, professors were contacted by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities prior to applying to a doctoral program. Names of students were randomly assigned to signal gender and race (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese), but messages were otherwise identical. We hypothesized that discrimination would appear at the informal “pathway” preceding entry to academia and would vary by discipline and university as a function of faculty representation and pay. We found that when considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, faculty were significantly more responsive to Caucasian males than to all other categories of students, collectively, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions. Counterintuitively, the representation of women and minorities and discrimination were uncorrelated, a finding that suggests greater representation cannot be assumed to reduce discrimination. This research highlights the importance of studying decisions made before formal entry points into organizations and reveals that discrimination is not evenly distributed within and between organizations.

A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Discrimination Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations – Introduction

Substantial evidence suggests that discrimination persists in today’s labor market, affecting hiring, pay, promotion, and other rewards (e.g., see Altonji & Blank, 1999; Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Cole, 1979; Long, & Fox, 1995; Pager & Quillian, 2005; Pager, Western, & Bonikowski, 2009; Stauffer & Buckley, 2005; Valian, 1999). Many have argued that discrimination contributes to the underrepresentation of women and minorities, particularly at the highest echelons of organizations (Bertrand, Goldin, & Katz, 2010; Smith, 2002), despite widespread efforts to promote diversity (Dobbin, Kim, & Kalev, 2011; Kalev, Dobbin, & Kelly, 2006).

Three important gaps limit our ability to understand and address labor market discrimination. First, our existing knowledge is primarily based on extensive documentation of how women and minorities are differentially treated relative to Caucasian males attempting to enter organizations at “gateways” (Chugh & Brief, 2008), but we know little about discrimination that may occur along “pathways” in the informal processes leading up to the attempt to enter (Chugh & Brief, 2008). Second, while most metrics studied show differences in treatment by gender and race, few studies allow for causal inference, and to our knowledge, none have been broad enough to explore the magnitude and extent of discrimination across different types of organizations. As a result, greater knowledge of where (meaning, in which types of organizations) and when (under what conditions) discrimination may play a causal role in explaining observed racial and gender differences is needed. Finally, studies of discrimination in which individuals realize they are being observed (e.g., qualitative and laboratory studies) may suffer from social desirability bias and thus fail to measure implicit, unconscious, or unintentional bias, which many have argued could be a more pernicious problem than explicit, conscious, or unintentional bias in the modern era (e.g., Bertrand, Chugh, & Mullainathan, 2005; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1998; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Newman & Krzystofiak, 1979; Quillian, 2006; Sue, 2010; Valian,1999). To the extent that unconscious bias may be contributing to discrimination, unobtrusive methods for studying discrimination are critical. In this paper, we address each of these gaps in order to deepen understanding of discrimination. Our paper focuses on what happens before someone chooses to apply to an organization, using a methodology allowing for causal inference and measurement of both conscious and unconscious bias, within and across different types of organizations.


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