The humanities are considered the least discriminatory academic discipline - known cases of discrimination do not reach statistical significance - but women and minorities are still collectively ignored at 1.4 times the rate of Caucasian males when seeking guidance about their futures.

A new paper says the problem is endemic across all fields. Faced with requests to meet with potential doctoral students of easily identifiable gender, race or ethnicity, faculty in almost every academic discipline are significantly more responsive to white males than to women and minorities. So if you want a fair shake, the private sector is still better.

In business, the most discriminatory academic discipline observed in the study, women and minorities seeking guidance were collectively ignored at 2.2 times the rate of Caucasian males, but no one escaped unscathed. It's like an Implicit Association Test, you can never win, but for career guidance.

"Our findings offer evidence that white males have a leg up over other students seeking mentoring at a critical early career juncture in the fields of business, education, human services, engineering and computer science, life sciences, natural/physical sciences and math, social sciences and marginally in the humanities," said lead researcher Katherine L. Milkman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania. "Notably, the magnitude of the discrimination we found is quite large."

What was strange is that even in fields where women and most minorities have more representation, there is still discrimination against women and minorities. So even women and minorities would rather talk to white men about careers. Only Chinese minority advisors gave a fair chance to same-race students.

"There were no benefits to women of contacting female faculty, or to black or Hispanic students of contacting faculty of the same race or ethnicity," Akinola said.

For this study, the researchers identified 6,300 doctoral programs and approximately 200,000 faculty at 259 U.S. universities ranked in U.S. News&World Report's 2010 "Best Colleges" issue. From those, they randomly selected one or two faculty members from each doctoral program, yielding 6,548 faculty subjects. They then went to the universities' website and collected each professor's email address, rank, gender and race/ethnicity.

The researchers then created emails from supposedly prospective doctoral students asking to meet with the professors "to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research." Each email was signed with one of 20 names selected based on census and other data to indicate the gender and race/ethnicity (white, black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese) of the purported student sender. On the theory that faculty would be predisposed to respond to students who shared their race/ethnicity, same race/ethnicity pairings were over-represented in the sample. Emails to the professors were queued in random order and sent on the same day at 8 a.m. in the time zone of each faculty member's university. A total of 6,548 emails were sent.

The researchers gave faculty members a week in which to respond to the emails. If a faculty member failed to answer a student, the researchers considered that a non-response. Differences identified in the response rate to white males versus other students provided the researchers with evidence of discrimination. Sixty-seven percent of the emails sent to faculty received responses.

The researchers said this is the first study to experimentally explore discrimination not only at an early career pathway stage but with a representative faculty sample and with a subject pool unbiased by the prospect of being observed by researchers.

"Such differences in treatment could have meaningful career consequences for individuals and for society," Chugh said. "By addressing what happens before prospective doctoral students enter academia, we hope to also shape what happens after."

Citation: "What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations," Katherine L. Milkman, PhD, University of Pennsylvania; Modupe Akinola, PhD, Columbia University; and Dolly Chugh, PhD, New York University. Journal of Applied Psychology, online April 13, 2015.