Women and Minorities Discriminated Against by Faculty Mentors in Nationwide Experiment

Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 5, 2016 at 1:14 pm
Women and Minorities Discriminated Against by Faculty Mentors in Nationwide Experiment

Wise students reach out to professors to build relationships and receive guidance in their specific field.  The mentoring connection can help young people find their way, personally and professionally.  That’s why research finding racial and gender bias from professors is so striking.

Here’s what Katherine L. Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh did.  They sent emails to 6,500 professors across the nation at 250 big name schools.  Every professor got the same email, saying that the student was a fan of their work and would like to meet.  It was the kind of email college students build up their courage to send all the time, especially as they are choosing graduate or doctoral programs.

What the researchers did was change the name of the student sending the emails.  Names were chosen to signal both gender and race, with five races represented: Chinese, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Indian.  Some predicted that different disciplines would be biased towards women or minorities as the professors would want to recruit these underrepresented groups into their programs.  Others believed professor responses would vary based on their pay or standing at different universities.

Covering this research for a radio audience, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam explains.  “And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities systematically less likely to get responses from the professors and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors.”  Chinese and Indian names were the most discriminated against.

One way colleges and universities have tried to improve diversity in student pools is by hiring more diverse faculty.  However, researchers found that professors who were women or minorities themselves did no better at unbiased responses to student emails.

Not all schools or all professors exhibited bias.  “Faculty at private schools were significantly more likely to discriminate against women and minorities than faculty at public schools. And faculty in fields that were very lucrative were also more likely to discriminate,” says Vedantam.  The worst area?  Business schools.  Study author Katherine Milkman says they saw a 25 percentage point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities.

This isn’t the first research to reveal higher education bias; a 2012 study published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, looked at gender bias by science faculty.  Here, faculty rated application materials for a laboratory manager position.  Given identical documents, male candidates were rated more highly and better suited for the job.

Students seeking a mentor may be cautious about reaching out via email to unknown professors.  Even arranging a casual meeting ahead of time may help faculty feel more connected to a candidate instead of a blind letter.  Despite knowing bias exists, there is still no reason to assume the worst in seeking out a mentor. Instead, students may want to find other ways to meet potential mentors in person, tying a real person to the name and making it harder for professors to discriminate based on gender or ethnicity.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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