TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Study: Faculty Discriminate Against Prospective Women, Minority Grad Students

Inside Higher Ed, The Bias for White Men:

A survey of more than 6,000 faculty members, across a range of disciplines, has found that when prospective graduate students reach out for guidance, white males are the most likely to get attention. [Katherine L. Milkman (Pennsylvania), Modupe Akinola (Columbia) & Dolly Chugh (NYU), What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations] ...  The study ... aims to identify whether academics create pathways for students of all kinds who want to enter graduate school.

For the study, three researchers sent faculty members letters (as would-be grad students), expressing interest in talking about research opportunities in the program, becoming a graduate student and learning about the professor's work. The letters asked for a 10-minute discussion. The letters were identical in every way except for the names of the fictional people sending them. ...

The study tested names to make sure that most people would associate certain mixes of gender and ethnicity with them. So for example, Brad Anderson was one of those used for white males. Keisha Thomas was used for black females. Raj Singh was one of the names for an Indian male. Mei Chen a Chinese female. Juanita Martinez a Hispanic female.

Then the professors analyzed the response rates for different types of names, and by different categories of academics -- by disciplinary groupings and the public or private status of the program. (The authors of the study are y.)

The table that follows shows the percentage of fictional students who received a response from professors, grouped by discipline. Only in the fine arts were white men less likely to receive a response. The table is in the order of magnitude of the gap in disciplinary responses:


Little is known about how bias against women and minorities varies within and between organizations or how it manifests before individuals formally apply to 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. 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. 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 found that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from White males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions. Counterintuitively, the representation of women and minorities and bias were uncorrelated, suggesting that greater representation cannot be assumed to reduce bias. This research highlights the importance of studying what happens before formal entry points into organizations and reveals that discrimination is not evenly distributed within and between organizations.

Update:  Policy Mic: Wharton Study Shows the Shocking Result When Women and Minorities Email Their Professors

Legal Education, Scholarship | Permalink


How do the statistics break down individually? Lumping together all professors, presumably of varying sexes, races, and ethnicity, and comparing that to letter writers, divided only as Brad Anderson v. the rest proves almost virtually nothing.

A Hispanic woman professor, for instance, might not want her double minority status in the department threatened by a competitor with the same statuses. Yet that goes down in this rather meaningless table as a white, Caucasian male practicing 'discrimination' against a Hispanic woman.

In brief, whatever this chart is comparing is so vague and generalized, it means nothing and perhaps never should have been generated, much less published. Of more interest would be charts that break down both professors and letter writers with more specificity.

Years ago, I worked with databases for those doing social science research. I came away rather perturbed that it was so poorly done. Conclusions were drawn, for instance, on participants vaguely remembering what they ate for months in the past.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Apr 24, 2014 1:49:11 PM

The "diversity" industry is at it again--more studies to prove what the researchers undoubtedly thought anyway. It's not going to convince anyone who wasn't convinced, anyway.

Posted by: michael livingston | Apr 25, 2014 4:15:40 AM