Collegiate Discrimination? Researchers Send Emails To 6,500 Professors, White Males Receive More Responses

April 29, 2014  |  

Even before women and minorities set foot into the “real world,” opportunities are obliterated right before their eyes as college professors seem to have a penchant for responding to white male students — and not their underrepresented counterparts, ScientificAmerican reports.

Lead investigators Katherine Milkman and Modupe Akinolaof sent fake e-mails to 6,548 professors at 259 U.S. colleges and universities. The researchers pretended to be prospective doctoral students searching for research opportunities to boost their career outlook. All the messages were identical — except for their names, of course.

Milkman and Akinoloaf handpicked names that suggest a certain gender, race, or ethnicity. “Steven Smith,” for example, was used to hint at a white male and “Latoya Brown” was used to infer a black female.

They discovered — overwhelmingly — that professors were more likely to send off responses to white men compared to women, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students. Faculty members at private universities, in particular, were the most unresponsive.

“White men were more likely than women and minorities to receive a reply in every discipline except the fine parts, where the bias was reversed,” ScientificAmerican adds.

The business field showed the greatest disparity — 87 percent of white men received a response; compare this to only 67 percent of women and minorities who got a reply. Other disciplines such as computer science, engineering, and math also showed a significant bias against female and minority students.

The most surprising factor about this study is that Asian students experienced the greatest bias. Previous studies of academia have shown a positive trend with Asians in higher education institutions. Not this time. “Among private university faculty the response rate for white men was 29 percentage points higher than for Chinese women — the greatest disparity observed,” ScientificAmerican says.

The researchers found another intriguing pattern: the greater the professor’s salary, the greater the difference in response rate between white men and minority students. “For every 13,000 increase in salary, we see a drop of 5 percentage points in the response rate when compared to Caucasian males,” Milkman adds. This is in sync with a recent study that found wealthy people tend to be less empathetic with disadvantaged groups.

Milkman hypothesized that the diverse college departments —  at least — would be more welcoming of minorities and women, but she did not find that relationship. “The only exception was among Chinese faculty, who were less likely than other faculty to discriminate against Chinese students,” ScientificAmerican writes.

While the disparity in responses is a problem, the bigger problem, according to University of Tromso’s Professor Curt Rice, is that the biases are unconscious and implicit. How can you fix something that one isn’t even aware of? “They’re held by all of us because they’re subconscious and the result of cultural stereotypes that we’re all exposed to,” Rice said.

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