Informal Biases Impede Women and Minorities at “Pathways“ Leading into Academia

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Although there is ample evidence showing that women and minorities face discrimination in higher levels of academia, a new study suggests that the unequal treatment exists before students even apply to doctoral programs. A working paper published on the Social Science and Research Network by Katherine Milkman et al. investigated if women and minorities experience less support in early, informal processes leading up to the decision to apply to graduate school programs. They found that women and minorities face greater difficulty in getting an email response from professors when inquiring about research opportunities for doctoral programs, and even more so from higher paid professors and those at top universities.

The researchers sent emails to 6,548 tenure-track and tenured professors at 259 top U.S. institutions across 109 academic disciplines. The emails were sent from fictional prospective doctoral students seeking a meeting to discuss research opportunities in the professor’s lab. Emails contained identical messages with the only variable being the name of the student–chosen to imply a gender and/or ethnicity*.

Milkman et al. found that professors, despite their own gender, race, or ethnic background, were more likely to respond to an email from a white male over an email from a female or a black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese student. However, Chinese professors exhibited less of a bias against Chinese students. Most academic disciplines, including almost all natural sciences, overwhelmingly replied more frequently to white males; the greatest disparity existed in business with 87% of white males receiving a response versus just 62% of female and minority students. The exception was in fine arts where reverse bias presented itself in favor of women and minorities. In addition, the researchers found that academics of private universities and those of higher pay grades were the least responsive — for every $13,000 increase in salary, response rate to women and minorities decreased by 5 percent in comparison to white males.

This study highlights barriers that women and minorities may face as they try to enter into academia, and raises important research questions about why bias might occur at the “pathways” leading to the Academy. Future work will look to answer why the diversity of an institution doesn’t necessarily alleviate discrimination, as well as why an individual’s level of pay can impact levels of discrimination.

*Sample of names used in study: Claire Smith (white female), Brad Anderson (white male), Latoya Smith (black female), Lamar Washington (black male), Gabriella Rodriguez (Hispanic female), Carlos Lopez (Hispanic male), Sonali Desai (Indian female), Raj Singh (Indian male), Ling Wong (Chinese female), Dong Lin (Chinese male)