Ethnic and gender bias found in college mentorship requests

Student success in academics should not be based on race or gender. Yet in a recent study, researchers found ethnic and gender discrimination in professors’ responses to requests from doctoral students for counseling and mentorship. In scholarly articles on recent study findings, sociology researchers are offering ways to counter racial and gender bias.

A recent study shows the existence of ethnic and gender bias and can affect student success. (Credit: John Dawson)

A recent study shows the existence of ethnic and gender bias and can affect student success. (Credit: John Dawson)

Study: professors asked for mentorship

The study was conducted by Katherine Milkman, assistant professor of operations and information management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, with collaborators Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Dolly Chugh of New York University. Milkman was inspired to conduct the study due to her own difficulties applying as one of a very few female doctoral students in the computer science and economics departments at Harvard University.

For the study, researchers sent out 6,500 emails to 260 professors at American universities in 90 disciplines. The emails, which asked for a meeting with the professor to discuss a doctoral program, were identical except for the student’s name. Various names reflected gender and racial identity: Brad Anderson, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Mei Chen.

Study results show bias

White males received the most responses from the professors, while women and minorities were less likely to get responses. Large disparities were found between schools and between academic departments:

  • Private schools were more likely to discriminate than public schools.
  • Business and science departments discriminated more than humanities and social sciences.
  • The more highly paid the professor, the more bias.

In an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” with social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, Milkman explained: “The very worst in terms of bias is business academia. So in business academia, we see a 25 percentage point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males vs. women and minorities,” in “Evidence Of Racial, Gender Biases Found In Faculty Mentoring,” posted April 22, 2014. Milkman added that private schools and business majors generally connote wealth, suggesting that wealth can make it harder for people to notice inequality.

Major findings from the study

1)  Timing is everything. When the email asked for a response that same day, very little discrimination was found among the professors. The reason was that “when you’re focused on the now, you’re really focused on the how and not thinking about the why,” explained Milkman in “E-mails Ignored, Meetings Denied: Bias at the Search State Limits Diversity,” posted September 26, 2012, on the Knowledge@Wharton page of the Wharton School of Business. Bias crept in when the professors were given a week to respond. Discrimination is “based on your evaluation of whether the meeting is worthwhile,” said Milkman.

2)  Ambiguity can be used against you. Discrimination stems from the unknown, and people make biased assumptions about whether you will be a good candidate or not. To counter this, attach your resume or CV, say whom you’ve worked for and include all pertinent experience, internships and research.

3)  “Minority students got a better response from minorities of their race… so one prescription would be that if someone in that department shares your identity, they are more likely to be an advocate or willing to help you and less likely to discriminate,” noted Milkman in the Wharton post.

How to counter racial and gender bias

To help reduce your chances of bias or discrimination, Milkman recommended that minorities and women play up their references. “You leave as little question to your abilities as possible,” she said in the article, “Bias Can Sneak into Mentoring, Promotion,” by Anita Bruzzese in Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, posted December 2, 2012.

Milkman also suggested trying to close the distance between an applicant and the decision-makers as much as possible. Bruzzese summed up: “Use social networking tools such as Facebook or Twitter to become more connected to hiring managers or key personnel. Or bring up the fact that you live in the same neighborhood or city as a way to close the distance with a key person.”

Educating the gatekeepers

Milkman also suggested educating the gatekeepers—professors, admissions directors, employers, recruiters and hiring managers—about prejudices. For professors, this means explaining to them that they should have the same rules in place to deal with all requests for mentorship the same way. This eliminates instances of hidden bias when entering their decision-making process and reduces decisions based on the professor’s whim at that moment.

For more information, visit Questia’s Education and Economics and Business library pages.

Do you think professors have shown bias against you because of your gender or ethnic background? Tell us in the comments.

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