A survey of more than 6,000 faculty members across a range of disciplines finds that when prospective graduate students reach out for guidance, white males are the most likely to get attention.

The survey, “What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations,” also found that public university faculty members are much more likely than their private counterparts to respond equally to students of diverse backgrounds. 

From Inside Higher Ed:

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 (see text at bottom of article).

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 Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Modupe Akinola of the business school of Columbia University, and Dolly Chugh of the business school of New York University.)

Read more at Inside Higher Ed

The study found the biggest form of discrimination to be executed against those with names that suggest they are Asian women.

There was a 29 percentage point gap at private colleges and universities in the response rate to white men and Chinese women. The next largest gap was between Indian male names, followed by a 19 percentage point gap for those with an Indian female name.

Researchers say that much of the discussion of bias in higher education focuses on specific policies such as whether admissions criteria are fair.  But “moments when students seek potential mentors and express interest in working with someone matter too.”


Are the findings of the study surprising?

What policies should be put in place to address this type of subtle discrimination?

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