Study: University Professors Respond Best to White Males

A study on discrimination against minorities and women before entering the workplace found that university professors were more responsive to letters of appeal from white males than any other ethnic or gender group.

One email was sent to each of the 6,500 chosen professors in 89 different disciplines at the top 259 schools from a fictitious student from out of town. The student was requesting a meeting with the professor; information about the professor's doctoral program; and an inquiry as to whether the professor would be available to provide guidance to the student.

The email was written in perfect English and the only variation between all the letters was the name of the fictionalized student. Each name was chosen to represent a certain minority group and both male and female names were used.

While plugging in the obvious fact that some of the professors to whom they sent emails would be unavailable or unresponsive, the study's designers were sure that the "average" response would be consistent, regardless of race or gender. The only reason they would not be consistent would be because:

… professors were deciding (consciously or not) which students to help on the basis of their race and gender.

The results of the paper, published in the professional journal Psychological Science, showed favorable overall results. An impressive 67%of the professors responded and 59% agreed to meet with the student.

 In a second paper, they wrote that their analysis of the response rates actually did correlate with the students perceived race and gender. The bias appeared in three ways. The professors were:

  • more responsive to white males than any of the other gender and ethnicity across all disciplines and types of universities
  • severely biased if they were part of a highly paid faculty or were professors at private universities
  • more apparently biased if they were in the business discipline than in any other subject area

Some people believe that women and minorities have certain advantages based on their minority status. Not true, according to this experiment. For example, many think that Asians get an unfair advantage because of the stereotypical label that all Asians are academic achievers. But, in this study, the fictional Chinese students were discriminated against most of all. In only one case was this not true. When Chinese students wrote to Chinese professors, there was a greater response. The fictitious student who was:

  • reaching out to the same race
  • reaching out to the same gender
  • reaching out to a discipline with a greater representation of the same gender or minority
  • playing the minority "affirmative action" card
  • reaching out to a discipline that has a greater number of whatever the race or gender of the applicant

all contained elements of bias. In fact, all the hidden advantages that many think are in place, seemed not to be.

The authors of these papers do not think that professors, or Americans, in general, are intentional in their discrimination against women and minorities. They do say that we all have work to do in this area.

The authors of this study included Katherine Milkman, an Assistant Professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, in the Operations and Information Management Department. The focuses of her studies include the way that people "systematically deviate from making optimal choices". 

Modupe Akinolais a Harvard Business School graduate. After using her entrepreneurial talents to open a non-profit in Ghana for children's literacy and care, she returned to Harvard and received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior. She is now an Assistant Professor at Columbia Business School.

Dolly Chughis an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the New York University Stern School of Business. She is interested in "the quality of decision-making with ethical import". She is also an active advocate in the education reform movement and contributes to leadership training for the KIPP Charter School Network.

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