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Professors Are More Responsive to Prospective Ph.D. Students Who Are White and Male

Report: “What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations”

Authors: Katherine L. Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, Modupe Akinola of Columbia University, and Dolly Chugh of New York University

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association

Summary: White male students are much more likely than female or minority students to hear back from faculty members when they send emails asking to meet to talk about the professors’ work and the students’ prospects for doctoral study, a study has found.

The bias is especially true at private universities and in disciplines where faculty members earn relatively high salaries, like business, engineering, and computer science. Universities with large proportions of female and minority students were just as likely to discriminate against those groups in their responses, the researchers said.

“Our findings offer evidence that white males have a leg up over other students seeking mentoring at a critical early-career juncture in the fields of business, education, human services, engineering and computer science, life sciences, natural/physical sciences and math, social sciences, and marginally in the humanities,” said Katherine L. Milkman, the lead researcher.

The researchers started by identifying 6,300 doctoral programs and about 200,000 faculty members at 259 American universities, randomly selecting one or two faculty members in each program. That yielded 6,548 faculty subjects, for whom they gathered information including gender and race.

Then they drafted emails from supposedly prospective doctoral students asking to meet with the professors “to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research.”

Each email was signed with one of 20 names with an easily identifiable gender and race, like Jamal Washington or Juanita Martinez. The researchers sent out 6,500 emails at the same time and gave professors a week to respond. No answer by week’s end was considered a nonresponse.

In business, the most discriminatory field, women and minority-group members seeking guidance were collectively ignored at 2.2 times the rate of white males, the study found.

Bottom Line: Efforts to increase diversity among the faculty will be stymied if female and minority students aren’t given the same encouragement and support to enter doctoral programs, the researchers note.

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