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Study Reveals Academic Discrimination Starts Before Grad School

The fact that women and minorities already face more hurdles in academia than their white, male peers is well-documented - A lack of mentors, occasionally overt discrimination and the poor work-life balance, are common occurrences.

Now a study currently under review has suggested that these groups may be at a disadvantage even before the starting whistle sounds. Researchers looked at how likely faculty were to respond to a request to meet with a student to informally discuss potential research opportunities — a scenario picked as a proxy for the many informal events that could boost an academic career and which fall outside institutions’ formal checks and balances. They found — overwhelmingly — that professors of all groups were more likely to respond to white men than women and black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students. Academics at private universities and in subjects that pay more on average were the most unresponsive.

Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania along with two other colleagues decided to test for bias by sending out fake emails to 6,548 professors at 259 institutions. They used student names that had connotations to a particular gender and ethnicity and emailed professors in hopes of arranging a meeting to talk about available research opportunities before applying to a Ph.D. program. Brad Anderson typically sounds like a white male, while Gabriela Rodriguez sounds like a Hispanic female. The results have been published online on the Social Science Research Network and are currently under review.

They found that across 10 different fields, professors are much more likely to respond to a student who sounds like a white male than to a student who sounds like a female or minority. Aside from the name, the words in the email were exactly the same. Fine Arts is the only field that gave a preference to women/minorities.

This is the discriminatory gap discovered when comparing response rate from Caucasian males to women and minorities for scientific fields:

Natural, physical sciences and math: 9%

Life Science: 11%

Engineering and Computer Science: 13%

Health sciences: 14%

This bias is not believed to be a conscious decision, which makes it a little bit trickier to solve.


Private universities, which charge more for tuition, saw the greatest difference. Names that sounded like white males were 29% more likely to receive a response than a female who sounded Asian. Professors of a higher stature are also more likely to have a bias. “For every US$13,000 increase in salary, we see a drop of 5 percentage points in the response rate when compared to Caucasian males,” Milkman told Nature.

Yes, this is just one instance and just one email, but if females and minorities cannot even get a response when trying to participate in undergraduate research, it diminishes their chances of getting the necessary experience to be a strong candidate for a doctoral program and succeed in a chosen field.


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