Are American Professors More Responsive to Requests Made by White Male Students?

Less than one fifth of PhD students in the United States will be able to pursue tenure track academic faculty careers once they graduate from their program. Reduced federal funding for research and dwindling support from the institutions for their tenure-track faculty are some of the major reasons for why there is such an imbalance between the large numbers of PhD graduates and the limited availability of academic positions. Upon completing the program, PhD graduates have to consider non-academic job opportunities such as in the industry, government agencies and non-profit foundations but not every doctoral program is equally well-suited to prepare their graduates for such alternate careers. It is therefore essential for prospective students to carefully assess the doctoral program they want to enroll in and the primary mentor they would work with. The best approach is to proactively contact prospective mentors, meet with them and learn about the research opportunities in their group but also discuss how completing the doctoral program would prepare them for their future careers.

students-in-library

The vast majority of professors will gladly meet a prospective graduate student and discuss research opportunities as well as long-term career options, especially if the student requesting the meeting clarifies the goal of the meeting. However, there are cases when students wait in vain for a response. Is it because their email never reached the professor because it got lost in the internet ether or a spam folder? Was the professor simply too busy to respond? A research study headed by Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the lack of response from the professor may in part be influenced by the perceived race or gender of the student.


Milkman and her colleagues conducted a field experiment in which 6,548 professors at the leading US academic institutions (covering 89 disciplines) were contacted via email to meet with a prospective graduate student. Here is the text of the email that was sent to each professor.

Subject Line: Prospective Doctoral Student (On Campus Next

Monday)

Dear Professor [surname of professor inserted here],

I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming Fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.

I will be on campus next Monday, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.

 Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

[Student’s full name inserted here]

As a professor who frequently receives emails from people who want to work in my laboratory, I feel that the email used in the research study was extremely well-crafted. The student only wants a brief meeting to explore potential opportunities without trying to extract any specific commitment from the professor. The email clearly states the long-term goal – applying to doctoral programs. The tone is also very polite and the student expresses willingness of the prospective student to a to the professor’s schedule. Each email was also personally addressed with the name of the contacted faculty member.

Milkman’s research team then assessed whether the willingness of the professors to respond depended on the gender or ethnicity of the prospective student.  Since this was an experiment, the emails and student names were all fictional but the researchers generated names which most readers would clearly associate with a specific gender and ethnicity.

Here is a list of the names they used:

White male names:  Brad Anderson, Steven Smith

White female names:  Meredith Roberts, Claire Smith

Black male names: Lamar Washington, Terell Jones

Black female names: Keisha Thomas, Latoya Brown

Hispanic male names: Carlos Lopez, Juan Gonzalez

Hispanic female names: Gabriella Rodriguez, Juanita Martinez

Indian male names: Raj Singh, Deepak Patel

Indian female names: Sonali Desai, Indira Shah

Chinese Male names; Chang Huang, Dong Lin

Chinese female names: Mei Chen, Ling Wong

The researchers assessed whether the professors responded (either by agreeing to meet or providing a reason for why they could not meet) at all or whether they simply ignored the email and whether the rate of response depended on the ethnicity/gender of the student.

The overall response rate of the professors ranged from about 60% to 80%, depending on the research discipline as well as the perceived ethnicity and gender of the prospective student. When the emails were signed with names suggesting a white male background of the student, professors were far less likely to ignore the email when compared to those signed with female names or names indicating an ethnic minority background. Professors in the business sciences showed the strongest discrimination in their response rates. They ignored only 18% of emails when it appeared that they had been written by a white male and ignored 38% of the emails if they were signed with names indicating a female gender or ethnic minority background. Professors in the education disciplines ignored 21% of emails with white male names versus 35% with female or minority names. The discrimination gaps in the health sciences (33% vs 43%) and life sciences (32% vs 39%) were smaller but still significant, whereas there was no statistical difference in the humanities professor response rates. Doctoral programs in the fine arts were an interesting exception where emails from apparent white male students were more likely to be ignored (26%) than those of female or minority candidates (only 10%).

The discrimination primarily occurred at the initial response stage. When professors did respond, there was no difference in terms of whether they were able to make time for the student. The researchers also noted that responsiveness discrimination in any discipline was not restricted to one gender or ethnicity. In business doctoral programs, for example, professors were most likely to ignore emails with black female names and Indian male names. Significant discrimination against white female names (when compared to white males names) predicted an increase in discrimination against other ethnic minorities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that having higher representation of female and minority faculty at an institution did not necessarily improve the responsiveness towards requests from potential female or minority students.

This carefully designed study with a large sample size of over 6,500 professors reveals the prevalence of bias against women and ethnic minorities at the top US institutions. This bias may be so entrenched and subconscious that it cannot be remedied by simply increasing the percentage of female or ethnic minority professors in academia. Instead, it is important that professors understand that they may be victims of these biases even if they do not know it. Something as simple as deleting an email from a prospective student because we think that we are too busy to respond may be indicative of an insidious gender or racial bias that we need to understand and confront. Increased awareness and introspection as well targeted measures by institutions are the important first steps to ensure that students receive the guidance and mentorship they need, independent of their gender or ethnic background.

Reference:

Milkman KL, Akinola M, Chugh D. (2015). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678–1712.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily Blog.

ResearchBlogging.org

Milkman KL, Akinola M, & Chugh D (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. The Journal of applied psychology, 100 (6), 1678-712 PMID: 25867167

“She’s strong for a girl”: The Negative Impact of Stereotypes About Women

This is a guest blog post by Ulli Hain (Twitter: @ulli_hain, Email: hain.ulli[at]gmail.com). Ulli is a postdoctoral researcher in the field of autophagy and also a science writer/blogger. Her blog Bench and Beyond reports on interesting scientific studies and explores life as a scientist including issues of gender and science.

We have all heard the stereotypes: women can’t drive, they don’t understand computers, and how many blondes does it take to screw in a light bulb? But those are all in good fun, right? But what if gender stereotypes actually bring about the observed differences between men and women that supposedly underline these stereotypes? A recent study by the psychologist Marina Pavlova at the University of Tübingen tested this idea.
Science and Gender
Boy and Girl at School – Stereotypes about favorites subjects. Via Shutterstock.

 

 

 

While previous studies have supported the idea that negative stereotypes hinder women’s athletic and cognitive performance on a range of tests, those studies all looked at tasks with preexisting stereotypes. For example women score worse on math tests when reminded of old “adages” about women and math.

 

Pavlova and her colleagues instead wanted to see how stereotype impacts an area where no gender difference exists. Could a fabricated stereotype change the way women and men perform on a test?

 

They chose the event arrangement (EA) test, used on certain modern IQ tests to measure nonverbal reasoning skills. Participants arrange cards depicting scenes, such as a man fishing, cooking over a campfire, and preparing for a trip, in a logical order to create a story. Scores are based on the number of correct sequences and amount of time required.

 

117 college students were split into three groups and given different instructions for the test. The first group was given standard instructions on the task. A second group was additionally told: “females usually perform worse on this task” while the third group was told: “males usually perform worse on this task.”

 

Men and women performed equally well when no stereotyped messages were given. When the group was told that women usually perform worse, women’s scores on the test decreased. In contrast, men’s scores actually increased, perhaps reflecting that their confidence was boosted by the perceived weakness of women. helped boost that they thrived on their perceived advantage.

 

The most surprising findings came from the group that was told that men usually do worse on the test. Men’s performance was diminished as expected, but instead of improving women’s scores, they dropped just as much as men.

 

Pavlova and her colleagues also looked at positive messages. Telling participants that women are usually better at the EA test modestly improved women’s scores without affecting men. However, the opposite was not true. Women’s performance was even more hurt by being told that men are better at the test than the more explicit message that women are worse.

What clearly emerges from the study is that women are more susceptible to stereotyping than men. The only time men’s performance declined was when given the explicit negative male message.

 

Why are women more impacted by the stereotypes than men? Although controlling for preexisting stereotypes on this specific test, researchers cannot escape society’s influence on women, which begins at an incredibly early age. Women are constantly under the threat of stereotype. And women who break stereotypes face harsh criticism not faced by men, such as criticism of working mothers who use daycare or the perception of women who speak up as being aggressive or bossy rather than being leaders.

 

The researchers suggest that since women have a history of being typecast, they may misinterpret the message “males are usually worse” to mean that if men have a hard time with the test, women will have an even harder time.

 

More and more studies confirm the existence of subtle forms of bias against women at all levels of society. It is a major finding that these subtle biases can have even greater psychological consequences than more blatant and bygone forms of sexism. Interventions are needed to combat existing stereotypes at an early age.

 

ResearchBlogging.org
Pavlova, M., Weber, S., Simoes, E., & Sokolov, A. (2014). Gender Stereotype Susceptibility PLoS ONE, 9 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114802