Professors Are Prejudiced, Too

A recent study, conducted by Katherine Milkman and her colleagues, highlights the barriers that women and students of colors face as they try to succeed in school and build their careers. As detailed in the NYTimes article below, the researchers sent over 6,000 emails to professors at elite institutions, asking for the opportunity to be mentored. Professors (even professors of color) were more likely to respond (and to respond positively) to the emails of students whose names sounded like those of white males. Students of color and women face are more likely to be ignored or discouraged when they reach out to potential mentors in academic settings (and presumably other settings). As we continue to advocate for youth-initiated mentoring and other networking strategies, it will be important to remain cognizant of the many subtle and not-so-subtle barriers that exist. 


In the world of higher education, we professors like to believe that we are free from the racial and gender biases that afflict so many other people in society. But is this self-conception accurate?

To find out, we conducted an experiment. A few years ago, we sent emails to more than 6,500 randomly selected professors from 259 American universities. Each email was from a (fictional) prospective out-of-town student whom the professor did not know, expressing interest in the professor’s Ph.D. program and seeking guidance. These emails were identical and written in impeccable English, varying only in the name of the student sender. The messages came from students with names like Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Raj Singh and Chang Huang, names that earlier research participants consistently perceived as belonging to either a white, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese student. In total, we used 20 different names in 10 different race-gender categories (e.g. white male, Hispanic female).

On a Monday morning, the emails went out — one email per professor — and then we waited to see which professors would write back to which students. We understood, of course, that some professors would naturally be unavailable or uninterested in mentoring. But we also knew that the average treatment of any particular type of student should not differ from that of any other — unless professors were deciding (consciously or not) which students to help on the basis of their race and gender. (This “audit” methodology has long been used to study intentional and unintentional bias in real-world decision-making, as it allows researchers to standardize much about the decision environment.)

What did we discover? First comes the fairly good news, which we reported in a paper in Psychological Science. Despite not knowing the students, 67 percent of the faculty members responded to the emails, and remarkably, 59 percent of the responders even agreed to meet on the proposed date with a student about whom they knew little and who did not even attend their university. (We immediately wrote back to cancel those meetings.)

Now for the bad news. We computed the average response rates for each category of student (e.g., white male, Hispanic female), dividing the number of responses from the professors by the number of emails sent from students in a given race or gender category. Our analyses, which we reported recently in a second paper, revealed that the response rates did indeed depend on students’ race and gender identity.

Professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost every discipline and across all types of universities. We found the most severe bias in disciplines paying higher faculty salaries and at private universities. In a perverse twist of academic fate, our own discipline of business showed the most bias, with 87 percent of white males receiving a response compared with just 62 percent of all females and minorities combined.

Surprisingly, several supposed advantages that some people believe women and minorities enjoy did not materialize in our data. For example: Were Asians favored, given the model minority stereotype they supposedly benefit from in academic contexts? No. In fact, Chinese students were the most discriminated-against group in our sample. Did reaching out to someone of the same gender or race — such as a black student emailing a black professor — reduce bias? No. We saw the same levels of bias in both same-race and same-gender faculty-student pairs that we saw in pairs not sharing a race or gender (the one exception was Chinese students writing to Chinese professors).

Did it help to be in a discipline with a greater representation of women and minorities? Again, no. Faculty members in those more diverse disciplines, like criminal justice, were no less likely to discriminate than those in less diverse disciplines, like statistics. Did it help that these were students in the pre-applicant stage, when some believe underrepresented groups enjoy advantageous access to selective opportunities? Again, no. Even before reaching the formal admissions stage, women and minorities faced bias. In sum, each of the supposed hidden advantages of being a woman or minority proved to be no more than a phantom.

We doubt that we, or many professors in our sample, or many Americans generally, intentionally discriminate against women and minorities. But based on our research, we are a little chastened. Good intentions and meritocratic ideals aside, we have work to do.

Dolly Chugh is an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Katherine L. Milkman is an assistant professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Modupe Akinola is an assistant professor at Columbia Business School.