Professors Are More Likely to Mentor You If You're a White Man

Tuesday, May 06, 2014 - 11:37 AM

According to a recent study, professors are much more likely to be willing to meet with students who are white and male than they are with minority and female students.

The Wharton School recently tried an experiment where it sent the exact same email to 6,500 professors at 259 schools across the United States, posing as a student requesting a meeting. The only difference was that some of them were from a student named "Brad Roberts," while others had names like "Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong," and "Mei Chen." 

From the Wharton School's Blog:

"All they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students," notes NPR's Shankar Vedantam. "And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities [were] systematically less likely to get responses from the professors, and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors."

Faculty at private universities, business schools and those in "lucrative" (read: non-humanities) fields were more likely to discriminate than those at public schools or those who work in the humanities. 

Racial bias was most evident against Asian students, which surprised researchers, who assumed the stereotype of "Asians as a model minority group" would be reflected in faculty response. The assumption, as well as the final data, reveal how both Southeast Asians and East Asians collectively remain the silent minority whose mythic "model minority" status conceals their lived discrimination in American culture.

According to The Wharton School, this study suggests that woman and minority students aren't receiving the institutional support that allows white men to graduate at a rate six times that of black and latino men.


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Comments [6]


That's funny, I recently got an email from what appeared to be a functional illiterate asking about a summer internship. OK, that may be a little strong, let's just say it was poorly enough written by non-generation selfie standards and naive enough that I was inclined to throw it in the garbage, as was the Chinese PhD with whom I share lab space.

Then my colleague told me that the applicant sounded "black" on the phone.

I said, "Oh, that's completely different. He may be very smart but he probably had a completely different educational experience than most applicants and probably doesn't have much of a professional network to tap. Bring him in."

Sure enough, I was right. Will he end up making the grade and getting into medical school? Maybe, maybe not, too soon to tell. Is he a mini me? Definitely not, but I'll give him a chance and help him however I can.

For the record, I'm white enough to pass and asian enough to know the difference.

May. 09 2014 01:29 AM
Charles Prescott from New York

From the looks of it, all this proves is that a badly-constructed and scientifically invalid survey will produce the result it was designed to produce.

May. 07 2014 11:58 AM

RH has made fair comment about the methodology of the study. Perhaps the methodology accounts for those concerns. Any valid study should be impervious to such critiques or know how to account for them.

Research methods and standards differ, but Wharton should know well enough to account for this.

May. 07 2014 11:13 AM

In response to rh from near nyc - I'm not able to find a list of all the names used, so I cannot answer your comment about the types of names selected. The table in the document shows 20 names (of the 38 that were supposedly used). The report states the following: "We selected the two names of each race and gender from these surveys with the highest net recognition rates on race (avg.=97%) and gender (avg.=98%) to use in our study." Is it possible that the names that were not used were not used in this report because they were not easily recognizable?

I know of someone with a surname that is of Asian Indian origin, but since it is not a common name like Singh or Patel, it was often not easily recognized as a South Asian name. I happen to be a brown person, and I can tell you (and granted, I hardly constitute a representative sample alone) that on numerous occasions over a time span that reaches back to the 1980s, I have clearly surprised people when, after seeing either my resume or for some reason they spoke to me extensively on the phone prior to meeting me, I met them for the first time. My name evidently appears to be of an "acceptable" origin, and my speech/voice also evidently does not trigger anything that would suggest I am something other than a white female. On one occasion the person who met me was so surprised, he actually could not stop himself from saying "oh; I thought you were white". I've had interviews cut short and temporary assignments abruptly ended. One could argue that there was something in my presentation that offended these people, but I'm fairly sure the deciding factor in these cases was the color of my skin. I have heard similar comments from people whose names do not "conform" with the ideas that people have formed as to what someone is supposed to look like based upon their name.

People regularly assume different names for this very reason. It is why immigrants to the U.S. used to change their names - especially people from Italy, Slavic countries, and people with Jewish-sounding names. Those earlier immigrants often faced discrimination. Women have often chosen not to assume the name of a spouse (here's a suggestions for another study!) if the spouse's surname sounded too "ethnic". It is very possible, even likely, that this type of discrimination still exists, though it may be directed at a different segment of the population.

May. 07 2014 11:08 AM
rh from near nyc

"are white and male"?

No, "appear to be white and male based on their names".

Two different things, especially considering that a pool of 38 people (based on the study report available various locations online) decided what was a white name, a black name, an Asian name, etc. No non-WASP names were on the "white" list - no Italians, no Poles, no Russians. No native African names were on the list, only "African-American" names.

And the email sent was NOT about mentoring, it was asking to meet with a professor about his or her research, as a prospective (not even definite) applicant. That is different than mentoring a current student at your university.

A biased study showing biased results. No response = bias, any response = no bias.

May. 07 2014 10:08 AM

Since profs tend to be middle-aged white males with top marks from elite schools... they're probably most familiar with that world.

Not many excuses to be had here, but this may reflect (a) the assumption of a cultural familiarity by the professors and/ or (b) not wanting to try new things.

"Faculty at private universities, business schools and those in "lucrative" (read: non-humanities) fields were more likely to discriminate than those at public schools or those who work in the humanities."

Not too surprising. State schools tend to be more diverse anyway. I.e., the U Cal campuses, Rutgers, Penn State, Texas, Michigan, etc.

May. 07 2014 09:24 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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