A majority of full professors in the United States are white men, and scholars for years have suggested that bias is partly to blame for the lack of women and minorities in academia.
A new study analyzing possible discrimination along the “pathway” into doctoral programs at the nation's top universities — including the University of Iowa and Iowa State University — supports that theory by showing “widespread” discrimination against underrepresented populations.
The study, led by professor Katherine Milkman with the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed what happens before a person decides to apply to a program by sending messages to professors from fictional prospective students interested in discussing research opportunities before applying.
All the emails were the same except for the names of the fictional student prospects, which were chosen based on how easily they signaled gender and race — such as Carlos Lopez or Ling Wong.
Messages were sent to about 6,500 professors in 89 disciplines at 259 institutions — including about 90 UI and ISU professors — and researchers analyzed which names elicited responses and how often.
The study didn't look at whether professors agreed to talk to the students or provide mentoring. It looked only at whether the professors responded.
“We found that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males,” according to the study.
Such bias so early in the application process “is a possible factor in the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the ranks of both doctoral students and professors.”
Of all the emails sent to faculty from prospective students, 67 percent elicited a response. Every underrepresented group saw a lower response rate than white males, according to the research.
For example, the response rate to women and minorities from business professors was 62 percent, compared with 87 percent for white men. The response rate to the underrepresented student prospects from education professors was 65 percent, compared with 86 percent for white men.
Groups that saw the biggest discriminatory gap included Indian men seeking advice from business professors and Chinese women seeking advice from human-services professors, according to the report.
About 45 of the study's emails went to UI professors and 45 went to ISU professors, Milkman said. She declined to release specific results from UI and ISU professors because “the groups of faculty at a given university who received emails from a given demographic group are quite small.”
“And we wouldn't want to infer too much from a small sample,” she told The Gazette.
The combined response rate for the two Iowa schools was 77 percent. Although Milkman said that is 10 percentage points higher than the national average, findings indicate bias still exists.
“One thing I hope we do is raise awareness,” she said. “People have grown apathetic to bias …. They think it's something from back in the '60s and that we are not biased anymore.”
Supporting research on the topic has shown that individuals often don't think they're biased even though their actions prove otherwise. Milkman argues that kind of unintentional bias can have “meaningful career consequences for individuals and meaningful societal consequences as well.”
“Our findings reveal how seemingly small, daily decisions made by faculty about guidance and mentoring can generate bias that disadvantages minorities and females,” according to the research.
Researchers are continuing to look at why such a bias might exist. And, Milkman said, she hoped the findings prompt change at the institutional level. She suggested that universities develop policies and educational tools to combat bias and ensure equal opportunities for everyone.
The study found that simply employing a diverse faculty doesn't cut down necessarily on discrimination.
“The implications are big,” Milkman said. “What this calls for is more attention to a serious issue that is keeping our academies from reaching their full potential.
“We hope this is a wake-up call.”
Georgina Dodge, UI chief diversity officer and associate vice president, said the UI offers training and educational programs on bias and discrimination on campus, and she thinks the university does well in being ahead of the curve on the topic.
In the last year, for example, the UI offered training on “implicit bias” to faculty and staff that looked at how bias affects them and practices to combat it. Participants were surveyed at the end of the training, and everyone said knowledge of unconscious bias and its potential influence on the workplace had increased.
“People are very open-minded and willing to absorb that new information,” she said. “They want to be a part of a welcoming community.”
Still, Dodge said, she was not surprised by the study's findings of widespread bias, and she hoped the report moves institutions to action.
“This is a wake-up call to people in higher education that they need to not just talk the talk but walk the walk,” she said. “And it's a wake-up call to us in society. We tend to look at places like higher education as factions of liberalism. And I would like us to question that.”
Eliminating bias and encouraging broad access to higher education are important for the nation's economic success, Dodge said.
“This is the future of the country,” she said. “If there are pockets of total decay, that pulls our infrastructure down. This is not just about the groups involved. This impacts everyone.”