If You Want an Academic Mentor, Try to Be a White Guy

Different color academic gowns
Apparently these aren’t the only colors that come into play if you want an academic mentor.

A study released on Wednesday contains damning evidence of systemic race and gender discrimination among U.S. faculty who receive messages of interest from prospective graduate students.

Katherine L. Milkman and two colleagues composed a sample of 6,500 professors across 89 disciplines at 250 top schools in the U.S., and sent those professors email messages written by “prospective students”—actually, the researchers—that expressed admiration for the professor’s research, and interest in working with them in a graduate program. The “student” then requested a meeting. Each message was well written, polite, and identical, yet differed in the racial or ethnic category signaled by the name of the sender. Names that suggest a white heritage, like Brad Anderson and Meredith Roberts were used, in addition to those suggesting an African-American heritage like Lamar Washington and LaToya Brown. Other names signaled Indian, Chinese, and Latino/a identity.

The researchers tracked the rate of response from faculty, and found clear trends of racial and gender bias across all disciplines–and which were also present when faculty were women and/or racial minorities themselves. Notably, the findings indicate that bias is greatest among business and education faculty, and lower among the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. Within the business faculty sample, women and racial minorities were ignored more than twice as often as white men, while in the humanities they were ignored only 1.3 times as frequently. Framed in terms of responses to women and racial minority students, humanities, fine arts, human services, and social sciences had the highest rates, and with the exception of human services, they also had the smallest discriminatory gaps between white men and others.

The more money that faculty make, the more likely they are to ignore prospective students’ emails on the basis of race and gender

Looking at intersections of gender and race, the study found the largest discriminatory gaps for Chinese women reaching out to faculty in human services, Indian men contacting business and human services faculty, and black women reaching out to business and education faculty.

Within the social sciences, Chinese men and women, and Indian men experienced the largest discriminatory gaps, followed by Hispanic men, and black men; white women enjoyed a modest amount of privilege in terms of faculty response rate, while Indian and Hispanic women enjoyed quite a bit more. Black women were neither differentially discriminated against, nor privileged.

In addition to observing differential rates across disciplines, the researchers also found greater discrimination at private schools compared with public ones, and found a negative correlation between faculty pay and rates of discrimination. Thus, the more money that faculty make, the more likely they are to ignore prospective students’ emails on the basis of race and gender. The researchers also conducted a companion study to illustrate that this trend within the academy mirrors the negative correlation between income and “tolerance” for women and minorities in the general population.

Most striking about the findings of this study is that they point to systemic race and gender bias at what the researchers call a “pathway” to education, wherein a line of communication that may open up a mentoring and educational relationship with a faculty member is that pathway. While race and gender discrimination in graduate programs and within academic professions are well documented, never before had a study revealed that this problem extends to the outreach, pre-application phase, of one’s potential graduate career.

The implications of these forms of discrimination are clear, and disturbing. While racial diversity of students enrolled in colleges is similar to the total U.S. population, statistics of enrollment by race across different degree levels—from associate to doctorate—reveal that as the level of degree increases, racial diversity decreases. Whites and Asians are thus overrepresented in the population of people who hold a doctoral degree, while blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, and Native Americans are grossly underrepresented. Thus, white males compose the majority of full professors in the United States, per the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 statistics.

Among the social sciences there is greater racial diversity of doctoral recipients than in many other fields; the data from this latest study do suggest that there is less race and gender bias against prospective students within the social sciences.

Nonetheless, that bias does exist.

While women and minorities received responses in 68 percent of the cases involving social science faculty, white men received responses in 75 percent of them. Yet, the findings suggest that expert knowledge of discrimination and inequality among social science faculty might lead to a positive bias for white, Indian, and Hispanic women, who fared better than white men.

The results overall, though, combined with what we know about the lack of diversity in college and university leadership, and the professoriate as a whole, point to a disturbing degree of white male supremacy within the academy. While the academy can’t help but exist within a racist, patriarchal, hetero-normative, and classed social system, it does have a responsibility to recognize and respond, meaningfully, to systemic discrimination within its hallowed halls. Particularly within the social sciences, given the nature of the research, scholarship, and activism that many of us work on, to practice race and gender discrimination is to spit on our own Hippocratic oath. Our students and our peers deserve better.


This article appeared in a different version on About.com, where Nicki Lisa Cole is the Sociology Expert.

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“Particularly within the social sciences, given the nature of the
research, scholarship, and activism that many of us work on, to practice
race and gender discrimination is to spit on our own Hippocratic oath.
Our students and our peers deserve better.” Agreed.


An interesting article with a misleading headline. I’ve seen the table from the research paper – it showed a small measured preference in responses to white men over white women (small, to the point that I could not tell whether it was statistically significant – the table quoted only the total sample size, not the total from each population) and a much larger measured preference in responses to (for instance) women with Spanish names over men with Spanish names (though, again, if this subset of the sample was small, this *might* again fail to be statistically significant). “If you want… Read more »

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