Study Reveals Discrimination Starts Before Grad School

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Lisa Winter

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clockApr 29 2014, 01:18 UTC
787 Study Reveals Discrimination Starts Before Grad School
Brian Lary

Emailing professors can be frustrating. They are in charge of hundreds of students, in addition to performing research, writing grants, and actually having a life. It isn’t unheard of for emails to slip between the cracks and for a sender to not receive a response. Just because you don’t hear back from them, that’s not because of you, right? Or is it? It is routinely said that women and minorities are underrepresented as working scientists, but the roots of the problem might begin even before graduate school


Though there are people at the average University who monitor diversity at the school, not every aspect can be observed. For example, extracurricular activities like volunteering for scientific research are arranged directly between the student and professor. Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania along with two other colleagues decided to test for bias by sending out fake emails to 6,548 professors at 259 institutions. They used student names that had connotations to a particular gender and ethnicity and emailed professors in hopes of arranging a meeting to talk about available research opportunities before applying to a Ph.D. program. Brad Anderson typically sounds like a white male, while Gabriela Rodriguez sounds like a Hispanic female. The results have been published online on the Social Science Research Network and are currently under review.

They found that across 10 different fields, professors are much more likely to respond to a student who sounds like a white male than to a student who sounds like a female or minority. Aside from the name, the words in the email were exactly the same. Fine Arts is the only field that gave a preference to women/minorities. 

This is the discriminatory gap discovered when comparing response rate from Caucasian males to women and minorities for scientific fields:

Natural, physical sciences and math: 9% 

Life Science: 11%

Engineering and Computer Science: 13%

Health sciences: 14%

This bias is not believed to be a conscious decision, which makes it a little bit trickier to solve. 


Private universities, which charge more for tuition, saw the greatest difference. Names that sounded like white males were 29% more likely to receive a response than a female who sounded Asian. Professors of a higher stature are also more likely to have a bias. “For every US$13,000 increase in salary, we see a drop of 5 percentage points in the response rate when compared to Caucasian males,” Milkman told Nature

Yes, this is just one instance and just one email, but if females and minorities cannot even get a response when trying to participate in undergraduate research, it diminishes their chances of getting the necessary experience to be a strong candidate for a doctoral program and succeed in a chosen field.

Hat tip: Nature

  • gender bias