Recent research suggests that women and non-whites interested in doctoral studies face discrimination at universities around the country. The results are troubling and point to a widespread trend. But are they accurate?

The Study

Researchers Katherine L. Milkman, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh designed a study to see how often university professors respond to inquiries from prospective doctoral students. They wanted to know whether response rates varied depending on student race and gender. Guising as students, the researchers sent thousands of emails to faculty across the U.S. The letters expressed an interest in both applying for doctoral studies and meeting to discuss opportunities.

Each letter was identical, except for the student’s name. That was one of 20 randomly assigned gender/race combinations.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Professor [Surname of Professor], I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime. I will be on campus today/[next Monday], and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit. Thank you in advance for your consideration. Sincerely, [Student’s Full Name]

Here’s the key finding: Professors didn’t respond to non-whites and females as often as their white male counterparts. And the difference is large. Depending on the discipline, white male students got up to 25% more replies. The gap narrows in disciplines tied to less lucrative professions. Fine Arts was an outlier: Among the 10 fields identified, this was the only one where white males received fewer replies (11%).

Reactions

Reactions to the study have been, understandably, strong. Often, responses seem to match preconceptions around the issue. If you believe there’s systemic racism and sexism in American higher education, you may be inclined to seize these results as further proof.

Sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole sees the the data, along with other recent writings about oppression, as evidence that American universities are gripped by systemic “white and male supremacy.”

Tying the results to recent conversations that a lack of confidence holds women back, Joann Weiner concluded that women simply aren’t given opportunities. “When people in power see that it’s a woman knocking, they metaphorically look through the peephole and refuse to open the door,” Weiner wrote.

If you don’t think this kind of discrimination is happening, your urge may be to question the study’s validity.

Comments on Inside Higher Ed’s summary of the research are spirited. Many, including professors, offer various reasons why the results aren’t valid, mainly due to various ways in which the fake student letter seems contrived.

On the whole, the study’s design appears strong, though the methodologies are unconventional. Several aspects are noteworthy:

  1. The subjects didn’t know they were in the study (at first). This is nearly unheard of in modern human-subjects research, but the researchers were able to convince their review board(s) that the unusual design was unavoidable to answer the study’s research questions.
  2. One criticism is that the study doesn’t prove motivation. Each professor received only one email, and the decision to respond or ignore the message might have been driven by myriad factors. If we assume, however, that these factors were equally likely to influence subjects regardless of the “condition” they received, it’s reasonable to conclude that the students’ names were the deciding factor.
  3. We might wonder whether the professors identified the students’ races and genders the same way the researchers did. This is addressed by a separate online survey meant to validate that the names work as proxies for specific genders and races. The survey results revealed high inter-rater reliability — everyone seemed to interpret the genders and races the same way. But this sample comprised only 38 participants, less than 15% of whom held doctorates.
  4. Generalization is a consideration when comparing the study participants to the larger population. Sixty seven percent were full professors, but only about a quarter of all college educators fit that demographic, according to at least some research.
  5. A final point concerns what exactly was manipulated from one condition to the next. The researchers state that only the fictitious students’ names were changed. Since these letters were emailed, though, I wonder whether a a single email address used and, if so, what it was. If not, what were the email addresses? Was the “From” field changed to match the name of the student? If not, what value was placed in this field?
  6. In terms of sample size, the study is impressive: over 6,500 professors were emailed; over 4,300 responded.
  7. Lastly, it’s important to note the study has not, to my knowledge, been peer reviewed, though a draft is available.

A Chance for Reflection

Thinking critically — skeptically, even — about research results is important. But there’s a danger in lingering on these methodological questions.

However well or poorly this particular study was designed, there’s good reason to believe the premise is valid. College professors are disproportionately white and male, especially in higher ranks. Why? That minorities are unable to get their foot in the door is one plausible explanation. If your academic pursuits are met with disinterest, it’s hard to push them forward. Mentors — even someone willing to lend a listening ear for 10 minutes — can play a big role in academic success at the post-graduate level.

As an educator, I want to believe my University (which doesn’t grant doctorates, incidentally) wouldn’t systematically ignore minority students. I certainly want to believe that about myself.

The insidious thing about these results, though, is that they don’t require that the faculty involved were actively working to exclude non-whites and women. There’s no collusion or conspiracy, no easy-to-pinpoint policies driving the discrepancies.

Rather, this is about the instant, seemingly small decisions we make day-to-day. Do I have time to respond to this email? Can I make that appoint? Do I give this student the full attention she or he deserves? These choices, while not driven by malicious intent, can still have a very real impact on underrepresented groups’ opportunities, especially when the experience is multiplied over thousands of schools.

The lesson I draw from this research is the need for self reflection. As a white male professor, there’s a lot for me to chew on. Dismissing the study isn’t productive in that regard. Nor is concluding that I’m simply not a racist or sexist and therefore don’t have anything to worry about. A lack of empathy or an assumption that my experience is universal is problematic enough. Not thinking about power differences is a good way to maintain the status quo, despite the imbalances it reflects.

This research has certainly raised good conversations about an important topic. Hopefully, those will persist past this one effort in terms of both additional formal studies and personal reflection.

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