How Race and Gender Biases Impact Students in Higher Ed

Study by Milkman, Akinola and Chugh Shows Biases in Favor of White Men

Gate at Harvard padlocked shut symbolizes the race and gender bias that students experience in higher education. A study has found that race and gender biases impact professors' willingness to mentor students.
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Many believe that once a student has made it to college or university, the barriers of sexism and racism that may have stood in the way of their education have been overcome. But for decades anecdotal evidence from women and people of color have suggested that institutions of higher learning are not free from these troubling social problems. In 2014, researchers conclusively documented these problems in a study of how perceptions of race and gender among faculty impact who they choose to mentor, showing that women and racial minorities were far less likely than white men to receive responses from university professors after emailing to express interest in working with them as graduate students.

Studying Race and Gender Bias among University Faculty

The study, conducted by professors Katherine L. Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh, and published on the Social Science Research Network, measured email responses of 6,500 professors across 250 of the U.S.’s top universities to messages sent by “students” impersonated by the researchers. The messages expressed admiration for the professor’s research, and requested a meeting.

All messages sent by the researchers had the same content and were well written, but varied in that they were sent from a variety of “people” with names typically associated with specific racial categories. For example, names like Brad Anderson and Meredith Roberts would typically be assumed to belong to white people, whereas names like Lamar Washington and LaToya Brown would be assumed to belong to black students. Other names included those associated with Latino/a, Indian, and Chinese students.

Faculty Are Biased in Favor of White Men

Milkman and her team found that Asian students experienced the most bias, that gender and racial diversity among faculty does not reduce the presence of discrimination, and that there are big differences in the commonality of bias between academic departments and types of schools.

The highest rates of discrimination against women and people of color were found to occur at private schools and among the natural sciences and business schools. The study also found that the frequency of racial and gender discrimination increases along with average faculty salary.

At business schools, women and racial minorities were ignored by professors more than twice as frequently as were white males. Within the humanities they were ignored 1.3 more times, so at a lower rate, but one that is still quite significant and troubling. Research findings like these reveal that discrimination exists even within the academic elite, who are typically thought to be more liberal and progressive than the general population.

How Race and Gender Bias Impacts Students

That the emails were thought by the professors studied to be from prospective students interested in working with the professor in a graduate program means that women and racial minorities are discriminated against before they even begin the application process to graduate school. This extends existing research that has found this kind of discrimination within graduate programs to the “pathway” level of the student experience, disturbingly present in all academic disciplines.

Discrimination at this stage of a student's pursuit of postgraduate education can have a discouraging effect, and can even harm that student's chances of gaining admission and funding for postgraduate work.

These findings also build on previous research that has found gender bias within STEM fields to include racial bias too, thus debunking the common assumption of Asian privilege in higher education and STEM fields.

Bias in Higher Education is Part of Systemic Racism

Now, some might find it puzzling that even women and racial minorities exhibit bias against prospective students on these bases. While at first glance it might seem strange, sociology helps make sense of this phenomenon. Joe Feagin’s theory of systemic racism illuminates how racism pervades the entire social system, and manifests at the level of policy, law, institutions like media and education, in interactions between people, and individually in the beliefs and assumptions of people.

Feagin goes so far as to call the U.S. a “total racist society.”

What this means, then, is that all people born in the U.S. grow up in a racist society and are socialized by racist institutions, and by family members, teachers, peers, members of law enforcement, and even clergy, who either consciously or unconsciously instill racist beliefs into the minds of Americans. Leading contemporary sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, a Black feminist scholar, has revealed in her research and theoretical work that even people of color are socialized to maintain racist beliefs, which she refers to as the internalization of the oppressor.

In the context of the study by Milkman and her colleagues, existing social theory of race and gender would suggest that even well-intentioned professors who might not otherwise be seen as racist or gender-biased, who do not act in overtly discriminatory ways, have internalized beliefs that women and students of color are perhaps not as well prepared for graduate school as their white male counterparts, or that they may not make reliable or adequate research assistants. In fact, this phenomenon is documented in the book Presumed Incompetent, a compilation of research and essays from women and people of color who work in academia.

Social Implications of Bias in Higher Education

Discrimination at the point of entry into graduate programs and discrimination once admitted have striking implications. While the racial makeup of students enrolled in colleges in 2011 fairly closely mirrored the racial makeup of the total U.S. population, statistics released by the Chronicle of Higher Education show that as the level of degree increases, from Associate, to Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate, the percentage of degrees held by racial minorities, with the exception of Asians, drops considerably. Consequently, whites and Asians are overrepresented as holders of doctorate degrees, while Blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, and Native Americans are vastly underrepresented.

In turn, this means that people of color are far less present among university faculty, a profession dominated by white people (especially men). And so the cycle of bias and discrimination continues.

Taken with the above information, the findings from Milkman's study point to a systemic crisis of white and male supremacy in American higher education today. Academia can't help but exist within a racist and patriarchal social system, but it has a responsibility to recognize this context, and to proactively combat these forms of discrimination in every way it can.