Sunday, May 04, 2014

Evidence of Sex and Race Bias In Faculty Response Rates to Email Inquiries From Prospective Graduate Students

Wow, this is interesting, surprising, and alarming: link
The study measured responses, of 6,500 professors across 250 of the U.S.’s top schools, to email messages sent by “students,” impersonated by the researchers. The messages expressed admiration for the professor’s research, and requested a meeting. All messages 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 Washinton and LaToya Brown would be assumed to belong to black students. Other names included those associated with Latino/a, Indian, and Chinese students.
Vedantam additionally reported that the study found that Asian students experienced the most bias, that gender and racial diversity amongst faculty does not reduce discrimination, and that there are big differences between academic departments and types of schools. The researchers found greater discrimination at private schools, and amongst the natural sciences and business schools, and overwhelmingly found that as faculty pay rises, so too does the occurrence of discrimination. Not included in Vedantam’s report are some important details about the findings, and the design of the study that make the results even more disturbing and significant. At business schools, women and minorities were ignored more than twice as frequently as were white males, and even within the humanities, which Vedantam reported had “little discrimination,” women and racial minorities were ignored 1.3 more times than white males.
Normally, I'm extremely skeptical of studies claiming to identify bias in academia. There's a huge number of people who are religiously dedicated to "finding" bias in academia...and many of them routinely see (i.e. "see") it where it doesn't exist. No one is more skeptical than about the biasmongers than me...


This study is so simple, so seemingly straightforward, that it's rather hard to see where it could have gone wrong. Needless to say, some absurdly extravagant claims have been made about what it shows. But ignore those. Imagine that the real effect is, say, 1/2 or 1/3 what they think they found...  That's still astonishing--and unconscionable.

Since I rarely encounter this sort of thing, I suppose I tend to think that things are better than they really are. (And, of course, I see lunatics crying "wolf!" about bias all too often...) But damn, this is shocking.

And lets not forget about the even more baffling and alarming Moss-Racusin study that showed sex bias in biology


Anonymous Anonymous said...

These results are certainly troubling. They're strange too, and in a variety of ways that suggest to me the cause. In particular: 1) The most discriminated-against group in this study were Asians. "Normal" American racism hits black people hardest. 2) Discrimination was higher at private schools (generally more prestigious) and in the more remunerative career tracks. It was also higher where the professors are better paid, which we can take as tracking well with the prestige of the institution and professor. 3) Discrimination was not reduced with the diversity of the faculty.

I think what we're seeing is, for lack of a better term, bootstrap backlash. College kids are constantly being told how important "networking" is by career advisers. They are told to approach cold the leaders of the field they want to succeed in, and to basically buffalo their way into the club. Tenacity and making lots of connections is emphasized. Sincerity sure as hell is not. It's the usual horseshit advice that career people have been peddling forever, and its message gets aimed particularly hard at women, minorities, and foreign students. Combined with technology, this has resulted in kids sending out whole lot of "networking" spam: carefully crafted form emails that express an intense interest in [whatever you do] and deep admiration for [something you did].

I'm not even an academic, but I do work with scientists and my basic information is online. I have gotten several of these. They are generally well written, but are transparently forms, since of course I'm not actually a scientist and don't do the work that is professedly admired. So far, every one of these emails has come from someone with an Asian name. Of course it makes perfect sense that a foreign student, lacking many social connections in the US, will turn to spamming when trying to apply the kind of advice that they are given on how to get ahead. Women and American-born minorities, to the degree that they lack social connections to the people that they are supposed to rely on for success, are proportionally likely to turn to spam. I imagine that, for a well known professor at a prestigious university in a high paying field, there is enough of flow of pseudo-admiration coming in the door that they have developed half conscious rules of thumb for deleting it. Rules might include killing everything with a foreign sounding name, even if your own name is foreign sounding.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Those are really damn interesting points, A.

I've been too busy to genuinely think about this stuff, but I've been fretting/wrestling with it in the back of my head since I saw it. Your hypothesis strikes me as plausible, and worth thinking about.

I don't want to be too dismissive of these findings, but they just don't cohere with what I see in academia...

Of course it's dangerous because I also don't *want* this to be true...

4:08 PM  

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