A study led by the University of Pennsylvania's Katherine Milkman suggests that university professors discriminate against women and minorities when choosing which students to mentor.

With the help of Modupe Akinola of Columbia University and Dolly Chugh of New York University, Milkman emailed 6,500 professors from 89 disciplines at the top 259 schools in the United States pretending to be students seeking mentors. The content of these emails did not vary -- only the name of the person who sent it.

"The names of the 'students' were randomly assigned to signal gender and race (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese)," they wrote, "but their messages were otherwise identical. Our outcome of interest is whether faculty responded to these inquiries."

When Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, and Mei Chen all sent emails, the team "found that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions."

The team believed that the indirect approach was warranted because "studies of discrimination in which individuals realize they are being observed (e.g., qualitative and laboratory studies) may suffer from social desirability bias and thus fail to measure implicit, unconscious, or unintentional bias, which many have argued could be a more pernicious problem than explicit, conscious, or unintentional bias in the modern era."

When the results were tallied, Milkman and her team discovered "a 25-percentage-point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities."

As NPR's Shankar Vendantam noted, "[a]ll they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students. And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities [were] systematically less likely to get responses from the professors, and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors."

Milkman and her team also learned that faculty at private universities and business schools were were more likely to discriminate than those who worked at public schools or the humanities.

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