Want A Powerful Mentor At College? Good Luck, If You're A Woman

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girl_studyingPhotographed by Claire Pepper.
Perhaps you've heard? Women make less than men do, especially in industries with higher salary potential. In fact, women walk into their careers with lower salary expectations than men (9% lower, to be precise). But, it gets worse.

According to a disheartening study recently completed by Katherine Milkman, OPIM assistant professor at The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, women and minorities are set up for less success than their male (and white) counterparts before they even enter the workforce.

In Milkman's paper, "What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations," she and her colleagues sent over 6,500 professors at 259 top universities all over the country the same email, which essentially asked for advice and mentorship while applying to a post-grad program. The only thing that changed between each dispatch was the make-believe sender, as the name attached cycled between those that were identifiably Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, and Chinese (as segmented in the study). And, guess what? Emails from people whose names obviously signaled race or female gender were ignored at a much higher rate that those seemingly sent by a white male. Worse still, the discrimination gap got even wider at private universities and in higher-paying disciplines (ahem, business schools).

So, that sucks. It sucks for women, minorities, and really, everyone else, too, since limiting the success of certain segments of a society diminishes the value of the whole. But, there's obviously more to the story, so we checked in with Milkman for more details around her study, her own experience as a grad student and as a business-school professor, and some of the questions that we need to continue to ask ourselves.

What was the impetus for testing this particular hypothesis?
"We wanted to shed light on the importance of fair treatment on pathways to organizations, as previous research has focused primarily on studying discrimination and bias at gateways (e.g., in admissions/hiring/promotion decisions). So much of success depends on the encouragement we receive along pathways rather than fair treatment at gateways that we wanted to explore how interactions occur along informal pathways."

You walked in hypothesizing that discrimination would exist. Were you surprised by the degree of it?
"We were truly shocked by the extremity of the bias, particularly against Asian students. [Ed Note: Chinese female names saw the highest rate of discrimination as compared to white male names, with a 29% gap at private institutions and a 17% gap at public institutions.] We hoped to see that at least some of the groups in our study no longer experienced bias in the academy and were disappointed that bias seems to be so prevalent for all of the minority groups studied, and that it is present in nearly every single discipline."

Any bright spots?
"We did see, at least, that in the Humanities, bias seems to be essentially negligent; so that was the one bit of good news."

What has your personal experience been, with mentorship in your academic life? How do you think your career might have been different without it?
"In the academy, mentorship is truly everything. I have been incredibly lucky to find extraordinary mentors on every step of my journey, and they have been largely white males in my case. I can’t imagine a path to success in this field without a strong mentor — recommendations, feedback, and encouragement are truly prerequisites for advancement as a scholar. That is why my co-authors and I thought studying the support prospective students receive from prospective mentors was so important."

The professors you reached out to spanned both men and women across all of the ethnicities you mentioned, correct? Did women show bias in the same percentages as men?
"Absolutely — the professors in our study were a very diverse set. There were male and female professors in our study, and in fact, we oversampled minority faculty so they would be well-represented in our study pool. Unfortunately, female faculty were just as biased against female students as male faculty. In addition, minority faculty were just as biased against minority students as Caucasian faculty (with the notable exception of Chinese faculty, who exhibited less bias against Chinese students than others)."

What do we need to look at next? What follow-up do you want to do to get a better feel for this nuanced problem?
"There are so many open questions that it’s difficult to know exactly which one is the most critical to tackle next! I think it would be interesting to explore bias against an even more diverse group of students (e.g., students of Middle Eastern descent, students whose names signal they are Jewish, students of Asian heritage with Americanized first names). And, I think it would be interesting to explore whether bias could be reduced by providing even more information about a student’s qualifications (e.g., a detailed CV showing the student was at the top of their class at a top university). It would also be interesting to look at bias at a sample of universities outside of the U.S."