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NPR: Evidence professors discriminate in deciding who to mentor

College CampusI have been heavily involved in promoting mentoring, so this one hit home.

NPR reports researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania sent identical letters from students to 6500 college professors.

The letters complimented the professors on their work and requested to meet.

The only difference in the letters were the names of the students.

They were a diverse group of names associated with different ethnicity and genders.

The researchers found women and minorities were less likely to get responses and less likely to get positive responses.

“We see tremendous bias against Asian students and that’s not something we expected,” said Katherine Milkman, one of the researchers.  “So a lot of people think of Asians as a model minority group. We expect them to be treated quite well in academia, and at least in the study and in this context we see more discrimination against Indian and Chinese students that against other groups.”

You can read a lot more findings and reactions to this study including which academic departments were most likely to discriminate on NPR.

This is another reasons why women and minorities should get involved in mentoring students and other trying to launch their careers. Many women and minorities didn’t have mentors when they were young. Now it seems, many still have trouble finding mentors. There’s a lot of talk about the bamboo ceiling that hold many Asian Americans down.

Mentoring is a way to help many break through that barrier.

What has been your mentoring experience. Please share it below.





  1. RE: Evidence university professors discriminate against Asians when choosing who to mentor: What struck me the most was the observation that “attracting diverse faculty” does not necessarily mean that women and minority students will be treated better. In my experience, this is true of “fields that [are] very lucrative” such as engineering and the natural sciences. College professors in these fields spend the bulk of their time either teaching or doing research (writing grants/proposals, managing their lab/group, etc). Furthermore, college professors budget their time with the students whom they advise, especially in schools that have a high student-to-faculty ratio. I can attest to this, as I remember when I was still a college undergrad, my faculty adviser did not seem to reach out to me until near the end of my junior year. Since fields like engineering are considered “very lucrative” in the sense that most students are expected to transition from school to industry after graduation, I got the sense that engineering professors felt that the onus was on the students to make the effort to make good on the expected “benefits”.

    Of course, this does not get to the point of the reported racial and gender biases, especially apparent among “Indian and Chinese students”, when it comes to student mentoring in colleges. Aside from the possible structural factors that I touched upon above, I think that stereotyping along racial and gender lines is something else to consider. The article mentions that in business schools and business programs, “wealth can make it harder for people to notice inequality” because “it’s harder to notice the perspectives of people [who] don’t have very much”. I would argue that stereotypes can have the same effect; and generally, folks within the “wealth class” overlap with the “educated class”.

    In engineering and the natural sciences, the stereotype is that engineers and scientists are bad communicators. To make my point, I assume that college professors evaluate students honestly and fairly to the best of their ability. If there exists racial and gender stereotypes that goes something like this: “Most Asians are either foreign-born or 2nd generation. Therefore, Asians are less likely to communicate (English) well,” or “Women excel in soft, qualitative sciences. Therefore, women lack the initiative and creativity to succeed in hard, quantitative sciences,” then it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that preconceived racial and gender notions reinforced by confirmation bias play a role in the discrimination against women and minorities when it comes to college professors trying to figure out which students deserve mentoring and which students do not.

    Whatever the reasons are for the continued racial and gender discrimination in higher education, even as colleges have been pushing hard “to diversify and attract diverse pools of students,” more research into this would definitely be appreciated. My guess is that structural factors coupled with psychological biases are at the root. Moreover, the study seems to tell us what many in Asian America already know: that we have to work harder than other folks in order to grab people’s attention. Finally, I think that the personal strategy to gather from all this is to plan early, plan ahead, and voice out.


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