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What's in a Name?

If would-be doctoral students Brad Anderson, Keisha Thomas, Raj Singh, Mei Chen, and Juanita Martinez all wrote to a professor at a prominent university asking for a brief appointment to discuss potential research opportunities with the professor, would they all get the same response? According to a study of 6500 professors in 89 disciplines at 259 institutions, the answer is no. The professors all received the same letter requesting such an appointment, apparently from a prospective applicant but actually from the research team of Katherine L. Milkman, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's business school; Modupe Akinola, assistant professor at Columbia University's business school; and Dolly Chugh, assistant professor at New York University's business school. The researchers signed the letters with a variety of names—male and female—that apparently signaled that the doctoral students were white, African American, Hispanic, or Asian.

Brad Anderson, likely a white male, would get more answers than Mei Chen, apparently a Chinese woman, the results showed. Despite a reputation for being less hospitable to women than to men, science professors were not the worst discriminators. That dubious distinction went to business professors, who were 25 percentage points less likely to respond to a woman or minority group member than to an apparent white man. Engineering and computer science professors were 13 percentage points less likely, life scientists were 11 percentage points less likely, and physical scientists were 9 percentage points less likely to respond, the research showed. Humanities professors responded to minorities and women only 5 percentage points less often than to apparently white correspondents. In an interesting reversal, fine arts professors responded to apparent women and minorities 11 percentage points more often than to apparent white men.

Despite a reputation for being less hospitable to women than to men, science professors were not the worst discriminators.

Over all, names that appeared to belong to white males prompted the best response, and apparent Asian names prompted the worst. Response rates were less equal at private institutions than they were at public institutions. "There was a 29 percentage point gap at private colleges and universities in the response rate to white men and Chinese women," Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik reports. "The next largest gap was a 21 percentage point gap in responses to those with an Indian male name, followed by a 19 percentage point gap for those with an Indian female name."

The results "worry me immensely," said Milkman, quoted by Jaschik. She also expressed great surprise at the discrimination against apparent Asians, "a serious issue that was previously not on anyone's radar."

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