Bias, Bias Everywhere

By Sean Carroll | October 8, 2012 2:00 pm

Admitting that scientists demonstrate gender bias shouldn’t make us forget that other kinds of bias exist, or that people other than scientists exhibit them. In a couple of papers (one, two), Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh have investigated how faculty members responded to email requests from prospective students asking for a meeting. The names of the students were randomly shuffled, and chosen to give some implication that the students were male or female, and also whether they were Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.

And the inquiries most likely to receive positive responses were the ones that came from … white males! You should pause a minute to collect yourself after hearing this shocking news. Here are the fractions of students who didn’t even get a response to their emails, and the fractions who were turned down for a meeting. (Biases aside, can you believe that over half of the prospective students who asked for a meeting were turned down?)

The results pretty much speak for themselves, and help to highlight the kinds of invisible biases that are impossible to detect directly but can end up exerting a large influence on the course of a person’s career. As previously noted, the first step to eradicating (or at least lessening) these kinds of distortions is to recognize that they exist. (Although a quick perusal of our comment sections should suffice to convince skeptics that the biases are very real, and oftentimes proudly defended.)

Interestingly, the studies didn’t only look at scientists, but at academics from a broad variety of disciplines, with dramatically different results.

It’s clear that scientists, while biased, are not the worst offenders here; that ignominious distinction belongs to faculty in business, education, and human services. Social scientists and humanities professors weren’t that biased at all, and faculty in the fine arts were significantly reversed-biased! Stereotypes are still stereotypes, even when they work in unusual directions — I maintain that white guys can still have artistic souls, despite the unconscious prejudices lurking within academia.

  • max

    I wonder why there’s so little relative bias for Hispanic Females. Interesting.

  • Razib Khan

    we need to be careful about reducing the bias here into a black box. i’ve been present in the company of self-identified liberal academics in forums where they have griped about the propensity of their asian students to cheat and squeeze them on the margin for a better grade. now, my irritation was that if they had heard “conservatives” say the same things they’d blow a gasket (because conservatives are, of course, racist!). but the reality is that there is a lot of pressure on asian students to succeed from their families, and one can quickly see a consistent pattern of students who are likely to be problems when it comes to not being satisfied with their grades. the perception didn’t come out of a vacuum.

    this doesn’t justify the behavior, but i happen to have had a father who is an asian immigrant who taught organic chemistry, and he did talk about the stress he encountered whenever having to deal with his asian students who were pre-meds and not getting the grade they wanted. i can see him ignoring emails from ‘same ethnic group’ students because of these expectations. ergo, from first link:

    In other words, the temporal discrimination effect persisted even in the case of faculty members’ responses to students of their own race, a result consistent with prior research demonstrating that individuals exhibit discrimination even against members of their own ethnic group

    the results here are for doctoral candidates, but these academics are shaped by their broad array of experiences with undergraduates. i can see it bleeding over. also, there’s the major confound that people with asian names in doctoral programs are much more likely to be non-american (the first paper is for american universities), and there are some cross-cultural tensions here (again, this is know from personal experience; my father was an immigrant phd candidate, and he told me that me doing a phd would be a lot less stressful because i didn’t have to constantly jump the cultural hurdle).

  • shawn

    It’s interesting that the gender bias is flipped for Hispanics and Indians. I have no idea why that would be! It seems to me that the stereotypes for Hispanics and Indians are very different. Although, the numbers are close and it is disappointing that they didn’t provide their uncertainty.

    It seems that fields where the minorities have to present themselves to the public are more heavily biased, which makes sense if you are an unconscious racist (or is the politically correct term unconsciously biased faculty?)… Makes me think of sleeping people in tweed.

    Anyways, thanks for posting these studies they are both fascinating and frightening.

  • Randall

    Racial preferences in the universities and elsewhere help everyone but white men. It should be noted that if there is soft, implicit discrimination against people other than white man in these programs (an unsubstantiated claim), there is definitely hard, open discrimination against white men.

    As to the claims themselves,

    The names of the students were randomly shuffled, and chosen to give some implication that the students were male or female,

    It would be interesting to know what kinds of games they played with the names.

    These kinds of studies are done from time-to-time to reinforce the left-wing shibboleth that there is bias in favor of white males. A group once prepared fictitious resumes with identical candidates save the names. The resumes were sent to employers as part of a test. Some candidates were given white sounding names, others black sounding names — which is they were given stereotypical names associated with the often dysfunctional black urban culture in America. The white candidates received more calls. What a surprise.

    As far as I know, this experiment has never been repeated in reverse where the black candidates were given names like John Alexander and the white ones Billy Joe Jones.

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  • Moshe

    This may be nitpicking, but the study discusses prospective applicants, not prospective students. This has no bearing on the relative rate of response to different groups of students, but it does explain the overall rate of positive response. The number of prospective students, ones who were offered admission and are considering it, is relatively small. The number of prospective applicants can be quite large, meeting or even extensive email communication with each can very quickly overwhelm all your available time.

  • ian

    Would be interesting to see the distribution. Is everyone usually racist/sexist on average, or is it a percentage of bad apples in each field?

  • Tim

    I’m confused – the percentage of Chinese Females who are Ignored + the percentage of Chinese Females who’s meetings are denied is greater than 100% This is also true for a few other groups.

    Maybe it means, not responded to in a reasonable amount of time?

  • Mary

    First step isn’t to recognize it. There was some study awhile back that showed people who were more aware of their biases were more overtly biased, like they went too far in trying to overcome it. Wish I could find it.

  • Indian male

    One thing to take note is that prospective students who are Indian or Chinese have historically been foreign students. Prospective individuals from these groups send lots of email about things like visa issues, legal advice, and other issues that a professor really has no experience or authority in, so the prof just stops opening emails from those individuals. I faced something similar when I was applying to grad schools, so I would include in the title “[not a visa question]” and the reply rate went way up.

  • Ysan

    Interesting information, Indian male. Since I was surprised by the fact that Asian people got the numbers they did. Mostly because of the fact that the media often shows that these are among the most sought after students. I’m not surprised though that arts are down there. It’s a bit cliché but often you find people there who are more “open minded” and more critical of society. A multinational on the other hand is in some cases the opposite with strict hierarchy, sometimes rules for the sake of rules etc.

    They’ve also done similar tests in Sweden but regarding jobs. They called companies and gave different names and tested different accents. Again bias was worst in the more corporate big business areas. Worst there were actually their female recruiters towards female applicants. Psychologists were having fun with that conclusion.
    Otherwise the more foreign your name and accent sounded, the less chance you had to get an interview after that phone call. But I also wondered, isn’t it a bit the same all over the world in some way?

  • JJH

    O.K., call me naive but;

    Since we are talking about the academy, and we have good evidence that this bias exists: Why don’t we just blind the applications?

    Sure, every effort should be made to educate away the bias; but until that endeavor is complete, why not a body that assigns a random number to the application that is kept from knowing who is reviewing the application and vice-verse? I mean that isn’t some kind of radical idea to minimize bias. Or, in this particular arena, would it be considered “radical?”

  • Chris

    @12 JJH
    Why don’t we just blind the applications?
    As someone who has reviewed applications, I do like to do a quick Google search on my final choices to make sure I know what I’m getting into. The application shows the best side, I want to make sure there isn’t a hidden dark side. Nothing like a detailed background check, but someone who has drunk party pictures on their Facebook page would not be a good fit and I can put their application a little lower on the pile.

    @10 Indian male
    From what I read on the article, it seems to suggest the students were asking for a meeting in a few days implying they were in the area of the university. But I can see how a few negative experiences (especially with bureaucracy) can reduce a response rate.

  • Douglas

    When on a hiring committee recently, we were trying to figure out how many women were on our short list and ran into a problem – we had several Chinese and Korean applicants for whom we could not tell the gender because none of us spoke those languages and non of the applicants had included english nickname in their CVs. Given that, how could the professors in this study tell apart asian male and female names successfully enough to discriminate more against the women?

  • Al Cibiades

    so bias is either from antipathy, prior experience, social expectations, or something else. Hmmmmm……

  • Duggan

    No breakdown given for Jewish students. Wonder how those stats would look? I believe 3% of the US population is Jewish, but the corresponding percentage for the Harvard faculty is ever so slightly greater…

  • Haelfix

    Again the horror story is that there are so many different types of unconscious biases, that it seems like an almost impossible task to actually correct.

    The usual gender, skin color, nationality grouping is just a small subset of possible bias permutations. One could very easily start including subregions (southern states vs east coast names) attractiveness, socio economic conditions, accents, etc etc

    My problem with some of the liberals who actually push for policies aimed at reversing discrimination, is that they are essentially writing down an ad hoc algorithm and defining a grouping that happens to be politically convenient. But it really is no less arbitrary than any other choice. Further they are probably reintroducing bias in at some stage, even without being aware of it.

    For instance, we might correct for African American males (who don’t seem to do that badly in the stats above) but forget that the handicaped white male who has a stutter has faced very large stigmas as well. Trying to rate one over the other, seems to me to be a very difficult decision.

  • Brett

    If you’ve ever dated a Chinese woman then you’ll fully understand why they are ignored the most. Though I would say dodged instead of ignored.

  • OMF

    I wonder why there’s so little relative bias for Hispanic Females. Interesting.

    Probably because most of the people doing the choosing were caucasian males.

  • Cosmonut

    I’m wondering if there’s a feedback effect involved here:
    Faculty from departments more dominated by white male students respond preferentially to emails from them and so the trend continues.

    That would certainly explain what goes in in social sciences and fine arts.
    OTOH, not sure this works when we compare physics, math and engineering with business.

  • Curious Wavefunction

    Asians vs Hispanics: Could it be an unconscious “too many Asians” vs “too few Hispanics” attitude, especially in the sciences? I am also thinking it could be something as simple as the name; in general Hispanic names sound more familiar to American professors compared to Asian (especially Indian) names.

  • James Gallagher

    If you think this is bad, you should see Berkeley Campus – clear discrimination in favour of asians

  • Samer

    What about Arabs, West Asians, and some Europeans? Clearly most are considered “Caucasian” when it comes to race if we’re basing this study on skin color alone, but will someone with a Turkish/Persian/Arab name for example be recognized as a “Caucasian” within an e-mail? I think this study would be more accurate in terms of ethnicity rather than race. I should probably take a look at the papers to see if they addressed this.

  • AG

    The findings are not surprising at all. Sensitivity to black helps. The rest just basic instinct.

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  • Mr. Anthony

    There’s a banal explanation: Avoiding language barriers.

    But yah, the Hispanic female thing… sketchy!!!

  • Curious George

    Very curious: How would

    caucasian females
    ignoring emails
    from any females

    influence this “statistics”?

  • J. Rich

    @13 Why would someone who has “drunk party pictures” on facebook be somehow a less qualified candidate for an academic job? Unless the “drunk party pictures” were taken while they were operating an experiment or something, I’m not sure how that has anything to do with their professional qualities.

  • James Gallagher

    I almost believe that Sean could pull up stats about people tripping on sidewalks/pavements and SUGGEST that the sidewalks/pavements are biased in some evil way.

    Society is complex, supposedly academic exercises like this DUMB superficial analysis is not sufficient to explain anything.

  • David Nataf

    This analysis is not dumb, it’s quite useful.

    Whereas a lot of physical scientists believe that only work in math, physics, chemistry, etc is important, sociology is actually an extremely important field. We know that there is discrimination in society, and it’s not a fully-explained phenomenon. That is part of why it is important to have measurements of discrimination.

    This study is quite good, notice that it looks at multiple demographic groups and is thus extremely informative. It teaches us things we don’t already know: that Chinese females and Indian males are the most discriminated against, though I wish they had error bars. That’s the kind of information society needs to know if we are to acquire a superior understanding of discrimination and maybe even a means to tackle it.

  • James Gallagher

    It’s useful to idiots who want to create some stupid political agenda.

    Reasonable people realise that you can’t analyse society in this stupid manner the same way you can’t analyse the weather in such a simple way (and make sensible predictions/conclusions)

    Because it’s much more complicated than these stupid graphs attempt to show.

  • Charon

    @31: James, is it too much to ask you actually think about this? Experiments like this are useful because they isolate effects. Explaining why, say, blacks compose a substantially smaller proportion of the physics faculty at US universities than of the general population is a very difficult question with many factors. What studies like this show is that even controlling for many factors, there is still a racial (and gender) bias. Studies that send out identical CVs for review are great this way. They take away all the arguments like “blacks had inferior access to education K-12 which just propagates on”, etc.

    Every science became a real science the moment it learned to analyze simple systems first, and isolate interesting behavior before attempting more complex systems. Aristotle failed to get anything right in physics because he was trying to explain whole complicated systems at once (like you ask us to do). Galileo, on the other hand, succeeded because he said, “ignoring air resistance and friction and the curvature of the Earth…”

  • Phillip Helbig

    “One thing to take note is that prospective students who are Indian or Chinese have historically been foreign students.”

    Indians are foreign? They’re Native Americans. Oops, wrong Indians. I actually thought it was talking about Indians as in Apache, Navajo, Choctaw etc.

    And before someone accuses me of being politically incorrect, I’m with Chris Eyre who said that “Indians call Indians Indians”. (Full disclosure: I am part Indian.)

  • James Gallagher

    @Charon #32

    France has a policy that doesn’t allow statistics based on racial criteria. There is at least one good reason for this (besides the good intentions not to label people). If you are going to allow publication/study of statistics based on racial criteria then they are potentially misleading if you are BIASED in what types of statistics you choose to (allow to) publish.

    For instance, the above charts might suggest that Indians and Chinese are not well represented at universities, when the opposite is the case. But trying to discuss with someone why asians dominate in Berkeley admissions will soon lead to politically sensitive areas that could end up getting you labelled (by colleagues) in a potentially damaging way.

    There is bias everywhere, particularly in left-wing blogs and publications

  • ERose

    @James –

    I guess I’d note the following – if members of any marginalized group explain the bias they personally face, there’s always more than one person who insists that they are too intellectual to accept “anecdata.” So when someone attempts to find some harder data there is always that one guy who insists the study is just too flawed to be valid because it doesn’t control for every “what-if” he can come up with.
    Sure there is room to build on this work, to refine it and to investigate the conclusion further – that’s the point of peer review. No one’s asking you to accept this study as having every single answer on this topic, and it’s intellectually lazy to engage with any scientific work only in that framework. The process of scientific study is a matter of gaining data one experiment at a time, and testing conclusions with subsequent experiments that approach the issue from a slightly different angle. That’s actually the right way to do it.
    Does this study seem to support the experiences that millions of individuals could and do describe? Yes. That’s only one solid reason the issue merits further study. Another is that millions of individuals have described things like this for a very long time and we’re only now getting around to looking for empirical data to convince people who don’t want to hear them.

  • Robert

    Sean, since you state that “the results pretty much speak for themselves,” could you give us your thoughts on why there seems to be essentially no bias against Hispanic females in this study? This makes me think there’s something seriously wrong with the study.

  • JesseB

    Why is Fine Arts at the bottom of the chart? It’s the third most biased group in the study; it should be third from the top.

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  • Diversity

    In surveys of psychologists a large portion of academics admitted to actively discriminating against conservatives in hiring, review, and tenure decisions:

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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