Tips for Finding a Great Mentor: Be White and Be Male

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What Women Really Think
April 23 2014 3:17 PM

Tips for Finding a Great Mentor: Be White and Be Male

mentors
I see myself in you!

Photo by Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s new book, The Confidence Code, the latest scourge for gender equality is women’s crippling lack of self-assurance. Pushback to the book has centered on the idea that female insecurity is a perceptive response to a society that undervalues half its members. Start paying us comparably, punishing sexual harassment, and including our voices in your conferences, and maybe the sparkle will return to our eye.

Now those keeping track of the forces that shape women’s meekness have another data point for their files. In a study released Tuesday, researchers found that professors are less likely to mentor female and minority students. The Wharton School’s Katherine Milkman, together with Modupe Akinola of Columbia Business School and Dolly Chugh of NYU, sent mock emails to more than 6,500 professors at 259 top U.S. universities. The messages were crafted to look like prospective doctoral students had written them—they expressed interest in the professors’ work and asked for a ten-minute meeting to discuss research opportunities. Pretty standard, except for the names at the bottom of the emails: Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen. Milkman and team were trying to suss out whether signatures that conjured up one particular background or gender would do a better job of coaxing out teachers’ inner mentor. And, yes, one combo did inspire special generosity in academics: white plus guy.

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Professors “ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from White males,” the researchers write, especially “in private schools and higher-paying disciplines.” The disparities were largest in the natural sciences and business, where, as Milkman told NPR, "we see a 25-percentage-point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities." She added that she could only speculate as to why more lucrative fields were more likely to resist newcomers to the establishment, but perhaps it had to do with money’s coarsening effects on empathy. (“If you’re very wealthy,” noted NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantam in the same segment, “it’s harder to notice the perspectives of people who don’t have very much.”)

While the gender gap in the hard sciences and in business is noteworthy, we can’t attribute all the favoritism these researchers uncovered to the fact that many of the spammed faculty were themselves white men. The study also examined whether diversity in the halls of academic influence made a difference—and found, shockingly, that it did not. Not only did female and minority professors also respond most effusively to white guys, but “there’s absolutely no benefit seen when women reach out to female faculty, nor do we see benefits from black students reaching out to black faculty or Hispanic students reaching out to Hispanic faculty,” Milkman says. The dynamic at play is more complicated than in-group preference; it could reflect professors’ unconscious desires to “back a winner” or just speak to how society continues to turn up the volume on white men’s requests.

So how to get minority voices to register as more than ambient noise? Bringing more women, blacks, and Hispanics into business and the natural sciences would certainly change perceptions about what a “winner” looks like. But that takes time as well as awareness, and meanwhile the informal modes of discrimination pinpointed here seem tough to overcome. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman would probably advise hopeful students to keep pounding the pavement, if only because studies show that fruitful mentorship “is vital to career success and satisfaction.” Yet maybe it’s also comforting to think that the best faculty-student relationships don’t usually blossom out of vague emails from the sky. Milkman’s messages offered few details about why the “writers” wanted to work with the professors. But in the real world, a prospective mentee’s demonstrated interest in the research, her connections to the field, and the specific qualifications she brings to the table all probably (I hope!) outweigh whatever bias attaches to her gender or ethnicity. Still, starry-eyed students might want to start signing their introductory emails “Brad Anderson” just in case.

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

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