The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deep-seated bias, not lack of confidence, knocks women off the path to success

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Much has been written about the lack of women at the top echelons of the business and academic world. While discrimination explains a big part, the latest view making the rounds is that women aren’t reaching the top because they don’t try hard enough or because they don’t have enough confidence in themselves to succeed.

Last week, however, some academic research came out showing that the bias against women and minorities is much more insidious than we thought, and it’s found in places where we least expect to find it: on the pathway to academia.

These results come from a clever experiment that three female academics conducted. After noting that just 28 percent of full professors are female, the team wondered whether this underrepresentation isn’t due so much to discrimination once women are in academia but, instead, because women are dissuaded from even applying for graduate school in the first place. In other words, women don’t become professors because they’re discouraged from becoming PhD candidates.

To find out, the researchers sent a fictional letter of inquiry from a potential doctoral candidate asking to discuss research opportunities with a professor. The letters were identical in every way except one — the writer’s name.

The fictional names appeared to signal the writer’s gender and race (Black, Caucasian, Chinese, Hispanic, or Indian), with the names having been chosen because people in other situations had accurately guessed the race and gender of the person. For example, people identified Steven Smith as a white male, Juanita Martinez as a Hispanic female, Terrell Jones as a Black male, Sonali Desai as an Indian female, Dong Lin as a Chinese male, and so forth.

The researchers sent letters to 6,548 tenure-track professors in 109 different PhD-granting disciplines at 259 top U.S. universities, as ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s 2010 “Best Colleges” issue. (The authors deleted all information that could have been used to identify the faculty participants within two weeks of completing the study. Because these identifications were hidden, it’s not possible to determine which faculty members showed bias. The reference to institutions by name below is merely illustrative.) The researchers received responses from faculty at all but three institutions.

What they found was jarring.

“We found that faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from White males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions,” Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, Modupe Akinola of Columbia University, and Dolly Chugh of New York University report in their study titled “What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations.”

Could it really be that academics at the top institutions in America — the Harvards, Princetons, and Stanfords — wouldn’t respond to emails from prospective doctoral students if they suspected the inquiries were from non-white, female writers?  I was shocked, especially because when I was “Claire Smith” inquiring about PhD programs, I had no problem meeting with faculty at Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But then one of the professors who conducted the research told me the sad truth. “I’m glad our work was jarring to you — it was jarring to us as well and we’re glad it’s starting a dialogue about these important issues,” Milkman emailed me.

There’s more bad news coming.

Faculty didn’t just ignore the emails from women. When faculty members took the time to respond, relative to what they told men, they were more likely to tell them that they didn’t have time to meet.

The conclusions from this study, which I originally heard in a report by Shankar Vedantam on NPR, are disturbing. They also have far-reaching implications for policy makers as they attempt to narrow the gender gap in both pay and promotion.

For example, providing an equal opportunity to all is a cornerstone of President Obama’s education initiative.

In his State of the Union address, Obama said that America should come together “to give every woman the opportunity she deserves,” and, in conjunction with a speech the president gave at Valencia College in Florida, the White House released a fact sheet touting the benefits of advanced education. For example, women who go on to earn a graduate degree earn about two and a half times as much as a woman with a high school degree.

Even if it didn’t give a tremendous monetary reward, few would question the benefits of education. Yet, this research calls into question whether merely providing the opportunity to get an education is enough.

It also questions whether it’s women’s general lack of self-confidence that explains why just 23 of the chief executive officers of the Fortune 500 companies are women or why only about one of every six of executives in these companies is a woman, as reported by the non-profit group Catalyst.

Women don’t “fail” because they’re not “leaning in,” as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg suggests, or because they lack the confidence to ask for a promotion, as journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman report. They “fail” because they’re not given the chance to succeed.

Women don’t have a “confidence gap,” they have an “opportunity gap.”

As Milkman and her collaborators show, when people in power see that it’s a woman knocking, they metaphorically look through the peephole and refuse to open the door.