White Men Hold Privilege at Universities
Questioning universities as liberal bastions for racial and gender equality.
Posted August 4, 2019
We hear a lot these days about how universities and colleges are “liberal bastions,” the territory of the “ultra-left.” Professors are sometimes labeled as “radicals” in pursuit of racial and sexual equality.
As a university professor, I often find these claims to be out of sync with my daily experience. Without a doubt, universities and professors are more left-leaning than the general public, and certainly relative to the military, business, banking, or the legal professions. But like all institutions and organizations, universities like traditions and maintain the status quo in their day-to-day operations, even if outwardly endorsing a mandate to be progressive. Look around, and you’ll see plenty of White professors and especially plenty of White male university administrators.
For decades, researchers have conducted studies wherein they contact employers or landlords with nearly identical requests for jobs or lodging, but systematically vary the social category information of the applicants. For instance, the researchers might send the same (or very similar) application from a White or Black applicant, or from a man versus a woman. Any observed differences in “callbacks” or invitations for interviews can be attributed to assigned social groups, because their applications are otherwise identical.
Such research shows that White people and men benefit from the status quo. For instance, White people are 50 percent more likely than Black people to be contacted by potential employers to set up interviews, etc. (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). A study by Mobasseri (2019) shows Black applicants receiving callbacks at an 11 percent lower rate than White or Hispanic people.
Moreover, such callbacks were significantly lower in areas with higher levels of crime, an effect that further lowered callbacks for Black (but not White or Hispanic) applicants, even among Black applicants without criminal backgrounds. White applicants are given the benefit of the doubt.
In my own research at a prestigious American university, we asked White students to make student admissions choices, telling them that their choices would be passed on to the university admissions office to guide future admissions decisions at the institution (Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2002). White student participants were equally willing to accept strong White or Black applicants (showing no anti-Black bias). They were equally willing to reject weak White or Black applicants (showing no anti-Black bias).
However, among White students who scored higher in anti-Black racism, they expressed bias when applicants presented mixed or ambiguous qualifications (e.g., strong high school grades, but weak college board exam results). Here, White applicants were given the benefit of the doubt and recommended admittance, but Black applicants were not given the benefit of the doubt and were denied. This is what privilege looks like in action.
As anyone who has looked for a job or apartment knows, being granted an interview is the most difficult and crucial aspect of the process; without an interview or callback, there is no opportunity for the job or lodging. When White people get more callbacks, they have greater access to jobs, which gives them greater resources and power. The interview process is thus the ultimate “gateway” to the jobs and prestige and thus a potential context for bias and discrimination. But surely not at universities, right?
An interesting study by Milkman and colleagues (2015) involved contacting over 6,500 professors at almost 260 “top” universities in the U.S. These professors were emailed, with the researchers posing as interested students asking questions about potential Ph.D. supervision, and whether there are opportunities for gaining research experience with the professor. The letters were identical except for whether the email appeared to originate from a male or female student. The researchers also varied the student’s race as White, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.
The results showed clearly that professors were significantly more likely to respond to White male students than any of the other social categories. This was especially true at the more high-paying, prestigious universities. Not only are women and minorities granted less access to Ph.D. opportunities, but this becomes truer where the differential opportunity matters the most. Moreover, female and minority representation at universities did not influence this pattern. In other words, these findings are robust and fairly universal, not just characteristic of universities with more White and/or male professors.
Why do such results matter? Because they speak to the disadvantages that women and minorities face even in the most “liberal” and progressive of institutions. This bias is expressed in day-to-day life as a lack of access for these groups, not a disinterest in education by such groups, or a lack of ability. It points a light on a gateway system that advantages White men over other categories. If White men are given more callbacks for Ph.D. training, this affords them an advantage for earning Ph.D.s and becoming the next generation of professors, perpetuating a system of unequal opportunity.
White men, many of whom feel they are losing power and resources, can relax in the knowledge that their privilege is well entrenched and alive in the “left-wing” institutions that grant advantage and prestige.
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94, 991–1013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/0002828042002561
Hodson, G., Dovidio, J.F., & Gaertner, S.L. (2002). Processes in racial discrimination: Differential weighting of conflicting information. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 460-471. DOI: 10.1177/0146167202287004
Milkman, K.L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 1678–1712. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000022
Mobasseri, S. (2019). Race, place, and crime: How violent crime events affect employment discrimination. American Journal of Sociology, 125, 63–104.