Researchers Battle Discrimination, Part 1: Higher Education

Bias holds back researchers of different backgrounds when sharing findings.

Posted Feb 06, 2019

Pixabay, No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay, No Attribution Required

When you play Clue, you only get to hold some of the game’s cards in your hands. You need to ask other players about the cards they hold in order to learn enough information to win. The research community is just like this: Everyone studying a particular issue holds some cards of knowledge, and if you don't seek to learn what everyone knows then you’ll never know the full picture.

Diverse voices – stemming from diverse perspectives – need to be welcome for fields to benefit from all research available. However, bias against women and people of color is evident in invitations to contribute in scholarly arenas, nominations for awards, invitations to conferences, forming professional collaborations, and other avenues essential to professional advancement (Holmes, O’Connell, & Dutt, 2015). LGBT+ individuals also face these obstacles when they seek to share research.

Scholarly communities are not free of biases found in the professional arena as a whole, such as:

  • People of color, as well as women and LGBT+ individuals, experience workplace slights, indignities, and denigrating messages on a daily basis that cause harm personally and professionally (Sue, 2010).
  • Traits such as leadership that are praised when seen in men are criticized (e.g., characterized as “bossy”) when seen in women, and women who display professional ambition are perceived in a negative way in our society and are actually penalized for reaching high (Sandberg, 2013).
  • Women of color, in particular, experience the greatest bias yet receive the least support in the workplace (LeanIn & McKinsey, 2017).

Books and journals are full of study findings such as those above. It is important to be aware of such obstacles, and how they manifest themselves in scholarly communicates, so researchers can be conscientious in overcoming them as we seek to share findings.

Higher Education

Higher education faculty shape much of a field’s literature, dialogue, and direction. A study of 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities revealed faculty are significantly likely to discriminate against (such as turn down meeting requests from) women and people of color (Milkman, Akinola, & Chugh, 2015). Other countries hold similar findings. In the United Kingdom, 73% of students and staff taking the Race Equality Survey rated their universities’ performance on race equality as “poor” or “very poor” (Parr, 2014).

Only 30% of public (32% of private) university professors are female, and only 13% of public (12% of private) university professors are not White (Milkman et al., 2015). Women in academia are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than men and are less likely to serve in researcher and professor roles, and faculty members of color are more likely to be excluded from vital information sharing than white faculty members (Reeve & Partridge, 2017).

Higher education board members are almost entirely heterosexual; statistically speaking, it is harder for an LGBT+ individual to serve on a public university’s governing board than it is to get elected to a state legislature (Trammell, 2014). Those possessing leadership roles in higher education are more frequently in positions to decide what research gets shared (such as by serving on boards, as journal editors, as conference officials, as paper reviewers, in media newsbytes, etc.). As much as researchers study diversity, we are not showing enough value for diversity in scholarly leadership positions.

This post covered ways in which research is underserved when traditionally marginalized groups face bias, particularly within the higher education arena. Part 2 covers obstacles such groups face in publishing, as well as areas of progress.


Holmes, M. A., O'Connell, S., & Dutt, K. (2015). Women in the geosciences: Practical, positive practices toward parity. Washington, DC: Wiley.

LeanIn, & McKinsey. (2017). Women in the workplace. Retrieved from

Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015, November). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678-712. doi: 10.1037/apl0000022.

O'Conor, L. (2015, February 11). Where are all the female headteachers? The Guardian. Retrieved from

Parr, C. (2014, April 6). Race discrimination in universities still a problem, reports survey. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

Reeve, M. A., & Partridge, M. (2017, September 6). The use of social media to combat research-isolation. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 110(5), 449-456. doi: 10.1093/aesa/sax051

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Trammell, J. B. (2014, May/June). LGBT challenges in higher education today: 5 core principles for success. Trusteeship Magazine: Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

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