Research Lead: Organizational Psychology

Informal Biases Impede Women and Minorities at “Pathways“ Leading into Academia


Photo: Sakeeb Sabakka

[Social & Organizational]

Although there is ample evidence showing that women and minorities face discrimination in higher levels of academia, a new study suggests that the unequal treatment exists before students even apply to doctoral programs. A working paper published on the Social Science and Research Network by Katherine Milkman et al. investigated if women and minorities experience less support in early, informal processes leading up to the decision to apply to graduate school programs. They found that women and minorities face greater difficulty in getting an email response from professors when inquiring about research opportunities for doctoral programs, and even more so from higher paid professors and those at top universities.

The researchers sent emails to 6,548 tenure-track and tenured professors at 259 top U.S. institutions across 109 academic disciplines. The emails were sent from fictional prospective doctoral students seeking a meeting to discuss research opportunities in the professor’s lab. Emails contained identical messages with the only variable being the name of the student–chosen to imply a gender and/or ethnicity*.

Milkman et al. found that professors, despite their own gender, race, or ethnic background, were more likely to respond to an email from a white male over an email from a female or a black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese student. However, Chinese professors exhibited less of a bias against Chinese students. Most academic disciplines, including almost all natural sciences, overwhelmingly replied more frequently to white males; the greatest disparity existed in business with 87% of white males receiving a response versus just 62% of female and minority students. The exception was in fine arts where reverse bias presented itself in favor of women and minorities. In addition, the researchers found that academics of private universities and those of higher pay grades were the least responsive — for every $13,000 increase in salary, response rate to women and minorities decreased by 5 percent in comparison to white males.

This study highlights barriers that women and minorities may face as they try to enter into academia, and raises important research questions about why bias might occur at the “pathways” leading to the Academy. Future work will look to answer why the diversity of an institution doesn’t necessarily alleviate discrimination, as well as why an individual’s level of pay can impact levels of discrimination.

*Sample of names used in study: Claire Smith (white female), Brad Anderson (white male), Latoya Smith (black female), Lamar Washington (black male), Gabriella Rodriguez (Hispanic female), Carlos Lopez (Hispanic male), Sonali Desai (Indian female), Raj Singh (Indian male), Ling Wong (Chinese female), Dong Lin (Chinese male)


The Too-Much-Talent Effect: How too-much talent may hurt a team’s performance

[Social & Organizational]

What do you get when you put Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh together on one team? A lot of talent. Perhaps, too much. In an article in Psychological Science, Swaab et al. challenge the popular notion that an increase in the number of highly-talented players on a team leads to an increase in a team’s success.

To understand how individual talent affects team performance, Swaab et al. analyzed the rosters, team rankings, and winning percentage for national soccer teams and professional basketball and baseball teams. To index a team’s talent, the researchers used statistics representative of a player’s ability to consistently perform at a high level including elite club team status (FIFA/soccer), estimated wins added* (NBA/basketball), and wins above replacement* (MLB/baseball). Team success was measured using 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup rankings, and winning percentages from NBA and MLB seasons over the past ten years. For both soccer and basketball teams, researchers found a significant correlation between talent and performance. As the number of highly-talented individuals on a team increased so did a team’s performance, but only up to a point, after which a team’s performance declined as talent increased.

Swaab et al. suspect that too-much talent creates competition for status, which leads to less coordination within a team. In a follow-up study of NBA teams, they found that as talent increased so did intrateam coordination (measured by assists, defensive rebounds, and field-goal percentage), but again only up to a point, after which increased talent means decreased coordination. This explanation gained further support as researchers extended their analysis to baseball, a sport which requires less interdependence between team members. For baseball, the authors found talent did not reach the same threshold of “too much” — as talent increased, so did performance.

As any leader knows, a talented team is critical to success, but finding the right balance of talent isn’t always easy. The present research raises intriguing questions about talent and team building strategy on the field, on the court, and in the office.

Swaab, R. I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E. M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A. D. (2014). The Too-Much-Talent Effect Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much or Not Enough. Psychological science, 0956797614537280.

*Estimated Wins Added (EWA) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR): “A player’s overall contribution to his team, as it gives the estimated number of wins a players adds to the team’s season total above what a replacement player would produce” (Swaab et al.).