Yang: From Hurricanes To Academics … I Am Not Prejudiced, But Others Are

From Hurricanes To Academics … I Am Not Prejudiced, But Others Are

Los Alamos

When it comes to prejudice, or discrimination, especially about race and gender, our heads spin and our emotions explode. It’s easier to spot outright discrimination, but the subtle types? It’s also much easier to assign prejudice in others, much less so in ourselves. What we do about it is another, vastly different — and difficult — topic.

Let’s start with some light-hearted quandaries. Q: Do you find a category 4 hurricane Cruella as scary as the same category hurricane named Voldemort? How about a category 3 Voldemort vs. category 4 Cruella? Or, a category 3 Bob (sorry, Bobs, I am sure some of you are quite fierce) vs. category 4 Mary (same apology to Mary). 

An actual study (click here) found that people tend to take female-named hurricanes less seriously than hurricanes with male names. The researchers took out Katrina and Audrey from their statistical analysis because their extreme impact and accompanying extraordinary name recognition would skew the results. Otherwise, they found that there have been more deaths from female-named hurricanes (45 on average) than from male-named ones (23 on average), because people made fewer preparations, or, declined to take evacuation orders as seriously. 

The researchers interpret the reactions to hurricanes with female names not so much as discrimination against women as viewing women to be “warmer and less aggressive than men.”  (Really?! What do they think “discrimination” means?) The researchers also backed up their findings by having people take a paper-and-pencil type of study and found similar reactions to hypothetical hurricane names. The news reports on this story I have read all emphasized — at the beginning of the reports — that this was a serious study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences, not an article from The Onion.  

This study is fun for dinner conversation, not withstanding its lack of association with The Onion.

How about the academic world? Our stereotype for professors is that they are less prone to discrimination. So, three professors from the business schools of NYU, Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), and Columbia did a study (click here) to find out if professors are indeed much less likely to be discriminatory. 

They made up 20 different names that would be “perceived” to be associated with white, black, Hispanics, Indian and Chinese, and further split between male and female. For example, “Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Raj Singh and Chang Huang.” In the study, emails were sent to 6,500 professors, randomly selected from a wide range of disciplines among 259 universities. In the identical message, “written in impeccable English,” the fictitious student requested to meet with the recipient professor to discuss the professor’s PhD program and potential guidance.  

The good news is that 67 percent of the professors responded; this is indeed an impressive response rate for a social study. Furthermore, 59 percent of these professors who responded actually consented to meet with the requesting student. The researchers promptly emailed back to cancel the appointment request. 

Of course, you know there is bad news coming, and it’s pretty bad … not necessarily surprising to some of us.

Guess which group was the most discriminated against? Asian. Which was the most favored? White male … by far. It cuts across all universities and disciplines; however, the faculty members with higher salaries and from private universities were the worse offenders. Now the really bad news, and the least surprising, is that among these offenders, the worst came from business schools. This makes me wonder if the school environment reflects/parallels their counterparts in the larger society? And in anticipation of your question … no, the professors from the hard science fields – those fields that are much more objective – were just as human as the rest.  In other words, prejudice does not recognize disciplines; it resides in all human beings. 

Diversity is not an end, and discrimination is not likely to be eradicated. Many have argued before, as have I, that diversity is process work; we work with it, we don’t work to just achieve it (that’d be like “bean counting”).  These studies, serious or otherwise, poke at our collective sore spot. We should take social sciences messages as seriously as we treat hurricanes. I, for one, feel the need to take a little more dosage of humility in my morning tea.

Wishing you and all of us a relatively calm summer, free of hurricanes and wildfires. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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