A paper published in the scientific journal PNAS (details here) shows that students do not trust minority teachers. In the civilized world we reject discrimination against minorities and we have long known that women can be university professors/doctors/whatever at least as well as the men who now dominate the world in many professions where prestige matters. However, unfortunately, discrimination still exists and spreads in society from top to bottom, from the youngest age to the oldest. We grow up with these prejudices and then have a hard time realizing that they control us. Prejudice not only about gender equality in any job, but about minorities of any kind in general.

Radu Silagi-DumitrescuPhoto: Personal archive

I have the honor of working at the faculty, where the three main leadership positions – dean, deputy deans – have been successfully held by female colleagues for many years. Where Hungarian sounds just as “homely” as Romanian. Few places are more free from discrimination than this. But I’m also lucky to have slightly darker skin, to have a Hungarian-sounding Romanian name, and to have traveled a lot in countries richer than mine. It allowed me to learn what it’s like for a teacher to make a “gypsy” joke on a work mailing list addressed to you or your loved ones. How to hear it from some “with Magyars in the village”… when you are a bit like that, a Hungarian. How come some people throw beer in your face on the street out of the blue because you don’t look white and Christian enough. It’s very little compared to what others must be feeling, but it’s enough to make you realize how big the gap is between how you as the majority perceive that “it’s already equality, more nonsense”… and what it’s like to be different side of prejudice.

However, the PNAS study has a big surprise for many of us: students generally distrust minority college professors, regardless of gender. If the majority of teachers are men, students give lower marks on average to women who teach in that department. If the majority of teachers are women, then male teachers receive low marks from students. This is not just some deep-seated discrimination against women, but a general deep-seated distrust of the minority in the group, and not even from one’s own group, but from the group that is looked at from the outside (in the current case, the students look at the group of teachers).

The authors of the PNAS paper began by analyzing assessments made by students in real-world situations. But then they went further and created fake faculty websites, asking students to say which professors on the site they found trustworthy. Based on the image alone – without any direct interaction with these fictitious teachers – the students showed the same discrimination: if the site was dominated by male teachers, they were treated with more trust than female teachers; while female teachers predominated on the site, male teachers were mistrusted by students.

So the discrimination demonstrated in the PNAS paper appears to be very basic and simple: it seems that, in general, when we look at a group of people, our instinct is to view minority members of that group with greater distrust. We don’t trust women in a male-dominated group, we don’t trust men in a female-dominated group. From this we can learn something about how and to what extent we can prevent discrimination. Regarding gender equality, the results in PNAS suggest that introducing equal gender quotas is the fastest way to eliminate discrimination: otherwise, if we wait “until things take care of themselves”, the situation may improve very slowly in some areas of society. As for the treatment of minorities, things will be more complicated: even if minorities are represented in any office/job/function fairly according to their share in society, they will still be minorities and therefore still subject to our instinct to discriminate. the entire article and commentary at contributors.ro