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On Gender Bias in Student Evaluations

Photo Credit: quinn.anya

Photo Credit: quinn.anya

To continue our conversation about anonymous online professor rating systems, here’s a study on the massive sexist bias female academics must contend with. From the article “Female Academics Face Huge Sexist Bias – No Wonder There are So Few of Them” by Laura Bates (founder of The Everyday Sexism Project):

Reviews of male professors are more likely to include the words “brilliant”, “intelligent” or “smart”, and far more likely to contain the word “genius”. Meanwhile, women are more likely to be described as “mean”, “harsh”, “unfair” or “strict”, and a lot more likely to be called “annoying”.

Immediately recognisable societal stereotypes emerge – the words “disorganized” or “unorganized” [sic] come up much more frequently in women’s evaluations, while men are far more likely to be described as “cool” or “funny”, with one of the widest gender splits of all on the word “hilarious”. Women are more commonly called “nice” or “helpful”, but men are more often described as “good”.

Regarding sexualized language about instructors, Bates notices,

There is a silver lining here – while the results certainly reinforce gender stereotypes about intelligence and personality, there is less focus on female professors’ looks than one might anticipate. The search term “hot” reveals completely mixed results, and, though it is used rarely, the word “sexy” is more likely to appear in evaluations of male rather than female teachers. The battle isn’t entirely won, however, as “beautiful” does crop up for female teachers, albeit far more rarely than other descriptors such as “good” or “funny”.

She does acknowledge the limitations of the study, which cannot determine factors such as the sex and age of the reviewers, but this does one up an important and interesting conversation. As Bates assets,

The implications are serious. In the competitive world of academia, student evaluations are often used as a tool in the process of hiring and promotion. That the evaluations may be biased against female professors is particularly problematic in light of existing gender imbalance, particularly at the highest echelons of academia.

Given this preliminary evidence, what can we do to combat these issues of sexism and gender bias in our institutions of higher learning?

3 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on I just have to say… and commented:

    Oh, so true! My most competent, professional, organized professors were women. Because women are at the business of teaching and not at the business of socializing, they are perceived to be hard asses. Not true. Just excellent professors. (I had a couple of excellent male professors, too. But not enough.)

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