Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rate My Gender: On Student Course Evaluations

Wanna know one of the things that worries me right now, as I draw ever closer to the end of my PhD? This.

You probably saw the article circulating a couple months ago, oh feminists. Slate recaps a recent study of an online course in a large public university in North Carolina that found that women are evaluated more harshly than men in student evaluations. 43 students were divided into four online discussion groups led by two professors, a male and a female--but the woman led one of her two groups to believe she was male, and the man led one of his two groups to believe he was female. The students never saw the face of their instructors, so had no reason not to believe them, and the instructors endeavoured to keep all variables as consistent as possible, submitting feedback concurrently and providing similar biographical information.

And guess whose ratings, ultimately, were the highest? Why, the perceived male, of course, irrespective of the instructor's actual gender. Even in such non-personality-related issues as promptness of feedback. Their official report, "What's in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching" (Innovative Higher Education (Dec. 2014)), details how, for example, the perceived male received 4.35 out of 5 for promptness, but "when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness. In each case the same instructor, grading under two different identities, was given lower ratings half the time with the only difference being the perceived gender of the instructor" (10). Same went for the category of fairness, even though both instructors used the same grading rubrics and there was no major difference in grades across the groups. Overall "[t]hese findings support the argument that male instructors are often afforded an automatic credibility in terms of their professionalism, expertise, and effectiveness as instructors" (10).

Sigh. Okay. Cool. Other (older) research has shown that women sometimes receive higher ratings than men when they fulfill feminine stereotypes of being nurturing, accessible, available, warm,, welcoming, personable; while, at the same time, exhibiting 'masculine' characteristics, like being distant, unavailable, and authoritative, can cause ratings to drop (and students are more forgiving if the same characteristics are displayed by men. Y'know, because men are more serious and shit). And if you're still not convinced, see also this study, which shows that female instructors face bias in larger courses, exacerbating the gender gap in academia as larger lectures send to result in more opportunities for promotion, hiring, and awards (I have no doubt that some of my fellow bloggers and readers have some stories in this regard). 

Of course, I have personal reasons for feeling embittered by this problem in this moment. You ready? Fall 2014 semester course evals!! (insert string of confetti and horn emojis) Yeah, those happened in the last couple weeks. Okay...can I just say that for my age and level of experience, I am a good professor? I know I am. I am very, perhaps overly, devoted. It is possible that my exceeding availability to students in terms of office hours, email response, and individual attention fulfills the feminine nurturing stereotype, but I also know that this approach suits my personality: I love people, I love getting to know people, I love interacting with students and feeling I can build into their lives on a personal level (and I also have the luxury of personal interaction due to small class sizes). But I am also very awaaaaare that I am a thin, young well-dressed, myhusbandthinksImpretty female from Canada who gives off a "cool" and nice vibe, so I tend to combat the possible perception that I'm a softy by maintaining strict standards of grading, especially at the beginning of the semester, when I want to push students to take my class seriously and strive for improvement. Consequently, I receive some backlash, both immediate and longer term. As an example of immediate backlash, I present to you this bogus Rate My Professor rating, mostly because it is JUST. SO. FUNNY. (posted mid-sem; and yeah, I'm pretty sure I know who this was):

 Although I am ultimately perfectly happy to distribute As where As are deserved (and so grade for improvement throughout the course), and although I ran two great Composition I classes last semester, with bright and engaged students who demonstrated measurable improvement in their writing and with whom I had some fun, important, memorable, rigorous discussions about relevant topics like racism and feminism and social media and the TV series Scandal...the official evaluations are not that great. I mean, they're fine. But 50% of the students did not respond (aaaarrrghhhh), which of course, based on the Golden Rule of Yelp, means that the more disgruntled ones were more likely to respond in the first place, let alone provide detailed feedback. My courses were not perfect, obviously, and my pedagogical strategies have ample room for growth as I progress as a professor (fingers crossed), but there is a world of a disconnect between these mechanical numbers and scant comments, and the actual lived experience of being in the classroom.

Admittedly, a large factor at play may just be the response rate, as I received quite a bit of positive informal feedback (a number of students asked if I was teaching Comp II this semester so they could take me again, and I received a healthy smattering of lovely thank-you emails post-course, bless them). If I've learned one thing from this experience, it's that at the end of this semester, as I teach my first lit course, I am hella gonna sit those students in the classroom and make them fill out the evals in front of me, because it is clear they do not quite understand their import and can't be trusted to fill them out on their own.

But I have some reason to believe that some of my struggles with authority and with managing this masculinized "touch tough grader" perception relate to a gender bias in the academy. And hey, I'm going on the job market next year, so this isn't just about hurt feelings.


Do you have any stories about gendered student feedback that you'd be comfortable sharing in the comments? Or, what can be done about all this? Is there some way we can share such findings with our students without coming across as pandering? Or are the structural problems just rooted too deep?


  1. Ah. This. This was the most depressing study I've ever read, in a lot of ways, because it's just so unequivocal: they controlled for everything and found big bias.

    My problem, personally, is that I'm not generally perceived as nurturing, or huggable, or kind. I'm fun, but give off this vibe of eagle-ishness: sharp eyes, smart, watch out for the talons. I do not conform to gender expectations and I often get dinged for it, even though, for example, I do hold a lot more office hours than many others, and I do respond to emails and such. They just perceive me as "pointy" rather than "squishy" in ways that would make me seem MORE effective if I was a dude.

    1. I like the image of your eagle-ishness, Aimee! (and look forward to experiencing it in person someday soon!) I can be a little pointy in the classroom too, sometimes, so I certainly don't conform entirely to the nurturing stereotype.

      The study is so compelling and incontrovertible, though there needs to be more--this is just one school and a small group, etc. It's great for opening up the conversation.

  2. This is a great (and growing) annotated bibliography on gender bias in academe


    1. Oohh, that does look extremely useful, Maureen--thank you. I look forward to digging through it.


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