The Big Sexist Problem With Student Evaluations

It’s Time to Reconsider the Value of this Practice

Sexism and gender discrimination are well documented in the US. They lead to an unjust pay and wealth gap, to unequal access to educational resources, and even to an orgasm gap. Now, they’ve been clearly documented in student evaluations of college and university faculty.

Dr. Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, culled together reviews on RateMyProfessor.com, and put them into a handy data visualizer that allows readers to see how men and women, across fields, stack up according to students. By charting how frequently certain words are used in reviews, Dr. Schmidt’s project shows unequivocally what women faculty have long suspected: student evaluations are systematically biased against women.

Men and the courses they teach are more commonly described as smart, intelligent, brilliant, fascinating, interesting, and wise–across all academic disciplines. Their courses are also more likely to be described as rewarding. This shows that there is a very real gender bias present in how students rate intellectual ability of faculty, which reflects a general societal bias.

The data also show a clear gender bias in affording more respect to men than to women. Men are more likely to be referred to as “doctor,” and universally more likely across all fields to be referred to as “professor.” Conversely, women are more likely to be referred to as “miss” than men are likely to be referred to as “mister.” This suggest that, just as men are perceived as more intelligent, that intelligence is afforded respect and authority that is not extended to women in equal measure.

Reflecting deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and expectations for gendered behavior, what women are praised for, more so than men, is the emotional labor (or perceived emotional labor) they provide. Across all fields, women are more likely to be described as nice, caring, understanding, and across most fields, more likely to be described as kind and warm.

And, while women are praised for meeting stereotypical gendered expectations, they are penalized for not doing so. The data show that women are far more likely to be described as mean, harsh, rude, and cold.

Likely related to the lesser form of authority granted to women than men, students take more liberties in commenting on the professionalism of women, who are more likely than men to be described as both professional and unprofessional. Students also take greater license in commenting on the administrative aspects of teaching when it comes to women faculty, who they describe more frequently as both prepared and unprepared, and as organized and disorganized. Women are also universally more often described as scattered and late.

You might be wondering, “Is it possible that women are just not as good at teaching as men?” Which, based on this data alone, is a fair question. But as it turns out, the answer is a resounding “No!” Numerous scientific studies have found clear evidence of gender bias in how students evaluate teachers, and have found that that bias works strongly in favor of men. One found that to get high ratings, women must be both sensitive and agentic (organized and proactive), whereas men had only to be agentic to be highly rated. This shows clearly that women are expected to do and give more–specifically stereotypically feminine things that are not a part of their job description–in order to be viewed positively by students. Another found that students taking online classes, who never even meet their instructor face-to-face, rate instructors they think are men higher than those they think are women. And another found that this gender bias persists across regions and size of schools.

Results like these are quite troubling, as student evaluations are often used as part of overall performance assessment by superiors, especially among the huge population of adjunct faculty who teach on a short-term contract basis. As such, employment and professional advancement may be at stake for many.

It’s time for college and university administrators to seriously rethink the merits of this system.

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