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  • Students in on-line classes give male instructors higher marks than their female counterparts.

These are just two of the takeaways from pair of recent studies (or more accurately, a study and a project). The suggestion that gender bias may color student evaluations is nothing new, but the amount of publicity this research has garnered has prompted renewed discussion of this issue.

The study by Lillian MacNell, Adam Driscoll, and Andrea N. Hunt entitled “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching,” was published in December in the journal Innovative Higher Education.

According to the abstract, “the extent and nature of the role” that an instructor's gender plays in student ratings “remains contested” in part because researcher have had a difficult time separating “gender from teaching practices in person.”

To remedy this problem, the authors conducted their experiment in online classes where the gender of the faculty could be disguised (a female instructor led two groups, telling one she was a male and the other she was female; likewise a male faculty led two groups, telling one he was female and the other he was male). Their findings? “Students rated the male identity significantly higher than the female identity, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender, demonstrating gender bias.” 

MacNell et al’s findings have come under much scrutiny. Perhaps the most cogent and well thought out critique is by Steve Benton and Dan Li who raise a number of questions about the study’s design and analysis.

Despite the methodological concerns they raise, they also note this should not be seen as a suggestion “that gender bias does not exist. We grant that it can be found in all walks of life and professions.”

Whereas MacNell’s study has come under scrutiny, Benjamin Schmidt, creator of the interactive chart “Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews” doesn’t describe his work as a study “in anything other than the most colloquial sense of the word”.

Regardless of how it is categorized, the chart itself is fascinating because it allows anyone to “explore the words used to describe male and female teachers in about 14 million reviews” posted on [RMP]. The results are fascinating and worth exploring on your own.

If you do, you may replicate findings such as those reported by Claire Cain Miller that “men are more likely to be described as a star, knowledgeable, awesome or the best professor. Women are more likely to be described as bossy, disorganized, helpful, annoying or as playing favorites. Nice or rude are also more often used to describe women than men.”

There are countless, well-documented reasons why RMP should not be used as a basis for evaluating teaching effectiveness and most colleges don’t use it as a basis for making promotion decisions. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the information posted may find its way into tenure discussions – such as class enrollment. If faculty get negative reviews on RMP this could discourage other students from taking their class and impact their enrollment.  

Both Schmidt’s chart and MacNell’s study raise critical questions about the potential for subconscious gender bias to influence student evaluations. At this point, the findings remain more suggestive than conclusive, but the fact remains that while we wait for more research in this area the classroom abilities of female faculty continue to be judged, at least in small part, by student evaluations. Flawed or not, the latest studies’ ought to serve as a red-flag for institutions, administrators, and promotion committees charged with assessing the effectiveness of females in the classroom. Until we get more conclusive evidence to support (or refute) these findings, student evals of female faculty should contain an asterisk which says ‘Caution, this assessment may be subject to gender bias’.

Of course any female faculty member who proposes this may be seen as ‘bossy’ and ‘annoying,’ but it’s worth the risk.

Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Iona College. You can follow her on twitter @jeannezaino


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