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Winning the Wrong Contest?

Study finds that women in political science are likelier than men to be honored for teaching. But does this help them get ahead?

January 6, 2015
 

Being honored for teaching skills would seem like a good thing for a faculty member. But is this always the case?

An article (abstract available here) in this month's PS: Political Science & Politics suggests that some female professors may be putting themselves at a disadvantage by ... being good teachers. The article is based on a survey of 600 political science faculty members who were asked if they had ever been honored for their teaching. Just over one-third (34.5 percent) of the faculty members had received such an honor.

There was a definite gender gap. Women were more likely than men to have been honored for teaching: 39.6 percent versus 31.4 percent, respectively.

This gap "appears to be a welcome development," write the authors, Charity Butcher, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at Kennesaw State University, and Timothy Kersey, a visiting assistant professor of political science and international affairs at Kennesaw State. Women make up a minority of political science faculty members, and a smaller minority of tenured professors in the field. So if women are outperforming men as teachers in political science, they write, people might assume that they will be successful in academe, given that teaching is part of how faculty members are evaluated.

But the authors go on to look at the data, broken down by sector of higher education. Among community college faculty members in political science, women were more likely than men to have been honored for their teaching. And since community colleges value teaching more than research, those women are probably benefiting from the recognition they are receiving for teaching. But then they looked at four-year colleges and graduate institutions. Here, there was one division (four-year colleges) where men were more likely than women to receive the awards. Women dominated in the other sectors.

Percentage of Political Science Faculty Members Honored for Teaching, by Gender

Sector Women Men
Community colleges 30.8% 24.2%
Four-year colleges 40.3% 47.7%
Master's institutions 33.9% 22.7%
Doctoral institutions 45.1% 37.6%

The paper argues that the gender splits at four-year institutions favor men. In the sector (four-year colleges) where teaching likely is prioritized over research, men are winning more teaching awards, but the recognition for women at master's and doctoral institutions could be hurting their careers. The awards suggest that women are spending more time than are men on their teaching. And this may benefit their students, but not their careers.

Some women may genuinely want to spend more time on teaching. Others, the authors write, are fighting student expectations that female professors will be more nurturing and supportive than men, potentially punishing female faculty members in student evaluations if they don't meet those expectations.

"These findings should not be interpreted as suggesting that female faculty should stop caring about teaching or pursue only their research agenda; such solutions are ultimately shortsighted," the authors write. "Rather, these findings suggest that female academics need to think more strategically about advancement within their particular institutional context by ensuring that (1) their perceptions of faculty performance reflect actual institutional policies, and (2) their available work time is allocated accordingly. Stronger efforts in mentoring female faculty (especially junior faculty and advanced graduate students) may improve many of the issues raised in this article, including increased confidence of women in the field, more effective allocation of work time, and practical strategies for professional advancement. Additionally, and perhaps more important, department chairpersons and other college and university administrators should be mindful of the gendered dimensions involved in issues of professional advancement."

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