Student Evaluations Of Teaching Are Biased Against Women? The Evidence Is Far From Clear - 8 minutes read

Student Evaluations Of Teaching Are Biased Against Women? The Evidence Is Far From Clear

Any young woman considering a career in university teaching or research must be mightily discouraged from doing so by the constant stream of news telling her that she will face daunting discrimination every step of the way, especially in STEM fields. She is told that she will be paid less because she is a woman. She is also told that she will get smaller grants because she is a woman. As discussed in a previous post, the evidence does not support these claims.

As if these aren’t big enough problems, women considering academic careers are also being told that they will likely receive lower teaching evaluations from students because of their gender. An article just published in Inside Higher Education states that “Study after study shows that student evaluations of teaching contain bias against women and people of color.” (This post will only discuss gender.)

The author, a well-qualified academic economist, writes that “As the director of a workshop that provides mentoring to female economists, I have listened to hundreds of stories of unequal student expectations and assessments of female faculty. Such faculty members are powerless to do anything but work harder to earn student evaluations that are equal to their male counterparts.”

Telling female faculty that they are “powerless” to fight the inevitable discrimination against them is certainly a discouraging message. If well-intentioned people are pushing this message, and it turns out not to be true, then they are needlessly discouraging young women from entering research and teaching fields. So what does the evidence actually say?

The article supports its “study after study” claim by linking to two academic studies. They are both quality studies, but neither supports the grim picture painted by the article.  The first study, “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching,” summarizes the research in this area as follows: “Studies of gender bias in student ratings of instruction have presented complicated and sometimes contradictory results. Sometimes men received significantly higher ratings (Basow & Silberg, 1987; Sidanius & Crane, 1989), sometimes women (Bachen et al., 1999; Rowden & Carlson, 1996), and sometimes neither (Centra & Gaubatz, 2000; Feldman, 1993). The variety of results in these studies suggests that gender does play a role in students’ ratings of their instructors, but that it is a complex and multifaceted one (Basow et al., 2006).”

So, the evidence is actually very mixed, with no clear pattern. Some show bias in favor of men, others show bias in favor of women and some show no bias either way.

The “What’s in a Name” article attempts to contribute to the debate by looking only at a single online course in which the students have no way to know the gender of their assistant instructors. The study does find pro-male bias, but it is based on an extremely narrow sample: short summer classes at a single university. Much more importantly, it looks at only one atypical type of course: an online course with no direct contact between the instructors and students: “The instructors taught the course entirely through a learning management system and students’ only contact with their instructors was either through e-mail or comments posted on the learning management system. The professor delivered course content through assigned readings and written PowerPoint slideshow lectures.”

In other words, there were no video lectures by the instructor, skype sessions, virtual office hours, or phone contact between instructors and students. That allowed the researchers to hide the instructors’ gender, but these courses are hardly typical of how online courses are taught these days, much less representative of how college courses are taught as a whole. The most that can be said of this study is that it adds one narrow new piece of information to an overall picture that, as the study’s authors say, is very mixed.

The second study cited in the Inside Higher Education article is “Gender Bias in Teaching Evaluations.” That study does find that at the most junior level (instructors who haven’t yet earned their Ph.D.’s) there is bias against female instructors. But among teachers who have earned their Ph.D.’s, there was a gender bias in favor of female teachers:“Male students do not evaluate male and female instructors differently at these job levels. Female students, however, rate female professors 25.8% of a standard deviation higher than male professors.”

It would be easy for anybody browsing the research on this topic to miss this important finding. The abstract (a short passage at the beginning of a scholarly article describing the findings) for “Gender Bias in Teaching Evaluations” says: “we find that women receive systematically lower teaching evaluations than their male colleagues.” It doesn’t mention the pro-female bias for more senior instructors.

Assuming that the findings of the “Gender Bias” study are generally true, one might worry that the bias against female instructors who don’t yet have their Ph.D.’s would make it more difficult for them to get permanent jobs. But, it actually appears that the opposite is true. For example, research published by the National Academy of Sciences (“NAS”) finds that there is a very substantial bias in favor of hiring women for academic positions: “Male and female faculty revealed a 2:1 preference for hiring women across both math-intensive and non-math-intensive fields, with the single exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference.”

There is also evidence that female academics can rest a bit easier about getting married and/or having children. The NAS study also concludes: “Female applicants were preferred over male applicants regardless of lifestyle profile (which was based on marriage status, job status, spouse’s job status and whether the applicants had children), except for mothers with spouses running home-based businesses.”

There seems to be a common belief that it is in women’s best interest to emphasize research that shows anti-female bias. Presumably, the idea is that “light is the best disinfectant,” so shining a light on such bias helps eliminate it. But painting a simplistic, one-sided portrait of gender-bias is likely to do more harm than good.  As the authors of the NAS study note: “Women considering careers in academic science confront stark portrayals of the treacherous journey to becoming professors.”

Everyone wants gender equity, but it is worth questioning whether the relentless drumbeat of messages that women entering the sciences face an endless gauntlet of discrimination might be keeping women out of the profession. The authors of the NAS study note that: “Once hired, women prosper in the STEM professoriate  . . . They are remunerated, persist, and are promoted at rates roughly comparable to men’s after controlling for observable characteristics, including academic productivity. Perhaps we would have more tenured female STEM professors if young women were receiving more of this information.”

Finally, to be clear, the message here is not that everything is perfect. There is doubtless discrimination in academia and women surely face certain kinds of discrimination that men don’t. And it should be noted that the Inside Higher Education article goes on to cite additional studies that space constraints prevent this post from addressing. The message here is that the issue is complex and discrimination likely runs in both directions. Telling women simplistic stories that they enter academia and STEM fields several steps behind men is not helpful.


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