Universities routinely use student teaching appraisals to make decisions about which faculty members receive tenure and promotions. But factors unrelated to teaching performance, such as gender, race, and even attractiveness, can skew these ratings and potentially exacerbate existing inequalities in academia.
Now a new study points to another source of bias: belonging to the gender minority in one’s academic department. According to a study published this week in the , women who teach in male-dominated departments, for example in high school courses, tend to do worse on their student ratings Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The same principle applies to men who teach in predominantly female faculties, the researchers note, but because women are more likely to be in the gender minority, they are disproportionately affected.
“It only adds to the ongoing avalanche of information pointing to the how [much] There is a potential for error in using ratings as a form of determining employment,” says Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political scientist at Chatham University who was not involved in the study.
Previous research suggests that individuals may be penalized in certain circumstances in their professional lives for defying gender expectations. For example, in childcare — a job traditionally associated with women — men can experience negative bias during evaluations, says the new study’s lead author Oriana Aragón, a social psychologist at the University of Cincinnati. The same applies to women who take on managerial positions in male-dominated areas, she adds.
To find out if this bias applies to university lecturers, Aragón and colleagues looked through more than 100,000 reviews of 4,700 courses at Clemson University, an R1 public university in the US. They found that when there were more men in a department, women had lower average student ratings when teaching higher-level courses, and vice versa. In departments with roughly equal numbers of men and women, this bias disappeared. For lower-level courses, the differences were not statistically significant.
“The fact that women and men were punished equally shows how harmful stereotypes are,” says Asia Eaton, a social psychologist at Florida International University. “The studies in this paper do an excellent job of examining gender bias in context.”
Next, the researchers designed an experiment in which they showed students a theoretical faculty website and varied the ratio of female to male faculty displayed in images on a faculty website. The researchers then presented the students with a description of a mock course in the department, including a picture and biography of a male or female instructor. Finally, the students filled out a teaching evaluation as if they had attended this dummy course. In the theoretically male-dominated departments, the students rated female professors lower in the upper-level courses and lower-ranked men in the lower-level courses.
Shifting departments towards gender parity could help reduce bias in teaching evaluation, the authors suggest. Until then, they propose that equal emphasis be placed on the achievements of men and women in university departments and that both men and women should teach lower and higher level courses.
However, Sweet-Cushman notes that the gender composition of a division is likely to reflect existing biases within the discipline, and that these biases cause the differences in ratings. “The ratio itself is not the mechanism, I would think.”
Angela Linse, associate dean of teaching at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, commends the study for using a large data set and its novel experimental design, but cautions against overinterpreting the results. “There’s certainly gender bias, both in the student and faculty populations,” she says. But the differences in ratings the authors found — fractions of a point on a five-point scale — are “not necessarily conclusive evidence of gender bias. Not all statistically significant differences are meaningful differences.”
Overall, Linse agrees that differences in teaching evaluation should not make or break a university professor’s professional destiny.
“It would really be a tragedy to refuse a term for a small difference in the evaluation of teaching results,” says Aragón.