The hazards of teaching while female

New analysis points to systemic gender bias in student evaluations

Reviews of female instructors—unlike those of male instructors—on website Rate My Professors tend to focus on professors' personal qualities rather than their skill or intelligence, Claire Cain Miller writes in the New York Times' "The Upshot" blog.

The analysis comes from Benjamin Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, and can be explored as an interactive chart. Schmidt used a computer program to see how gender and subject area correlated with which words students chose to describe their professors. He reviewed approximately 14 million posts.

Generally, words that praised intellect appeared more frequently in reviews of male professors. For instance, women were significantly less likely than their male peers to be described as "genius."

Conversely, words that spoke to personal qualities tended to appear more frequently in reviews of women. Females were also more likely to be described as annoying, beautiful or ugly.

Systematic bias

Cain Miller writes that Schmidt's analysis shows the unique biases that women confront in the workplace. Specifically, it suggests that people are "more likely to focus on a woman's appearance or personality and on a man's skills and intelligence." She concludes, "people tend to think more highly of men than women in professional settings."

When students think teachers are women, do they give them lower marks?

While Schmidt cautions that his analysis is far from a formal study, he says it is a reminder that "when we use these reviews and evaluations to assess people, we need to keep in mind that the way people write them is really culturally conditioned."

Other research

A recent analysis from Kieran Snyder at Fortune found systematic bias in performance reviews for women at tech companies. Among 248 voluntarily submitted reviews, Snyder found women were more likely to receive critical feedback, and be described as abrasive, emotional, or aggressive.

The role of gender in influencing student evaluations comes as no surprise: previous research has found women are judged as less prompt to return assignments, even when they do so at exactly the same time as male professors.

Schmidt's analysis includes some positive news for female instructors—women were more likely to be described as role models (Cain Miller, "The Upshot," New York Times, 2/6; Schmidt,, 2/6; Snyder, Fortune, 1/26/2014).

The takeaway: Ratings on female professors on one popular website are another source of evidence that men and women are judged by different standards in higher education.

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