Students less likely to rate female professors as 'brilliant' and a 'genius'

A focus on inherent intellectual talent may obscure some women and minorities' hard work

Students are more likely to describe their male professors as "brilliant" or "genius" than their female professors, according to a new study published in Plos One.

Researchers analyzed the use of the words "brilliant" and "genius" in more than 14 million reviews of faculty members on the website RateMyProfessor.com

They found that students used "brilliant" to describe male professors almost twice as much as they did for female professors—and "genius" to describe male professors more than three times as often.

In addition, fields in which "brilliant" and "genius" were used more frequently, including philosophy, physics, and math, also had fewer female and black Ph.D.s.

Researchers identified a connection between the frequency of these superlatives within a given field and the emphasis that it puts on innate intelligence. The more often "brilliant" and "genius" were used on RateMyProfessors.com to rate professors in a certain field, the more strongly academics in that field underscored the importance of intellectual talent.

The hazards of teaching while female

Across all fields analyzed in the study, superlatives about intelligence were used two to three more times for male professors than female professors, which, according to the researchers, "illustrates our culture's negative attitudes toward women's intellects."

Researchers suggested that fields with more mentions of "brilliant" and "genius" in their online evaluations could be attributed to more men taking courses in those fields, and men may be more likely than women to value those traits.

But because RateMyProfessors.com does not record the gender or race of students leaving feedback, it is impossible to know whether male students were biased, or why black Ph.D.s were underrepresented in the fields examined. The website has also been scrutinized for flaws such as the propensity for students to give professors who are easy graders or attractive higher ratings.

To promote the abilities of more women and minorities, the researchers suggested placing more emphasis on the values of hard work and skills development, as opposed to inherent intellectual talent.

"It seems likely that turning the spotlight away from sheer brilliance–and toward the importance of sustained effort in achieving professional success–may bring about improvements in the diversity of many fields," the researchers wrote (Camera, "Data Mine," U.S. News & World Report, 3/7).


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