College Students Carry Bias Against Female Professors

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  • Students demand more diversity among faculty, but student evaluations hamper these goals.
  • Students evaluate female professors harshly, saving praise for white male professors.
  • Researchers say biased evaluations harm the careers of female and POC faculty.

In recent years, college students have made a number of diversity-related demands of their professors, asking them to provide more inclusive curricula, academically support students of color, and actively combat bias in their fields. Unfortunately, student evaluations show that college students also have their own biases to confront.

Research suggests college students harbor unconscious biases about the gender and race of their instructors, and those biases influence student evaluations. In other words, students tend to rate male instructors more highly than female instructors — even in online courses without face-to-face interaction. Even when male and female online instructors have swapped places. Even when the supposedly male and female online instructors are really the same professor.

Most college students fill out evaluation forms for each of their professors and courses every term. Those evaluations impact the hiring and firing decisions that shape academic careers. Positive student evaluations help graduate students land teaching assistantships, adjunct instructors become professors, and professors make their case for receiving tenure. Negative evaluations — even a few — do just the opposite.

Student Evaluations of Online Instructors Confirm Bias

A spate of recent studies reveal systemic student bias against female professors. Several indicate that student bias persists even when students have no personal contact with the instructor. The results of one study showed that, regardless of the actual identity of the instructor, students evaluated instructors with male names more positively than instructors with female names.

Online students judge instructors who they perceive as female more harshly.

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Online students judge instructors who they perceive as female more harshly. In one study, a female TA for an online course received five times as many negative evaluations when students perceived her as a woman compared to when they perceived her as a man.

In another study, 100% of female students gave a male TA positive evaluations, while just 88% of female students gave a female TA positive evaluations.

Female instructors fare even worse in in-person courses. Two professors, one male and one female, found that students used markedly different language when evaluating their classes.

While 16% of students commented on the female professor's personality, just 4% of students commented on the male professor's personality. Over 30% weighed in on the entertainment offered by the female professor, while 15% measured the male professor on his entertainment value. The female professor's intelligence was also called into question more often.

Correcting Biased Course Evaluations

Most universities use student evaluations of teachers to help make employment decisions. However, when gender bias may account for a 0.5-point negative effect for women on a five-point scale, relying on evaluations can discriminate against female academics. An unfair share of negative feedback could also discourage women from even attempting to teach at the college level.

Because biased evaluations "can work against women's career advancement in academia," some academics have called for colleges to stop using student evaluations in employment decisions.

Biased evaluations can work against women’s career advancement in academia, making it difficult for female professors to succeed.

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As of yet, there are few evidence-based tools for effectively mitigating student bias. Tweaking the language used in the instructions for student evaluations could help, but many researchers warn against widespread adoption of any bias warning. Students would be less likely to notice repeat info, limiting its effects.

Even in targeted interventions, bias disclaimers had little effect on male students' evaluations of female professors and no effect on female students' evaluations. Still, researchers suggest that professors should talk to their students about bias and equity. Making students aware of their potential biases could help motivate them to avoid stereotypes.

There's a possibility that the growth of online courses could reduce student bias. While online student evaluations still show gender bias against women, in-person evaluations tend to weigh in more commonly on a female instructor's appearance, wardrobe, and personality. These types of judgments are less common for online instructors.

Reducing Bias in Student Evaluations Could Help Students

Increased faculty representation benefits all learners — especially female and underrepresented minority college students. In fields dominated by white and Asian men, such as high-paying STEM majors, students who don't feel like they belong have a harder time persevering with challenging coursework.

Studies also show that having a female instructor rather than a male instructor led to higher final scores for female college students. Additionally, Black college students who have Black professors are more likely to graduate.

A diverse faculty can better support a diverse student body, and representation leads to higher rates of college persistence among underrepresented students. If students evaluate their female and POC instructors while correcting for negative bias, they can better support diverse representation in academia.

Feature Image: Andersen Ross / Photodisc / Getty Images