Behind the Scenes

Is She Brilliant? Is He Pretty? How Student Evaluations of Male and Female Professors Differ

By Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-CApril 12, 2016

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

The teacher evaluation process — with its link to promotion — leaves considerable room for improvement.

Recently a young female faculty member at our program took over teaching a class for an older seasoned male teacher. She used the same slides and the same teaching content over the same one-hour time period. She added some excellent interactive activity that was focused and not distracting. She was poised and competent. Several male students sitting in the back continually questioned her throughout the lecture. As she walked out of the lecture hall, she turned to me and said, “That was brutal.”

Great teachers don’t always receive outstanding student feedback or evaluations. Student evaluations of teachers can be a mish mash of opinions having to do with popularity, how easy or hard an examination was, and even the appearance of the teacher.

While stylish teaching can be rewarded heavily in a student assessment, it does not always translate to better learning. The anonymity of the teaching evaluation can even encourage this superficiality. Or worse, the lack of accountability can lead to down-right cruel and mean comments about teachers.

Only at the university undergraduate and graduate level are teachers subjected to this type of judgment. Although high school teachers might get vilified on social media, their promotions are not based on the evaluation of a disgruntled student. Yet, promotion and tenure committees can be made up of students with little understanding of individual instructors or the universe of higher education.

Two recent studies (one by Ben Schmidt and the other by Lillian McNell) highlight an additional problem with student evaluations: gender-biased language. A study of 12,000 words on Rate My Professor, an online teaching evaluation website, found a surprising gender split among student undergraduate evaluations. An interactive site created by Schmidt shows the gender split in commonly used words. You can enter any word (minus a few offensive words) and see how many times that word is used by gender and by educational field. Negative or positive reviews can be filtered.

The interactive chart below makes abundantly clear the biases between male and female professor reviews. Men are described as “geniuses” or “brilliant” in every field far more frequently than women. Generally, the student evaluations focus on female appearance or personality and on male intellect.

Here is the word “brilliant” for female and male professors.

Gender chart
In a gender switch that even Shakespeare would have admired, in an online course, a male teacher became a female teacher, and a female teacher became a male teacher. All other factors were kept equal: the timeliness of the feedback, as well as the quality, and even the type of student feedback in the course. The student evaluations were different for the teachers that the students thought were female versus those they thought were male. (MacNell, 2015)

But gender bias is not always so obvious. Gendered language can be incredibly subtle — for example, being interrupted in a meeting. This was popularized by Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. The portmanteau (or “mash-up” word) is “manterrupted.”

Recently, a Saturday Night Live skit showed how there are different perceptions of Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ speech patterns. Even the content of speech is rewarded for masculine qualities. In our recent faculty meeting of 11 members, seven women and five men, there were three separate sports analogies within the first five minutes of the meeting. Referenced were basketball, baseball, and cycling. The students were described as “bull-penning,” engaging in a “full court press,” and “being dropped by the peloton.”

No women used a sports analogy — not that there is anything explicitly wrong with sports analogies. It is just that our language defaults to the male gender analogy. Certainly midwifing a project to fruition, or giving birth to a report, might not engage the same workplace enthusiasm.

What should faculty do about poor teaching evaluations or gender-biased language? One of my colleagues said he does not open his evaluations until after the students graduate or until long after the course is over. One fellow faculty member has developed a prescreening technique where another PA faculty reads the evaluations first, then gives her the “all clear” if she doesn’t find anything grossly negative.

Here is my list of how to handle negative/or gender-biased language:

  1. First, find a trusted colleague to talk to.
  2. Then try to pull out the useful constructive criticism.
  3. Remember that being hard on students means they may not always like you — but that’s okay.
  4. Being “nice” doesn’t always mean you are being effective.

Ultimately, the concern is that promotion and tenure rest on favorable evaluations from students. Gender-biased language can be an additional barrier for promotion. But being afraid of negative evaluations from students does not result in better teaching — either better teaching evaluations or, most importantly, better learning.

Jennifer Coombs
Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-C

Jennifer is an assistant professor at the University of Utah PA program. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Physician Assistant Education, she also sits on the editorial board of JAAPA and received PAEA's "Research Achievement" award in 2014.