Teaching evaluations reflect—and may perpetuate—academia's gender biases – Science

Universities routinely use student teaching evaluations to help make decisions about which faculty members get tenure and promotions. But factors unrelated to teaching performance, such as gender, race, and even attractiveness, can skew these evaluations, potentially exacerbating existing inequities in academia.
Now, a new study suggests an additional source of bias: being in the gender minority of one’s academic department. For example, in upper level courses, women teaching in predominantly male departments tend to fare worse in their student evaluations, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The same principle applies to men teaching in predominantly female departments, the researchers note, but because women are more often in the gender minority, they are disproportionately affected.
“It just adds to the continuing avalanche of information that points to how [much] potential for error there is in using evaluations 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 in certain circumstances, individuals can be punished in their professional lives for defying gendered expectations. For example, in early child care—a profession traditionally associated with women—men can experience negative bias in evaluations, says the new study’s lead author, Oriana Aragón, a social psychologist at the University of Cincinnati. The same holds true for women who take on managerial positions in male-dominated fields, she adds.
To see whether this bias held true for university instructors, Aragón and colleagues sifted through more than 100,000 evaluations from 4700 courses at Clemson University, a U.S. public R1 university. They found that if more men were in a department, women had lower average student evaluation 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 alike were penalized illustrates how stereotypes are broadly harmful,” says Asia Eaton, a social psychologist at Florida International University. “The studies in this paper do an excellent job of studying gender bias in context.”
Next, the researchers designed an experiment, showing students a website for a theoretical department and varying the ratio of female to male faculty displayed in pictures on a faculty web page. 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 taken that mock course. In theoretical male-dominated departments, students rated women professors more poorly for upper level courses and men for lower level courses.
Moving departments closer to gender parity could help ease biases in teaching evaluations, the authors suggest. Until that happens, they propose putting similar emphasis on the achievements of men and women within university departments and that both men and women should teach lower and upper level courses.
However, Sweet-Cushman notes that a department’s gender makeup likely reflects existing biases within the discipline and that those biases cause the evaluation disparities. “The ratio itself is not the mechanism, I would think.”
Angela Linse, associate dean for teaching at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, commends the study for its use of a large data set and its novel experimental design, but cautions against overinterpreting the results. “Gender bias certainly exists, in both student and faculty populations,” she says. But the differences in ratings that 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 disparities in teaching evaluations should not make or break a college professor’s professional fate.
“Denying tenure for a small difference in teaching eval scores would be really a tragedy,” Aragón says.
Luis Melecio-Zambrano is a student in the University of California, Santa Cruz, Science Communication program. Before becoming a science journalist, Luis earned their MS in chemistry at Cornell University.
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