“Tim,” a longtime adjunct professor who never completed his Ph.D., teaches the Modern History survey without ever giving comments or feedback on essay assignments. He shows up to class with no lesson plan to chat about his favorite historical figure (almost always a male example of “genius”) from that week’s assignments. When I observed his class, not a single student took notes or brought course readings to class. Still, they were smiling and listening and seemed to enjoy a good rapport with Tim. “Tonya,” a female tenured professor who is a recognized expert in her field, has extensive lesson plans and weekly homework which she grades with a rubric she shares with her students. She also has extremely high expectations of her students’ class participation and demonstration of improving writing skills on essays. When I observed her class, students were talkative and focused, with notes and readings out on their desks in which they pointed out specific passages to each other as examples. The result? The quantitative averages of Tim’s student evaluations are significantly higher than Tonya’s, even in such categories such as “assigns effective readings,” and “returns written assignments promptly with useful feedback.” While many faculty in higher education have long been aware that student evaluations are affected by gender bias, it has been difficult to separate such biases from the other factors involved in judging a professor’s actual teaching.
But a recent study conducted at NC State University has generated renewed discussion on the topic by proposing that gender bias can be effectively isolated in an online environment where students do not otherwise know their professor’s gender. In the study two professors, one male and one female, each taught two online sections of a technology and society course. To the students of one section each professor presented as his or her actual gender; to the students of the other section each professor presented as the other gender. At the end of the course students rated each professor in 12 categories on a five point quantitative scale. The result? Students rated the perceived female professor lower in every single category–regardless of the actual gender of the professor. The findings have elicited little surprise from my female colleagues at various institutions, whose personal experiences follow this pattern in a depressingly predictable manner. Having this experience verified through independent research is important: now faculty and administration can and should act upon it. Faculty colleagues must not penalize female faculty for relatively lower evaluations in the tenure and promotion process, and administrators must consider balancing quantitative scores that carry an often false gloss of objectivity with open-ended responses, where student comments often, if unwittingly, reveal gender and other biases.