Universities routinely use student teaching evaluations to help make decisions about which faculty members get tenure and promotions. But factors unrelated to teacher performance, such as gender, race, and even attractiveness, can skew these evaluations, potentially exacerbating existing inequalities 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 higher-level courses, women who teach in predominantly male departments tend to perform worse on their students’ assessments, 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 deluge of information pointing to how [much] there is the potential for error in using evaluations as a way to determine employment,” says Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political scientist at Chatham University who was not involved in the study.
Previous research suggests that under certain circumstances, people may be punished in their professional lives for defying gender 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 is true for women who take on management positions in male-dominated fields, she adds.
To see if this bias applied to university professors, Aragón and her colleagues analyzed more than 100,000 evaluations of 4,700 courses at Clemson University, an R1 public university in the US. They found that if there were more men in a department, women had lower average student assessment scores when teaching higher-level courses, and vice versa. In departments with approximately the same number of men and women, this bias disappeared. For the lower level courses, the differences were not statistically significant.
“The fact that women and men were penalized equally illustrates how broadly damaging stereotypes are,” 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 professors shown in images on a faculty web page. The researchers then presented the students with a description of a simulated course in the department, including a picture and bio of a male or female instructor. Finally, the students completed a teacher evaluation as if they had taken that simulated course. In theoretically male-dominated departments, male students rated female professors worse for higher-level courses and men for lower-level courses.
Bringing departments closer to gender parity could help alleviate biases in teaching assessments, the authors suggest. Until that happens, they propose placing equal emphasis on the achievements of men and women within university departments and that both men and women should teach lower and higher level courses.
However, Sweet-Cushman points out that the gender composition of a department likely reflects existing biases within the discipline, and that those biases cause the disparities in evaluation. “I think the relationship itself is not the mechanism.”
Angela Linse, associate dean of teaching at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, praises the study for its use of a large data set and its novel experimental design, but cautions against overinterpreting the results. “There certainly is a gender bias, both in the student and faculty populations,” she says. But the differences in ratings 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 significant differences.
In general, Linse agrees that disparities in teaching evaluations should neither make nor break a college professor’s career destiny.
“To deny tenure for a small difference in teaching assessment scores would really be a tragedy,” says Aragón.