Deconstructing the Professional Gender Bias

By Evelyn Gonzalez ‘18
Feminist Columnist

As an incoming student, one picks up tricks from fellow upperclassmen in order to help navigate a successful transition into college. You know which dining halls serve the best meals on Tuesdays, which dorms have the best rooms, where the best study spots are and how to choose your classes based on the professors.

Many online websites have been built to cater to this idea and have become places where students can judge and weigh faculty based on aspects such as helpfulness, easiness and clarity. These websites, along with word of mouth, have become an influential space for students to decide who or what they deem professional and what traits they deem effective. While we should keep in mind that there are several conditions that come into play when deciding how to rate the class and the professor — such as what grade the student earned or how much work was assigned — we should also keep in mind the role of often-unconscious biases students hold about what male and female professors should be and how these thoughts affect our ability to judge them fairly.

Gender bias is defined as unequal treatment in a specific area that emerges from our own thoughts and expectations surrounding what appearances and actions we deem appropriate for males and females. Our beliefs about professionalism and ability are often unique to our own expectations that emerge from internalized ideas of what we feel qualifies as such. Especially in such a highly academic space as the 5Cs, it is easy to critique based on what you feel fits your idealized image of a professional institution. When students already have a clear image of how a professor’s attitude, interactions with others and classroom dynamic should be, based on these gendered expectations, male and female professors are often judged and held to different levels of scrutiny by students.

In our society, we are taught that women should be kind, sensitive, nurturing and conscious of their appearance, while men should be authoritative, funny and assertive. As a result, we start to expect these gender-specific traits and to make these characteristics the norm, regardless of the individual’s actual personality and style.

These biases often emerge unconsciously, which is why it is often difficult to see how they come to fruition in evaluations. While at first glance words like “nurturing” and “authoritative” don’t seem like they carry any negative consequences, what often occurs is an individual’s placement within a rigid definition that deals out rewards and punishments for adhering or not adhering  to their own gendered traits. If a professor starts to behave in ways contrary to what students expect from them based on gender expectations, those professors tend to receive negative reactions and evaluations. The issue is that when students start to evaluate based on gender roles, they are much more likely to judge based on what they feel is absent in a professor than based on that professor’s actual capabilities.

Several studies have examined how gender bias works on the evaluative methods of students on professors. A quick glance reveals that even the language for the professors changed in correlation with their specific gender. Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, created a tool that provides data and analyzes the differences in word choice used on the academic rating website, Rate My Professor, based on the 14 million reviews it currently has for both male and female professors. In doing so, it illustrates how word choice often directly translates into students’ differing expectations for male and female professors.

According to InsideHigherEd.com, “Many of the most positive words (at least in terms of academic reputation) are much more likely to come up in reviews of men than of women. The words ‘smart’ and ‘intellect’ are more likely to be used in ratings of men than women, and ‘genius’ is more likely to be used to describe male than female professors in all 25 disciplines for which data are available. Words such as ‘bossy’ are more likely to turn up in reviews of women. The same is true for ‘nurturing.’ Women are also more likely to be called ‘strict’ and ‘demanding.’”

In our society, traits that lean more toward “masculine behaviors” are highly favored, meaning that male professors are more likely to get better evaluations while females who fall below their gender expectations often receive unfavorable reports. These ratings and word choices of course could be contingent on a variety of different issues, but examining them could make us more conscious about the ways that we assess individual professors, regardless of gender.

We must understand the implications and issues that arise as a result of outdated and gendered notions of both professionalism and ability that often do not accurately represent that professor’s ability. Using these methods of evaluation, of who more accurately acts within their gender binary, greatly limits our ability to evaluate professors accurately. Teaching evaluations should be taken seriously, as they are often used to decide promotions, raises or tenure for a school’s faculty members, and have a significant impact on a professor’s career.

While it’s often difficult to remove ourselves from our own biases, the first step is to acknowledge that they are there in order to consciously resist their influence on our expectations. Students need to understand their own biases and learn to evaluate professors based on what they see and not simply on what they expect to see.