Minority status biases evaluation of both women and men professors
Further, since course evaluation scores are a significant factor in promotion and tenure decisions, this disparity negatively affects women professors’ career trajectories, hampering efforts to achieve equity and gender parity in the upper levels of the professoriate, says a new study published in the journal PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Our key finding is that regardless of which gender is in the minority, that gender receives lower course evaluation scores than does the dominant gender. We saw the same effects for men working in female-dominated departments and women working in male-dominated departments,” says Professor Oriana R Aragón, who teaches in the department of marketing at the Carl H Lindner College of Business of the University of Cincinnati.
She is lead author of the study published in PNAS earlier this year and titled “Gender bias in teaching evaluations: the causal role of department gender composition”.
“These findings are consistent with role congruity theory, which, in the context of academe, says that when a department is majority male or female, members of the opposite gender who teach in it are not deemed to be ‘authentic’ or as not being a bona fide expert.
“Students have a sense of, ‘It’s not quite right. I didn’t get the teacher that I should have had.’ This leads them to rate the professor lower, especially in upper-level courses; this negatively affects women professors because they are more often in the minority.”
The study and some findings
There are two parts to the study conducted by Aragón; Evava S Pietri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder; and Brian A Powell, Fjeld professor in nuclear environmental engineering and science at Clemson University in South Carolina.
The first part utilised course evaluations from courses in which 115,647 students were enrolled in all of Clemson University’s 51 departments. These evaluations covered 1,885 educators who taught 4,700 courses during the 2018-19 academic year.
The evaluations utilised a Likert-type scale ranging from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). Since introductory courses have much larger enrolments, more than 72% of the courses were upper level, that is, years three and four.
These archived evaluations revealed that in departments with gender parity, students rated male and female educators almost equally in both the lower- and upper-level courses.
By contrast, in those departments that were majority male, female educators teaching lower-level courses were rated almost 0.1 point higher than were male teachers: 4.24 to 4.15. In upper-level courses, the relative position of the genders flipped, with women scoring 4.28 and men just under 4.37.
In the lower-level courses, in departments in which women made up the majority of the instructors, female educators actually scored 0.1 points lower than do males: 4.33 to 4.43. In upper-level courses in which the teaching staff is majority female, female educators are rated 4.48 while male teachers were rated more than a tenth of a point lower (4.36), a significant difference in scores.
Interpreting some findings
Central to understanding the results found in the evaluations from 2018-19, Aragón explained, is role congruity theory.
Female professors are rated more highly by both male and female students in lower-level courses, she says, partially because students value the interpersonal nurturing role that female instructors either provide or are seen to provide at that level of the university.
“Role congruity theory tells us that women are seen as more communal. Women are seen as caretakers of the home and of the sick, for example. In male dominated departments, at least at the lower level, it’s consistent with stereotypes to see women in these roles and that translates into rating them more highly on evaluations.”
The lower course evaluation scores that male instructors receive when they teach lower-level courses in male dominated departments can be understood as the flipside of why male professors are rated so much higher than are female professors in the upper-level courses in these same departments.
The expectation, according to role congruity theory, is that upper-level courses will be taught by experts in their fields. Since 72.6% (or 37) of Clemson University’s programmes have majority male staff, simple maths dictates that the cadre teaching the upper-level courses will be majority male.
Male educators in the lower-level courses pay a price of approximately 2/10ths of a point on their course evaluation scores because, Aragón and her co-authors aver, they are seen as fulfilling supporting (that is, stereotypically female) and not essential or agentic roles in their department’s educational and research ecosphere.
Women teachers in upper-level courses in female dominated departments are rated more highly than are those who teach lower-level courses (4.28 to 4.49). They also received higher course evaluation scores than men teachers who teach in departments in which female instructors dominate, such as nursing.
“Because upper-level courses signal high status and require expertise, broader gender stereotypes [that is, those beyond the university itself] would imply that men should teach upper-level courses,” Aragón et al write.
“However,” Aragón further explained to University World News, “the broader stereotype is overridden in female dominated departments, such as nursing or education where women may be considered bona fide members in those fields. And, so follows too, women’s higher evaluation scores, relative to men, when teaching these upper-level courses in female-dominated departments.”
The course evaluation scores for male teachers who teach lower-level courses in majority female departments is not only approximately 0.2 points higher than their male colleagues who teach in majority male departments, it is more than a point higher than the course evaluation scores of women professors who teach in male dominated departments.
Aragón and her co-authors explain why we see these biases against those in the gender minority in upper-level courses but not in lower-level courses by pointing to a societal paradox identified by role congruity theory.
“In the female-dominated domain of the family caregiver, men are evaluated negatively for filling the essential care-giver role of stay-at-home fathers or for taking extended family leave, which signals a primary caretaking position,” they write.
“Yet, men are viewed more positively than are women when they fill supportive roles in female domains, such as reducing work hours to help with the family’s needs or taking shorter leaves from work for supportive or interim caretaking. It seems that those in the gender minority are not penalised for entering gender incongruent domains when they are simply facilitating the more supposedly genuine measures of that domain.”
Shifting gender-based expectations
The second part of the “Gender bias” article reports on an experiment Aragón et al used to see if they could shift students’ gender-based expectations about professors and their ‘fit’.
In the research, 803 students were randomly assigned to departments, the descriptions of which were vague enough so that the students could not make stereotypical assumptions about whether the department was male- or female-dominated.
The students were then shown ‘faculty’ webpages that were manipulated to show male- or female-dominated departments and asked to evaluate the professors.
In the absence of classroom experience with professors the course evaluation scores were more stratified by gender. For example, female teachers in majority male departments who teach lower-level courses received course evaluation scores 0.17 higher than male teachers in the experimental group, while in the archived group the difference was 0.08.
“Our manipulation via a few moments with a faculty webpage,” writes Aragón, “was most likely not powerful enough to override broader gender stereotypes, particularly because the fields of study were not specified. Thus, the gender stereotypes appeared to play a larger part in shaping biases in the experimental than in the archival study” and significantly disadvantaged women.
Aragón and her co-authors conclude the “Gender bias” article with two arguments.
The first addresses the question of whether, as departments become more balanced in terms of gender, existing stereotypes go by the wayside. While they answer yes, their example, computer programming, points to the paucity of examples of fields where the achievement of gender parity has improved the perception of women.
In the 1960s, computer programming, which involved preparing computer punch cards and, thus, was not seen as being far removed from bookkeeping or secretarial work, was a majority female job classification and was seen as a being supportive role. “Once the field became male dominated” – in the mid-1970s – they write, “the characterisation of the field changed to one of cerebral analysis”.
Secondly, the authors indicate strategies that departments and universities can use until various fields reach gender parity, so that women professors are not systematically disadvantaged by the bias in course evaluation scores.
Among these strategies is one they dub “fake it until you make it”, which would de-emphasise course evaluation scores and emphasise the achievements of both men and women in their departments. To try to neutralise gender expectations and course levels, they propose that “both male and female educators should teach lower- and upper-level courses”.
Finally, they call on tenure and promotion committees to make themselves aware of the bias inherent in course evaluation scores which, their study shows, have more to do with students’ sense of ‘fit’ than with performance in the classroom.
“Promotion and tenure decisions are made,” Aragón told University World News, “on very small differences. If the department average for a certain item on the questionnaire is 4.6 and you have a 4.55, you better believe I have gotten letters from the tenure promotion review committee that say, ‘You really need to get that score up a little bit’.
“That little fraction of a point can make a huge difference. It can decide who gets promoted, who gets tenure and who doesn’t. At present, the bias in these numbers disproportionately negatively affects the trajectory of women educators in colleges and universities.”