Gender, Teaching

Rating Instructors by Gender

Male and Female

School-culture-comparisons are one advantage of the BA -> MA -> PhD track of perpetual studenthood. And at every Higher Ed. institution I’ve attended, at some point, someone has made a common observation: In general, it seems that more students call their female professors by their first names, while referring to male professors as Dr. So-and-so. 

It’s a subtle difference, but it has been a fairly consistent trend. There can be many reasons for this difference—some say male professors come off as more distant, or that female professors are more approachable and more frequently ask their students to use their first names—but the point is that there’s a definite difference.

NPR recently did a story about the work of Bennjamin Schmidt, a professor at Northeastern University, who created a database of reviews from, a popular site where students can (you guessed it) rate their professors. Schmidt’s database allows you to type in any word to see how often it’s used in reviews of male vs. female professors by subject area. For example, here’s the chart for the word “funny.”

Professor Ratings by GenderAccording to NPR:

“Among the words more likely to be used to describe men: smart, idiot, interesting, boring, cool, creepy. And for women: sweet, shrill, warm, cold, beautiful, evil. “Funny” and “corny” were also used more often to describe men, while “organized” and “disorganized” showed up more for women. In short… men are more likely to be judged on an intelligence scale, while women are more likely to be judged on a nurturing scale.

The charts demonstrate quite clearly that, while professors are essentially doing the same job regardless of gender, students have different expectations for male/female professors: It seems we don’t expect our male instructors to be “nurturing,” so when they’re not, no harm done. Whereas a more “distant” female professor may get rated as “cold” or even “evil.”

While, in this study, the overall scores for male/female professors weren’t significantly different, another study found that students in online classes rate instructors more highly if they think the instructor is a man. In this study:

“The students were divided into four discussion groups of 8 to 12 students each. A female instructor led two of the groups, while a male instructor led the other two. However, the female instructor told one of her online discussion groups that she was male, while the male instructor told one of his online groups that he was female. Because of the format of the online groups, students never saw or heard their instructor.

At the end of the course… the instructor whom students thought was male received higher ratings on all 12 traits, regardless of whether the instructor was actually male or female.

Essentially, this study seems to suggest that simply thinking that your professor is male will lead to higher course evaluations, regardless of the actual teaching involved.

Both studies leave a lot to think about in terms of the unofficial “standards” to which we unconsciously or consciously hold instructors–expectations, and even biases, that are clearly grounded in gender. And as student reviews factor increasingly into promotion and tenure decisions, these biases have concrete effects on faculty members’ careers and professional standing.

How can we address these disparities? Are there other ways in which male/female faculty members are held to different expectations? How might this be addressed?

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