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The "XX" Factor: Gender bias in course evaluations

Original publication: proFmagazine, May 15, 2017.

While course evaluations are intended to provide important and constructive feedback about college classroom experiences, they also demonstrate a significant amount of gender and other bias.

It’s that time of year again: when college and university students sit with a No. 2 pencil and fill in bubbles (or click boxes on an electronic device) and rate their professors. While course evaluations are intended to provide important and, hopefully, constructive feedback about college classroom and content experiences, they also demonstrate a significant amount of gender bias. Such bias has been the subject of concern for many years, prompting a number of media articles and a good amount of scholarly research.  

I started reflecting on my own evaluations last summer when I read two delightful memoirs – Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object and Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I particularly loved how both authors shared some of their favorite (and crazy-mean) hate mail. Fey’s sassy-pants responses to the nasty comments she has received actually made me laugh out loud. But then again, Fey always makes me LOL!  

In this spirit, I thought it would be fun (and therapeutic) to share some of my favorite course evaluation comments from over the years. I originally offered the evaluations, and my own sassy responses, on social media and was relatively surprised by the discussion they generated. As I told my Facebook friends, these are real comments – because I certainly wouldn’t (and couldn’t) make this sh*t up.

Student: “I love Dr. Grillot’s shoes, she has the best shoes.”

Me: Well thank you – I do LOVE shoes! I will clearly incorporate more great shoes into my course plans from now on!

Student: “….she thinks she is Jennifer Aniston.”

Me: Actually, I think I am more of a Courtney Cox (as Monica) or Tina Fey (as Tina Fey) kind of girl – a little awkward, anxious and, therefore, prone to oversharing. Besides, I just can’t get my hair straightened quite like Jennifer does, but I’ll keep trying.

Student: “She gives off an air of arrogance, and thinks she's so important. Class was harder than it should be. Not a fan of her, personally or professionally.”

Me: If I wasn’t so arrogant and self-important, I might just be offended by this comment, but thank you for that helpful feedback about how I should avoid being a confident woman who is secure in her abilities – I do know that that often comes across as terribly arrogant and self-righteous. I will do better – and will especially make sure my classes are easier than they should be.

Student: “Dr. Grillot talks too much about her daughter. She should decide whether she wants to be a mother or a professor. Class isn’t the place for canoodling with her daughter.”

Me: (after googling “canoodling” to confirm its definition): True, I do love my daughter and occasionally use her as an example in class (much to her chagrin), and when she was little I occasionally had to bring her to class – she was terribly disruptive while silently taking in Harry Potter books – but I just can’t decide whether I should be a professional woman OR be a mom, as clearly there is no possible way to be BOTH, but I continue to try my hardest despite how difficult it is for you to watch me. But thank you for your kindness and understanding – such open-mindedness will take you far in life!

Student: “Professor Grillot is a MILF.”

Me: (after googling MILF): Ew. But, um, thanks…I think? And, well, just ew. 

Student: “Dean Grillot is a BAMF!”

Me: (after googling BAMF): Thank you, I AM a BAMF! In fact, I come from a whole line of BAMFs – my grandmother was a BAMF, my mother is a BAMF, and I have passed the BAMF genes on to my amazing daughter…did I mention my daughter in class?!

Student: “It is because of professors like Suzette Grillot that I am transferring from this university. I hate her.”

Me: I had no idea I had such a profound effect on your college experience, but because I cannot detect here what about the class, or me, was so dissatisfying and painful, I will just say good luck and best wishes – I am sure you will find what you are looking for, somewhere!! (winky face, winky face, winky face…)

The responses to my Facebook post were indeed interesting. It received over 200 “likes” and “loves,” as well as nearly 50 comments. Many simply thought it was funny and thanked me for the much-needed laugh. A few high school classmates said they have always known I was a BAMF (J). And it was interesting to me that several male colleagues shared their own course evaluation comments (“he isn’t funny,” “he is such a liberal,” “he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is,” etc.), but didn’t acknowledge the problems with mine (and even thought the MILF comment was a compliment!). In fact, only one male colleague actually noted how this kind of evaluation experience – receiving criticism for being a mom and being objectified by college students – was unacceptable, and that he would be paying attention to this issue in the future.

But many female friends and colleagues thanked me for the honesty, shared similar experiences, and mused about how to address the problem. Junior faculty in particular expressed concern as course reviews do affect annual performance evaluations, the impressions of colleagues, progress toward tenure, and eventual success in obtaining tenure and promotion.

I responded to the comments the post received by detailing three reasons that this is an important issue facing women in academia: (1) it calls into question the utility of such evaluations and whether students and faculty do, can or should take them seriously; (2) that one must always have a sense of humor when reading such evaluations (and pretty much always in general!); and (3) there is clearly a difference between the kinds of comments men and women receive from their students. I am concerned about reason #1 (and committed to reason #2), but really concerned about reason #3.

Obviously, as a woman, I am often frustrated, disappointed, and downright pissed off when I read my course evaluations – which leads me, as it apparently does others, to just skip reading them (which isn’t good!). But more importantly, this sort of thing – the objectification and vilification of women in the classroom (or any room) – is unacceptable, to put it politely.

Moreover, reason #3 is a reflection of a much greater and more insidious problem on college campuses and in society, and it isn’t good for any of us. Any form of discrimination and inequity of this sort is a problem for everyone. It holds us all back, and it will take all of us to manage, minimize and mitigate it.

I noted at the end of my response that I had had fun with this post, but that reading how women in other (pretty much all) industries – journalism, private enterprise, entertainment, etc., in addition to higher education – consistently deal with this kind of systematic bias leads me to say, finally and publicly, enough already.

One final comment on my public outcry was: “preach it!”

You bet I’ll preach it! And there is plenty of evidence to help make the case.

For example, recent statistical analyses have suggested that course evaluations do not adequately rate teacher effectiveness, but do demonstrate gender bias across a number of disciplines. Bias isn’t just a factor regarding the gender of the instructor, but is also related to the gender of the student. Male students, for instance, rate male faculty higher than female faculty. Another study shows a “small same gender preference” in that male students prefer male professors and female students prefer female professors. Some research shows that female faculty have to work significantly harder than male faculty to receive the same evaluations. Quite concerning is that this effect is most prominent for female faculty at the junior level. But of course, the issue of bias in course evaluations isn’t just one based on gender, but one that affects the position of minorities as well.

All of this has led some to evaluate the value of evaluations. Further analysis has found that gender bias in course evaluations is inconsequential in terms of its actual affects, but the study admits that it is difficult to determine whether students are evaluating the professor’s effectiveness as an instructor or if they are judging professors personally – calling into question the overall utility of the evaluation process. The London School of Economics recently reported on this issue, stating:

The sign of any connection between SET [student evaluations of teaching] and teaching effectiveness is murky, whereas the associations between SET and grade expectations and between SET and instructor gender are clear and significant. Because SET are evidently biased against women (and likely against other underrepresented and protected groups)—and worse, do not reliably measure teaching effectiveness—the onus should be on universities either to abandon SET for employment decisions or to prove that their reliance on SET does not have disparate impact.

To visualize the point, have a look at Benjamin Schmidt’s fascinating graphic that aptly shows the gender bias evident in more than 14 million professor reviews published online. Just look at how much funnier students think their male professors are!

Although I am a major proponent of maintaining a sense of humor, the overall subject of gender bias on college campuses is no laughing matter. Women undoubtedly face a significant amount of bias in the workplace, any workplace – and college classrooms are no exception. In addition to skewed course evaluations, female faculty, and especially female faculty of color, are regularly addressed by students and colleagues using first names, sans hard-earned titles, despite the fact that male faculty are provided the professorial respect that all faculty earn and deserve. Women are regularly objectified in the classroom, enduring comments about their appearance, and worse, their sex appeal (think “MILF”). Women are also often expected to engage in the “typical” work of caring for their colleagues – making coffee, bringing snacks, taking notes at meetings, accepting difficult students into their classrooms (because men won’t), and engaging in far more service activities than their counterparts. Women are, in effect, the “head of the academic family.” This service burden detracts from research requirements and ultimately has significant consequences for women in higher education in terms of promotion and pay.

These facts have been documented over and over again. When, then, will it sink in? When will such evidence and knowledge lead to change? The truth about women in higher education classrooms cannot be denied any more than climate change, but such truths seem to lead to little change in behavior and outcome. Let’s call it what it is and say enough is enough. How many more articles and scholarly papers do we need to tell us this is reality, and a real problem?


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