Margot Besnard: Avoid gender stereotypes when evaluating professors

Ask me whether I think a man or a woman should teach a large lecture class at GW, and I’ll tell you I’d be happy to take a class from either professor. Gender doesn’t correlate with capability or knowledge.

You’d be hard-pressed to find college students on any campus who openly believe men are smarter than women. So what explains why we might systematically rate female professors lower than male professors at the end of the semester?

Studies show evidence of bias in official course evaluations against women teaching large lectures. A data visualization of 14 million RateMyProfessor reviews, created by assistant history professor Benjamin Schmidt at Northeastern University, also shows that female professors in all areas of study are praised less for intelligence and teaching ability, and more for their compassion. They’re more likely than male professors to be criticized as “disorganized,” “rude” and “bossy.”

As students, we should see evidence of gender bias in faculty reviews as a sign that we carry implicit biases — which we might not even realize we have — that can affect the way we perceive each other and ourselves. When we read reviews on RateMyProfessor and fill out course evaluations at the end of the semester, we should remember that our perceptions might be influenced by gendered stereotypes that disadvantage female professors.

Even though I disagree with the concept that women should always be nice and are less capable than men in the workplace, I’ve still been exposed to that idea throughout my life. This means that when it comes to evaluations, I might, without noticing, describe a male professor who doesn’t turn an exam back as “busy” and a female professor who doesn’t turn an exam back as “disorganized.”

It’s clear why ratings like these cause concern. Most of us look at RateMyProfessor before choosing classes, and course evaluations can have tangible effects on professors’ jobs. Evaluations are taken into consideration when faculty are being evaluated for tenure positions, and officials review them to gauge how much students like courses.

At first, the data on gender bias in faculty reviews shocked me because I tend to think of our generation as much less prejudiced than earlier ones. As a feminist, I was surprised that even I — and other open-minded students — can carry these gendered biases.

But Alyssa Zucker, a psychology and women’s studies associate professor, explained that even students who consider themselves “progressive” can still have implicit biases. But the fact that these biases are implicit and hard to address, she said, shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore them.

“The same behavior done by a male professor and a female professor tends to be treated differently by students,” Zucker said. “I think a lot of junior female professors are worried about that — do they have to behave a certain way not to get bad evaluations? I think a lot of junior male professors aren’t concerned about that.”

The change has to start with each of us being more mindful about how we perceive others. Through meaningful conversations, we can work together to identify and address our implicit biases. And the University can help by continuing to facilitate discussions about gender through panels and discussions that allow students to share their experiences.

Zucker said groups or discussions where people can talk about privilege and identity might be a good first step.

“Even though its explicit, I think it can have effects,” she said.

In the meantime, I’ll be thinking more about how I see others, and hope others will reflect on how they see me.

Margot Besnard, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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