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Do college kids disrespect female professors and cut male professors extra slack? Or do female professors act in ways that earn disrespect relative to their male counterparts? The data described here don’t answer those questions, but they do show that consistent asymmetries exist. The results summarize certain features of student evaluations by gender of professor, and while seemingly incredible, they deserve further scrutiny.

The Study

The study in the Chronicle of Higher Education covered 14 million evaluations housed at RateMyProfessor.com. Word frequencies from student evaluations indicate that female professors are perceived less frequently as “brilliant” and “funny” than male professors, and more frequently as “mean” and “rude”. Directionally, the result applied to every area of study without exception. What could be driving such a gap?

First, the scale of measurement needs a closer look. If evaluations average 50 words, let’s say, then 500 single uses of a word per million words would amount to once in every 20 evaluations. That’s a little easier to digest. It’s clear from the charts that “funny” and “rude” are used more frequently than “brilliant” and “mean”, regardless of the professor’s gender. But the bulk of evaluations do not use any of those words. That’s an important qualification, and yet the results are so strikingly consistent that it’s hard to deny that differences exist, at least between extremes within the male and female faculty cohorts.

Explanations

For the moment, suppose the students’ perceptions are accurate in some objective sense. If so, perhaps some women in academia overcompensate in an effort to be taken seriously in a world dominated by males. Males don’t dominate all subject areas, however, and even in areas of study more likely to have high female representation. females are still evaluated more harshly on these criteria. In fact, a perusal of the subject areas might even suggest that some of these particular gender gaps are smaller in STEM fields, which are traditionally dominated by males. Still, the overcompensation hypothesis might have a grain of truth, even if “overcompensation” by female profs is merely a form of ongoing rebellion against traditional gender roles. For the same reason, maybe “severe” female personalities self-select for academic jobs in greater proportion than males, though I’m not sure that holds up.

If the student perceptions are incorrect, what’s driving them? Are expectations for women in academia simply more demanding? Such that many female profs fail to live up across a broad range of dimensions? There is strong support for the proposition that student evaluations are biased against female profs. If students are somehow conditioned to think that a female prof will be inferior, she might have to outperform her male counterparts along various dimensions simply to stay even. That might well explain the regular patterns of words used by some students.

Other Qualifications and Contradictions

The word frequencies described above aren’t definitive by any means, even if you put great stock in student evaluations. In fact, using the interactive tool provided by the authors of the study, the word “nice” appears relatively often and in consistently higher numbers for female than for male profs. And, with consistent but very low frequency, the word “moron” is used to describe more male profs than females. Maybe there’s greater variance across female professors in the “niceness” dimension, and more variance across males in the “smarts” dimension (and some research suggests that the latter is true). I’m not so sure about the “funniness” dimension, buy I know some very funny women!

It would be helpful to know the breakdown of word frequencies by student gender. What I often hear from female acquaintances is that women are harder on other women than on men. In relationships involving asymmetric power, this is the so-called “Queen Bee Syndrome“, a phenomenon having some empirical support.

There could be other biases baked into the study, such as a predominance of angry reviewers, but I’m not sure that would explain a bias against female profs. Finally, it’s possible the RateMyProfessors site attracts more male reviewers. A rough (and amusing) feel for the proportion of male and female reviewers might be gleaned by entering the word “hot” into the tool (!). As expected, the mostly male engineers are much more likely to use that expression as a description of female profs, but reviewers in most fields are fairly balanced in their choice of that word.

Conclusion

The word frequencies may well reflect the adoption of harsher standards by some students for female profs relative to male profs, and there may be female profs who “overcompensate”. And maybe more women with relatively “thick-skin” are attracted to the ranks of the professoriate. College students can be a tough crowd, but it’s important to remember that they are mostly young. Teachers can and should refine their approach in ways that might produce greater learning and satisfaction. But more than anything else, the results reinforce the conclusion that institutions should be cautious about the weight they place on student evaluations in assessing faculty performance.