Bias against female professors is real

female teacher blackboard

A history professor at Northeastern University in Boston has just developed a tool to search the ubiquitous student rankings found at “Rate My Professor.”  For those of you who don’t know ratemyprofessor, it is an online site where college students can go and “rate” their professors on a range of factors, some related to their teaching (and to student learning) and others, not so much (students can assign a hot chili pepper to those professors that the students find, well, “hot”). Because this rating system is voluntary, and not administered to all students in a given course, it tends to disproportionately draw students who either love or hate particular professors.

As a female professor, I have had my share of caustic student comments (on university evaluations as well as ratemyprofessor) that have taken on a gendered tone. But as a tenured, full professor, I have less concern for myself than for the deeply unsettling insight that this data exposes about how sexism is working in the classroom (for an example of this put the terms “smart” and “intelligent” in the search engine and check out the results). My concern is both for the learning environment and how students’ own sexism is negatively impacting the students in question as well as for the junior female professors who struggle with questions of their classroom persona, their teaching authority, and how best to embody what it means to be a smart, intelligent, and respected teacher and scholar in a world where those categories are still, too often, defined by male norms. A good friend and colleague is currently writing a piece on how women professors decide how to dress in the classroom for a teaching website, a question that, I suspect, is far more challenging for women professors than our male colleagues.

And if the impact of gender bias is this pronounced in the classroom, we can also speculate about what’s happening related to racial bias among student populations. Young, women of color professors often face a dizzying array of subconscious bias that makes classroom teaching even more challenging. Having served as a department chair and as a mid-career professor, I have supported, counseled, and strategized with a number of my female colleagues about how to address these issues in the classroom and in tenure materials.

To any students reading this – I encourage you to think about the ways in which your own bias and prejudice may be impacting your capacity to learn from your instructors.

To my teaching colleagues in the academy – this data set is a gold mine of information that can help us begin to examine and talk about the ways in which implicit bias functions in our classrooms and in your institutions.

As a postscript, I just spent a hour searching for a graphic to accompany this post and nearly every image in the public domain associated with the search term “professor” was male, of those associated with “teacher” closer to half or more were female, though most were clearly elementary and secondary school teachers.

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