The (Gendered) Problem with Performance Reviews

evalsEven now, twenty years into my teaching career, I still fear the performance reviews that come at every semester’s end, when my students spend 10-15 minutes evaluating my course on anonymous forms. These evaluations are returned to me about a month into the new term, compelling me toward yet another panic attack.

Since I began teaching, I’ve opened these envelops with trembling hands and behind my locked office door, a private moment affording me an opportunity to hear just what students think about me. (Though not wholly private, as these performance reviews are read by my chair and my dean, and in years when I was up for tenure or promotion, by a personnel committee made up of peers from across campus.)

Although I recognize the need for student evaluations and performance reviews, this process also sucks, both in the figurative sense, but also in the literal sense of sucking my confidence away. Several recent studies suggest the entire performance review process, in universities and elsewhere, sucks a bit more for women than for men. New reports out this week argues that, according to NPR, “student evaluations are systematically biased against women — so much so, in fact, that they’re better mirrors of gender bias than they are of what they are supposed to be measuring: teaching quality.”

This statistical analysis reflects what Inside Higher Education reported last year: in a small pilot project at North Carolina State, when students assume an online professor is male, they will provide more positive reviews than when the teacher is assumed to be female. That study concluded “a female instructor would have to work harder than a male to receive comparable ratings,” all other aspects of the courses being equal. You can read the fascinating—and depressing—construction of the study, and its results, here.

As the Inside Higher Ed. report suggests, earlier research about teaching evaluations also concluded that women are often expected to be more nurturing and supportive than their male colleagues, even though taking on these character traits may make them seem less authoritative.

The more recent study, published on the ScienceOpen web page, concludes that gender influences even how students rate seemingly objective aspects of teaching, “such as how promptly assignments are graded,” and that “gender biases can be large enough to cause more effective teachers” to get lower evaluation scores than less effective teachers.

A recent report in The Economist suggests students more often use the term “brilliant” to describe their male professors, and more often use the term “horrible” to describe their female professors. Apparently, in fields like English, the disparity between female and male professors is especially wide in this regard: students find their male professors more brilliant and less horrible by wide margins, compared to fields like mathematics.

I should probably be shocked by such a study, but am not, in part because I remember my own reaction to professors when I was an undergraduate: when the English department hired a female faculty member, I was initially disappointed, believing the new hire would not be as authoritative, nor as inspiring, as her male colleagues. It took me about 1.5 semesters to realize my initial, incredibly biased perception was wrong, and I now can’t imagine being where I am in life without her influence.

As an instructor, too, I have recognized the many ways my gender informs students’ response to me, and there have been occasions where I am almost certain that the male professors in my department—indeed, in the entire institution—are treated far differently than their female colleagues.

Students who undermine their female professors in the classroom, or who show disregard for their professors’ knowledge or who speak out of turn in those classrooms, often show far more deference in classes where my male colleagues are teaching. This has been especially true at the Christian university where I teach, and where some students have deeply internalized the sense that women shouldn’t be teaching—shouldn’t be in the workplace—at all.

And now there is data to substantiate this sense that gender biases definitely do exist in the classroom. Unfortunately, bad student evaluations do more than merely make professors despair: they are used by institutions for promotion and tenure, and can be the difference between someone getting and keeping a job—or not.

When universities are grappling with how they can recruit and retain women for faculty positions, they might need to start here, by recognizing the ways seemingly “objective” student evaluations—in addition to other institutional policies and procedures—are part of a system that creates an uneven playing field for women. Doing away with anonymous student evaluations might be one place to make sure that playing field becomes more fair.