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Professors discuss gender bias in course evaluations

| Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Every spring semester, students at Saint Mary’s are encouraged to provide feedback about their professors from the previous semester through spring course evaluations. The purpose of the evaluations is for professors to receive feedback on their performance, with the aim of helping them grow professionally.

However, Terri Russ, associate professor of communication studies, said gendered bias often presents itself in these evaluations.

“I have studied this with colleagues at Notre Dame,” Russ said. “We’ve discovered that the further you are from the straight, white male norm, the more negative reviews you will receive.”

Russ said she has had her own experiences with gendered bias in the courses she has taught. 

“I’m a feminist and I teach critical theory,” she said. “We talk about a lot of heavy subjects like oppression, racism and sexism. I also teach a rhetoric class. There is a lot of writing involved and I force students to look at both sides of the story. I’ve had students say that I’m mean because I don’t smile enough or that I’m unprofessional.”

Russ added her experiences with gender biased evaluations are not limited to her own evaluations.

“I have never met a female professor who didn’t have her appearance critiqued,” she said. “No matter what they wear, it’s wrong. You could wear a suit and it wouldn’t be right.”

Bill Svelmoe, a history professor, said he has a very different experience.

Svelmoe wears Hawaiian shirts to class and in the winter, and he often doesn’t wear shoes inside. Yet, he has never had a negative comment about his appearance. The comments on his appearance are often complimentary.

In an email, Svelmoe said he often receives comments like, “He looks like Val Kilmer,” “His socks don’t always match his outfits,” “Love the Hawaiian shirts.” 

“I’ve never had a cruel comment,” he said. “Doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’ve just never had one.”

Bettina Spencer, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the College, said she has done her own research on bias in these evaluations.

“This is pretty well-documented across the country,” Spencer said. “ … The comments section gets very personal for women, while they’re kept vague for men. There are often complaints about things women can’t change like the sound of their voice.”

Spencer said this trend is indicative of a double standard for male and female professors at the College.

“Women are expected to always be both likable and competent,” she said. “For men, it’s enough that they be competent. Likability is just a bonus for male professors. It’s a cool extra thing, but it’s not necessary for men the way it is for women.”

This double standard is especially visible in reviews of women of color, Spencer said.

“If women of color aren’t seen as warm and friendly, they’ll be called rude and dismissive. However, if they’re too warm or friendly, they get called unprofessional,” Spencer said. “It’s a line between professional or friendly and it’s a line nobody can walk. You get dinged either way.”

Spencer said non-tenured professors tend to take reviews more personally.

“When you’re first starting off, it’s hard to know what’s bias and to discard, and what you should actually keep,” she said. “I try to focus on what’s actually about my class. I can’t change my voice and I’m going to wear what’s comfortable. However, I know that I’m privileged in that matter. I have tenure. It’s harder for junior faculty members to know which critiques are valid and which are a result of bias.”

In terms of the effectiveness of student evaluations, Svelmoe and Russ agree evaluations can be helpful for professors.

“I think what evaluations are better at measuring is simply, ‘Did students enjoy the class?’” Svelmoe said. “I think there is often a direct connection between ‘enjoyment’ of a class and real learning. It’s just that evaluations are less effective at measuring real learning, and more effective at measuring student enjoyment. Did students look forward to coming to class? Did they like the prof? Did they stay interested once class started? Those are important things to know, whether or not they directly correlate to student learning.”

Russ emphasized the importance of continuous evaluation in order to keep students involved and to help prevent gendered evaluations.

“When students give their final course evaluations, they’re anonymous,” she said. “It’s like online trolling. I think it’s important for professors to seek feedback throughout the course. That way, they still have time to correct the course if something doesn’t work.”

Russ said she tries to give students information about the evaluation process.

“I take some time to call out and talk about the evaluation process,” she said. “It’s important for students to know how [evaluations] can benefit students.”

The most important thing for Russ is that students try to be civil in their evaluations.

“Students should remember that professors are people and that we have feelings too,” she said.  

Spencer said Saint Mary’s has been trying to combat gender bias in evaluations.

“We redesigned the evaluations a few years ago to try and remove space for the biases,” Spencer said. “We want to make the evaluations more effective and less open ended. When the questions were open ended [comments] were just about the person, not the class.”

Spencer said at Saint Mary’s, specifically, the bias is about the same as around the country — however, that can change over four years at the college.

“There is so much sexism inherent with women in high-status positions,” Spencer said. “However, we have done studies and we know that by the fourth year, women at Saint Mary’s tend to have reduced gender stereotypes. There is a perspective shift over four years towards women leaders.”

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