Young and female? A recipe for poorer teaching evaluations

By Constance Sommerey & Afke Groen

Teaching evaluations. After a course has ended, we await these sensitive comments in at times anxious, at times happy anticipation. We are interested to find out whether the changes we made to a course worked. Whether we could reach our students and actually help them learn something. Whether strategies to improve PBL played out in the eyes of our students. We are not interested to find out whether students thought we were (not) hot. Or bitchy. Or both. Or whether we dressed appropriately. Yet, students are so kind to provide this extra information when evaluating young and female tutors. And it sucks!

At times, we are confronted with outright sexism, including comments about the ‘sexy Dutch blonde’ and ‘dumb Dutch blonde’. Usually, we find that language is gendered in other ways. As female tutors, we receive more comments on our personality and appearance. We are also less frequently referred to as ‘professor’ than our male colleagues, and more frequently as ‘teacher’. And students use different adjectives to describe their male and female tutors. Female tutors are more often called ‘strict’ or ‘sweet’, while male tutors more frequently receive comments about being ‘funny’ or ‘smart’.

Such stereotypical adjectives may seem innocent, but they actually bear connotations about how we judge a tutor’s capability. An analysis of almost 20,000 student evaluations at the School of Business and Economics is alarming. The authors write that female tutors “receive systematically lower teaching evaluations than their male colleagues”, while the tutor’s gender does not affect students’ grades or self-study hours. The bias is driven by the evaluations of male students, who on average evaluate their female tutors about 0.2 points worse than their male colleagues on a 5-point scale.

And the bias is especially pronounced for junior female tutors, who systematically receive even lower evaluations compared to their male counterparts both from both male and female students. Based on our own calculations from the data, male students rate female PhD candidates 0.27 points worse, while female students rate them 0.13 points worse. In contrast, female professors – being more senior – receive substantially higher evaluations than their male colleagues from female students. The intersection of seniority and gender is thus crucial.

Gender and age biases like these can have real consequences. In assessment talks or promotion decisions, most academics are judged based on their performance on the two core academic businesses: research and education. And while research can be judged by publications or grant applications, teaching cannot. One of the few tools we have to judge a person’s performance in education are teaching evaluations. These teaching evaluations might even play an increasingly important role in assessment interviews, because there are plans to move away from relying too heavily on research records as the basis for academics’ promotion to putting more emphasis on teaching and teaching-related tasks.

Gender biased teaching evaluations thus create potential unequal opportunities in particular for young female academics. They may have direct consequences in decisions about who gets a promotion. They might also play a role in decisions about appointing course coordinators, directors of studies, or other teaching management positions.

Crucially, it is not just our managers or peers who use the evaluations to assess our performance. We ourselves use them to assess our performance and to instil confidence in our efforts. And receiving bad evaluations, or evaluations that deal with all kinds of things except our performance as a tutor, have left a mark on us. They have made us question choice of clothing before heading to a lecture or tutorial. Is my skirt too short? Are my heels too high? Is this pair of jeans authoritative enough? They have also made us question our very competencies as tutors and even our career choice.

Now, not everyone is made for a career in academic teaching. And not all evaluative comments can or need to be traced back to gender and age biases in our students. But we should be aware that there are these biases and then we all – managers included – take these evaluations with a grain of salt. When being assessed or assessing others, don’t shy away from addressing biases in teaching evaluations. When asking your students to evaluate the next time, show them some of the research findings. And when looking for ways to evaluate teaching, think about other options than student evaluations only, including visiting each other’s classes and lectures, and evaluating each other’s course manuals, tutor instructions and feedback. Then we all make an effort also to disarm bias.

About the authors

Constance Sommerey is the Diversity Officer of Maastricht University. She translates ideas about diversity and inclusivity into concrete policy measures with the aim to become a truly inclusive university in which students and staff feel valued for their individual, diverse viewpoints and experiences. Constance completed her PhD at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and has much experience teaching in academia as lecturer and former Deputy Programme Director of the BA Arts and Culture.

Afke Groen is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and the Amsterdam Institute for German Studies. She teaches mostly in skills training courses in the BA European Studies. Besides her research on transnational party activities in the European Union, she also researches various aspects of teaching and learning at university. Afke is co-editor of the FASoS Teaching & Learning blog.