Teaching and Justice

Teaching While Female

by Kristin Broussard, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

In keeping with the Reinert Center’s theme of “Teaching and Justice,” I think it is important to highlight some of the areas in higher education where justice is lacking – namely, the gender inequality experienced by women faculty.

First, some background on gendered expectations, or expectations that differ based on gender. Female gender roles typically consist of communal traits (e.g., kind, helpful, nurturing, sympathetic, emotional), whereas male gender roles typically consist of agentic traits (e.g., strong, assertive, confident, independent, ambitious; e.g., Eckes, 2002). Women face a double-edged sword when in leadership roles, as stereotypically female traits are not considered conducive to successful leadership, but when women display agentic (i.e., stereotypically masculine) traits, they are often perceived as lacking in social skills and emotional warmth, and frequently face backlash, including prejudice and hiring discrimination (e.g., Heilman, 2001; Phelan, 2008; Phelan & Rudman, 2010; Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012). Additionally, women (and other marginalized group members) must demonstrate greater evidence of their expertise in order to be perceived as equally competent to men (or other dominant group members; Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997).

In academia, gendered expectations can contribute to gender inequality in faculty career trajectories. Female faculty are less likely to hold or be promoted to senior positions (e.g., full or tenure professor; department chair), have lower salaries, and tend to have smaller discretionary research funds, compared to their male counterparts (Roos & Gatta, 2009). These career barriers may be due in part to gender biases in the metrics used to determine career advancement, such as student evaluations of teaching.

Students have their own gendered expectations about their professors. Students expect female professors to be nurturing and caring, whereas male professors are expected to be funny and entertaining (Sprague & Massoni, 2005). Although both of these expectations put pressures on teachers, the demands on women professors tend to be more burdensome and taxing. Students request more standard demands (e.g., office hours), special requests (e.g., make-up assignments), and friendship favors from female professors than from male professors, resulting in significantly greater emotional labor demands on female professors compared to male professors (El-Alayi, Hansen-Brown, & Ceynar, 2018). Furthermore, academically entitled students – those who believe they deserve to succeed academically, regardless of effort or performance – are more likely to request special favors, more likely to expect requests to be granted, and to react negatively if requests are denied when dealing with female versus male professors (El-Alayli et al., 2018). In addition, students perceive female professors more negatively than male professors when they assert themselves in the classroom, even when using standard classroom management practices (Elias & Loomis, 2004), and students perceive female instructors as less knowledgeable and less competent than their male counterparts (Moshavi, Dana, Standifird, & Pons, 2008). Furthermore, female instructors who students evaluate as not living up to gender expectations (e.g., nurturing, caring) are often reviled (i.e., rated as rigid, unfair, cold, psychotic; called derogatory names), whereas their male counterparts are merely rated negatively (i.e., rated as boring, uncaring; Sprague & Massoni, 2005)

There is fairly consistent evidence of biased student perceptions of teaching effectiveness, which translates into gender-bias in student evaluations of their instructors. In a French natural experiment of national education data, male instructors were rated as more effective, especially by male students, even though objective measures of teaching effectiveness indicated that female instructors were more effective instructors (Boring, Ottoboni, & Stark, 2016; Boring, 2017). In a randomized controlled experiment conducted in the United States, students in several sections of an online course were told their instructor was either male or female (which was only true some of the time). At the end of the course, students rated perceived male instructors as more effective than perceived female instructors, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender. Perceived male instructors were also rated as more fair, prompt in returning assignments (even though this was standardized across sections), enthusiastic, professional, respectful, caring, and as having better communication and giving more praise (Boring et al., 2016; MacNell, Driscoll, & Hunt, 2015). Ironically, actual female instructors were rated higher in praise and responsiveness and the students of actual male instructors tended to perform worse in the course than the students of actual female instructors.

As this research demonstrates, women are likely to face different, potentially costlier, expectations than men in academia, and many of these gendered expectations will have real impacts on their ability to advance in their careers. Unfortunately, I do not have any immediate solutions. Many of these issues stem from cultural and systemic biases that cannot be fixed solely through regulation and institutional practices but must be slowly worn away through changing social perceptions of women and of professional academic positions.

Of course, there are alternative ways to evaluate teaching effectiveness. If you would like to discuss additional ways to gather information about your teaching, contact the Reinert Center for a consultation.



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