Sad Pro Tip for Female Teachers: You’ll Win Over Students by Changing Your Name

A disturbing study of coeds enrolled in an online course reveals that they give better ratings when they think the instructor is male.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s nearly the end of the fall semester on America’s college campuses, which means students are preparing to be graded on their final papers and exams. It’s a stressful time, but at the end of it all, students get to turn the tables and give feedback about whether a professor lectured too much or was available to answer questions.

Yes, we’re talking the official course evaluation—those surveys that can sometimes determine whether a faculty member gets hired, is rehired, or is granted tenure. Now a study from North Carolina State University reveals that some male academics might be getting a significant ratings boost thanks to their students’ gender bias.

The study, which was recently published in the journal Innovative Higher Education, found that in each instance in which a group of students believed a male instructor was leading an online class, higher ratings resulted for the teacher on the course evaluations. This happened even when the teacher was actually a woman.

“In general, female instructors are expected to be more warm and more engaging, while male instructors are expected to be more professional and are given more of an automatic authority,” says Lillian MacNell, lead author of a paper and a doctoral student in sociology at the university. “When women are put in a position of authority, that can violate students’ expectations that they be warm and caring and nurturing, and that can cause this penalty that we’re seeing.”

Indeed, the relative anonymity of an online setting turned out to be a perfect one for revealing gender bias. The 43 students enrolled in the course never saw photographs or heard the voice of their instructors. The students had only the teacher's name and general biographical information.

The researchers then divided the students into four discussion groups of eight to 12 students each. Two of the discussion groups were taught by a male instructor, who led one set of students to believe that he was a woman and the other that he was a man. Similarly, the other two discussion groups were led by a female instructor, who allowed one group to assume that she was a woman and the other group to think that she was a man.

At the end of the class, students were sent an email asking them to rate their discussion-group instructors on a dozen traits. Overall, the students gave their “male” instructors higher rankings on every single indicator. However, they gave significantly higher ratings to the men—who were really women half of the time—on professionalism, fairness, respectfulness, giving praise, enthusiasm, and promptness.

MacNell admits that 43 students is a small sample size to work with. “We did this as a pilot, and we want to be able to do this in more classes, larger classes, and across disciplines,” she says. But despite the study’s limitations, the main conclusion still rings true. Academia, says MacNell, needs to “open a larger dialogue about the value of these ratings and being more wary of using them in hiring decisions, in tenure decisions, and ensuring that we’re taking into account that there may be this bias.”

“You could have a case of a male and female candidate having all else equal—equal in strong research background, number of publications. But if it came down to their teacher ratings—it’s certainly possible that the male candidate is the stronger teacher—but if there’s some bias in the ratings, that could mean the woman does not get the job,” notes MacNell.