Study: Teacher Reviews Show Gender Bias

Nov 16, 2020

A new study released from the University of Florida says female teaching assistants are given worse reviews by students than their male colleagues. “There are plenty of studies that document bias in teaching evaluations against women (and) against people of color,” said Emily Khazan, a PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Ecology at the University of Florida School of Natural Resources and Environment. For her, this study was personal.

She conducted the research where half of the students in one of the classes where she was a teaching assistant were given a male TA, and half were given a female TA. The catch was both TAs were the same person, Emily.

“The course had 136 students in it, so it was a large enough course to split in half. We split it in half kind of randomly with respect to last name and tried to make sure that it fell out with a reasonable equal number of male and female students in both groups. Just to have as equal a sample size as possible.”

Each student in the class was assigned to a TA, not knowing that they were all Emily. She graded student’s work randomly, not knowing at times which TA she was supposed to be.

“I would grade one or two on one side then grade one or two on the other side so that the grading effort was equal, so that my fatigue was the same (so that) the last five students that I graded for ‘Jesse’ were graded at the same time as the last five for ‘Emily.' So if a grader is fatigued and either giving better or worse scores because they are fatigued, at least that was all even across the board.”

"Jesse" is Jesse Borden, a student at the University of Florida who is soon to also to be a Ph.D. Candidate in Interdisciplinary Ecology.

“I’m lucky to have gotten to be involved with this” said Borden. “Mostly, (I) just got involved with it because I’m friends with Emily and we had talked about these things for quite some time and different experiences that she had had and I’ve been on a learning journey for quite a few years now, learning my place as privilege as a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male. And yeah, we just shared a lot of conversations and when the study design came up I was thrilled to get to be a part of it. I mostly just volunteered my identity, but then we all worked together as a team to talk through design and the questionnaire and how do we do the analysis and things like that.”

So Emily did all the teaching assistant work for all the students for the duration of the course, half as herself and half as Jesse.

“What we found, just eyeballing the data, was like a strange dip in scores when we looked at female students ranking their female TA. That to me at least was quite notable. In fact, it was 100% of females assigned to their male TA quote-unquote, ranked ‘him’ positively. Whereas on 88% of the female students assigned to the quote-unquote female TA ranked ‘her’ favorably.”

Emily said for the male students the difference between the assessments was not nearly as large.

“While the female data is much more stark, particularly when you see it plotted how we have it in our paper, you can see a subtle difference in males in that the scores were ever so slightly lower for the male TA than the female TA.”

In the world of academia, student assessments are not just window dressing, they can have real world consequences in a teacher’s career.

“I’ve been a TA for many, many semesters of my life. I can tell you on a personal note, and I’ve heard this from colleagues both male and female, if somebody receives a really negative review from a student, that never feels good. So we are always as teachers, as an educator, as an academic, as a scholar, I want people that are my students to understand the subject material, to appreciate it and to have a positive experience with me. So receiving negative scores is always a bit of a shot personally to someone. But then, with respect to hiring prospects, promotion prospects, etcetera, it’s important that this phenomenon be noticed, so that we don’t have women unnecessarily missing out on opportunities for forward movement and growth in their careers.”

“This is obviously a topic that we will continue talking about in our professional spheres of influence," added Jesse Borden. "Because it’s very important, both to be studied and also just to be openly examined and looked at.”

The research took place in the fall 2019 semester and the results are just being released now. Emily says the paper is getting a good deal of attention.

“It seems to have seen quite a few eyes which is really awesome. Jesse and I have talked about how it’s a little amusing as well that we both have sort of dedicated our academic research careers to (the) eco-physiology of various animals, but this one side project study is definitely getting a lot more attention than any of our ecology or physiology work. It’s been re-tweeted, it’s been discussed in classes apparently very widely. The internet is a really weird place that has definitely decided that this study is worth discussing, which is important. And I think that as a team we really hope that this just adds to the large conversation and evolving conversation about diversity and equity in academia.”

The report is titled “Examining Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching for Graduate Teaching Assistants”, and it will be published in the next edition of the journal North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture.