By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor
Back in 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) acknowledged that female professors suffered from pervasive, albeit unintentional, discrimination. Charles M. Vest, MIT President at the time, said in the Faculty Newsletter: “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.” The statement introduced an accompanying study unveiling the MIT pattern of discrimination — or, under a more current perspective, gender bias.
Gender discrimination and gender bias are not the same. Gender bias is subtle and more deeply embedded in cultural norms — indeed, the pattern documented by the MIT study was subtle, while at the same time consistent and demoralizing.
Since then, MIT has been recognized as a national model for addressing gender bias, a multifaceted issue that sometimes pops up with new actors all around the academic world. Most academic institutions have followed suit. Although some major issues have been or are being addressed, there are many more that still require considerable work, as for example the problematic access to top-level positions.
However, gender bias is more pervasive than we think — it can’t be addressed by simply changing practices and procedures within the institution. It involves not only faculty and administrators, but also students. Students have an often unrecognized role in how gender bias plays out in colleges and universities, and sometimes this role resides in the realm of their perception. Vest’s words “contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception” still ring true.
Let’s explore a case in point with these new actors — the students. In the academic world, it has often been thought that the student evaluations of their instructors are unintentionally influenced by the instructors’ gender. The bias is thought to be against female instructors. So, there is a lingering question: is gender bias in student evaluations reality or perception?
Unfortunately, it is looking more like it is a reality. Results from a new study (What’s in a name: Exposing gender bias in student rating of teaching) show that college students rating of their instructors’ teaching ability is biased — as expected, the bias is against female instructors. For the study, Lillian MacNell, along with her collaborators Adam Driscoll and Andrea Hunt, devised a strategy for blinding students to the actual gender of their instructors — they used an online teaching environment.
Instructors of a course at North Carolina State University taught using two different gender identities. Because of the online format, the students never saw or heard the instructors. At the end of the course, students were asked to rate their instructors on 12 different traits, covering characteristics related to their effectiveness and interpersonal skills. Students rated the instructors they believed to be male significantly higher than the instructors they believed to be female, regardless of their actual gender.
One example relates to the rating of the promptness by which instructors returned graded classwork to the students. MacNell said in a press release: “Classwork was graded and returned to students at the same time by both instructors. But the instructor students thought was male was given a 4.35 rating out of 5. The instructor students thought was female got a 3.55 rating.”
Student instructor ratings are used to guide decisions related to hiring, promotions, and tenure. On a five-point scale, a decrease from 4.35 to 3.55 is significant. If these types of results are confirmed by future studies, it might mean that student ratings are inherently biased against women. The possibility that such a bias influences women’s advancement in academic institution requires careful consideration.
Gender bias doesn’t run along a few expected trajectories — it’s, instead, holographic. Much has been said about gender bias in teachers, but little about bias in students. The current tenet in academia and other establishments is that raising awareness will solve bias problems. However, as pointed out by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg in the New York Times a few days ago, research shows that raising awareness can backfire, leading to discriminate more, rather than less. They conclude that “If we don’t reinforce that people need — and want — to overcome their biases, we end up silently condoning the status quo.”