Gender bias against female academics has increased in student ratings of teaching during remote learning, particularly among male students, according to our research published today. This bias could impact the leadership and career prospects of female academics, as well as their confidence and well-being. Based on our research, we make four recommendations to counter gender bias in teaching evaluations and their impacts.
In early 2020, universities across Australia moved all teaching online due to the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns. Academics had to learn very quickly how to teach online and how to help their students learn online. This change meant that teaching moved from the neutral territory of the university classroom to the more private space of the home.
This had many consequences for scholars, especially women who also cared for children.
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Universities have their teaching performance regularly monitored. This is most often done through student evaluation of teaching. The surveys used for this purpose continued in 2020.
The surveys record students’ judgment of the quality of teachers, resources and subject design. Many issues related to institutional reliance on this evaluation measure have been identified. These issues include relatively low response rates – often 30% or less – and the subjective nature of student perceptions of teaching quality. These perceptions are influenced by teachers’ gender and race, with some comments in an Australian study being labeled as ‘hate speech’.
Yet universities continue to rely heavily on student assessments to monitor teaching quality. They also use them for individual academic performance management, including promotion.
What did the study find?
Our research, published in a special Women & Leadership issue of the Journal of University Learning & Teaching Practice, analyzed more than 22,000 anonymized scores of student teaching assessments and more than 8,000 anonymized student comments. The data comes from 2019 (face-to-face teaching) and 2020 (distance learning) surveys that assessed teaching staff at a multidisciplinary college at Victoria University of Melbourne. All surveys were from first-year students in all disciplines and courses.
There were no differences in student assessment scores between male and female teachers or between in-person and distance learning. But our analysis found a difference in the reviews.
Most comments from both male and female students were positive about both male and female teachers. These comments mainly highlighted that students recognize and appreciate the efforts of their teachers during the massive and rapid shift to online learning in 2020.
Negative comments were in the minority (7% for each year). However, students who made these comments disproportionately targeted female academics for negative attitudinal comments, regardless of student gender or mode of delivery.
During distance learning, there were more negative comments about the teaching style of female academics, especially from male students with a 30 percentage point increase in comments from male students from 2019 Typical examples of such comments from male students about female teachers included:
“She had no idea.”
“Concepts were not fully explained and key concepts were left out.”
Female scholars were also more often the target of negative comments about teachers’ ease with videoconferencing software, such as:
“She had a harder time than my other teachers on Zoom.”
Comments on the home environment during online teaching were in the minority. But those comments were only directed at female scholars, like this one by a female student.
“It was entertaining when his child interrupted him.”
Why is this gender bias important?
During the COVID-19 shutdowns, the burden of caring for children has fallen disproportionately on women across Australia, as the Australian Institute of Family Studies has shown. It was no different for female academics. Should they be penalized for this?
University women are also more likely than their male peers to suffer from impostor syndrome. Negative gendered comments in student evaluations of their teaching could reinforce these anxieties.
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In a year where women’s search results have declined while men’s search results have increased, an additional concern is that there may be an overreliance on female student assessments for female academics seeking promotion.
What can universities do to counter this bias?
Since universities are still using these surveys for teacher promotion and performance appraisal, ways must be found to counter the effect of poor student feedback that is so gendered and subjective. We recommend that:
an amnesty applies to negative feedback in student ratings data on teaching in 2020 and 2021 (due to COVID)
a guide is created and workshops are held for people (line managers and members of promotion boards) reading student evaluation data to highlight their known gender biases
implicit gender bias training for students should be developed and caveats should be added to student inquiry instructions
university women who have encountered such negative reactions are provided with strategies to deal with them. These can include mental health training, sharing the purpose of assessment surveys and feedback with students, focusing on positive feedback rather than the few negative feedback, and citing published research on bias in promotion requests.
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