Students in online course give teachers higher rating if they think they’re men

Ugh. This study is surprising and depressing even to a weary feminist like me. 

As a culture, we clearly have an easier time accepting authority when it wears a male face, as the persistent negative stereotypes attached to female bosses shows. And plenty of previous studies have backed that up, including in academia, where woman professors receive worse student evaluations than their male counterparts. But in such real-world surveys, it’s usually impossible to control for gender to see exactly how much of the difference is being driven by sexism, pure and simple.

Enter: online course evaluations. In a small but revealing study, North Carolina State University researchers surveyed a group of 43 students in an online course. Half of group was taught by a female instructor and the other half by a male one. But the instructors told the students — who never saw or heard the instructors during the course — in one of their discussion groups that they were actually the opposite gender.

At the end of the course, students were asked to rate the discussion group instructors on 12 different traits, covering characteristics related to their effectiveness and interpersonal skills.

“We found that the instructor whom students thought was male received higher ratings on all 12 traits, regardless of whether the instructor was actually male or female,” MacNell says. “There was no difference between the ratings of the actual male and female instructors.”

In other words, students who thought they were being taught by women gave lower evaluation scores than students who thought they were being taught by men. It didn’t matter who was actually teaching them.

Sexism gave the “male” teacher a boost even in the students’ evaluation of their “promptness,” which is pretty amazing since that’s a completely objective thing and does not really have any gendered stereotypes surrounding it, as far as I know. “Classwork was graded and returned to students at the same time by both instructors,” the researchers explain. “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.”

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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