Student evaluations show gender bias even in most equal country

Male students at university in Iceland tended to rate their female teachers lower than male counterparts in both teaching and course organisation

July 10, 2022
Source: iStock

Gender bias exists in students’ evaluations of their university teachers even in the country regarded as “the cradle of equality” worldwide, a new study has found.

An analysis of nine semesters’ worth of Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) reports at the University of Iceland (UI) found that male students tended to rate their female teachers lower in both teaching and course organisation.

Comments made about lecturers also tended to conform to gender stereotypes, with female academics praised or criticised for their caring abilities, while remarks made about men tended to focus on their level of knowledge and expertise.

Given the importance most universities place on student evaluation, women’s career prospects in higher education could be being harmed by the bias identified in the surveys, the report’s authors warn.

Iceland was chosen as a case study for the research as it tops the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index and is consistently put forward as a role model for gender equality.

“If we see gender bias here, it can be safely assumed that it also exists in the rest of the world,” said the report’s lead author, Margrét Sigrún Sigurdardóttir, an assistant professor in business administration at UI.

The study found “small but repeatedly significant” differences in students evaluation scores, which apparently confirmed that teachers are viewed differently depending on their gender.

A few overtly sexist and misogynistic remarks were also present in the open comments, alongside examples of more subtle discrimination.

“If you are a male teacher, the majority of the comments are about whether you are seen as clever or how well you know your subject and so the signal is ‘I just need to get better at what I do in my subject and that will make me a great teacher’,” Dr Sigurdardóttir said.

“The female teacher gets feedback that focuses on whether she answered emails promptly, or if she showed how much she cared about the students or how approachable she was. The signal they get is that to be a good teacher, you have to answer students quickly, give them a chance to speak to you after lectures; basically, give a lot more of your time than if you were a male teacher in the same situation.”

This focus on providing care and support rather than focusing on their own work and research may explain why many women still do not progress to the most senior positions at universities, even at UI where they outnumber men at both the employee and student level but not in the highest echelons, Dr Sigurdardóttir added.

She said sexist comments about her appearance and the way she dressed that she experienced as part of evaluation exercises early in her academic career made her not want to read any of the survey results, whether positive or negative.

Only when people began to talk about their experiences of sexism and harassment as part of the MeToo movement did she realise this was a common experience, which inspired her and fellow researchers to carry out the study, now published in Higher Education Research & Development.

Dr Sigurdardóttir said student evaluation needs to change so that it is less focused on who the teacher is and looks instead at the subject and what students have done as part of the course. Universities should also become less reliant on standalone surveys as measures of quality and build in more in-depth forms of evaluation to help address the issues, she said. 

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Male students rate female lecturers lower

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