Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

WomanChemBlackBoardToday, I would like to comment on student evaluations. I have talked about them before here. There has been a lot of information about how sexist student evaluations are. Truly. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this study where the professor’s genders were switched in an online course where the students and professors never even meet. Male names get higher scores than female names – always. Other analysis of the words used to describe men and women on RateMyProfessor.com show there are gendered words for women vs. men. How many times do we have to show it before you just believe us? It is true – ask any woman. Another study shows that gender bias can actually cause women scores to be lower even if they are more effective instructors. These studies and tons of anecdata come to one fact: the teaching evaluations of a woman WILL be lower than if she were a man.

The point of this blog is to help people, not to complain. So, I aim to help both the women and under-represented minorities, who will need to figure out how to combat clearly sexist/racist reviews and the senior colleagues (probably mostly white men, let’s face it) who will be evaluating them and seeing clearly sexist/racist reviews, or at least gendered reviews. For fun, I will start by quoting some anonymous and real statements made in the evaluations of women (also this video is hilariously funny on the same topic), as an example to show you the types of things that are clearly sexist that you should look out for:

“She wears very bright lipstick that was distracting.” (This professor reports that she doesn’t typically wear ANY lipstick.)

“Prof. WOS shows too much of her body.”

“Her clothing is distracting to the male students.” (This professor reports that she wore pants, boots, and t-shirts through the entire course.)

“She would be better off teaching kindergarten.”

“Really sweet but her laugh is annoying and she touches her hair too much.”

“Seems like a b*tch but really nice and friendly if you go see her in her office.”

“Nothing more than a glorified Vanna White, without the looks. Her lack of self-respect was evident in the way she dressed, with her frumpy attire.”

“She has a very loud voice for a woman.”

“Pregnant.” (Yes, that was literally the critique.)

FOR THE WOMEN: So, what can you do to protect yourself if you are a woman/minority at the receiving end of these disgusting, sexist/racist comments?

Talk about it with your colleagues. Honestly, people are way too quiet about their evaluations. When they are bad, we are scared to share them because we are embarrassed. When they are good, we are scared to share them because it is bragging, and you might make someone else feel badly about their scores. I am going to encourage you to get over your self-consciousness and show your evaluations to your colleagues and ask for help. Yes, this means showing them the sexist ones where they call you a fat pig, mock your clothes, or say you don’t know anything about your subject. In order to make progress and defend ourselves, we sometimes lose privacy. You must decide what you value more. I personally value the academic freedom of tenure more than privacy, but that is me.

Don’t Assume Others Understand or Know This Happens. Honestly, most of my male colleagues HAVE NEVER READ EVALUATIONS LIKE THESE. They have no idea the kind of cruel and frankly disgusting things students will write to women/minorities. This is because we live in a society that is inherently respectful to older, white, males (OWM). Yes, OWMs get criticism, I am not disputing that (“I would rather chew a mouthful of glass shards than take another class with Prof. OWM.”), but the criticism given to OWMs is not so debasing as the comments women get (“Prof. WoS dresses like a whore.”) Can you see the difference? You will likely, in addition to discussing your evaluations, bring some data and literature (references above, linked) to support your case.

Choose Your Allies. No, I am not advocating showing them to everyone. Pick the people you are sharing them with carefully. They should be people who will evaluate you who you trust. They should also preferably be people who are trusted within the department (see this post). Talking about this with another marginalized woman in your department IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU. I am sorry, but I am being frank. You need to get the powerful, heavy hitting men on your side. (Having a powerful woman would help, but I don’t see as many of those in departments in the sciences.)

Make Sure They are Educated. When being evaluated (annually or at promotion), make sure someone on the committee not only knows about these comments, but can also point out that they are sexist and should be discounted. No one should bring up sexist comments in a case – they should be disregarded – but if they do, your ally can remind people about unconscious bias. Educate your allies about implicit bias with the references above and the implicit bias test. Arm your allies with the facts and data.

An example. A couple years ago, I co-taught with a white male ally in a class. We literally were in class AT THE SAME TIME. On the first day, we both spoke and went through the syllabus. He had spent an extra long time introducing me and giving my credentials. I, in turn, introduced him and gave his credentials. It was a pretty even split. At the end of class, he noticed that none of the students would come to ask me questions, but there was a line to talk to him. He pointed to me and said, “She is the instructor, too.” Afterwards, he said he was SHOCKED that the students did this. I wasn’t. It really opened his eyes to the bias of the students. At the end of the semester, my scores were significantly lower than his – despite the fact that we literally co-taught the course. I was there at the SAME TIME as him. In the SAME ROOM with him, talking to students, discussing the answers, etc… I talked to him about it, and it was clearly not fair. Luckily, he was on the annual faculty review committee (for yearly merit) that year. When my case came up, he described the sexism he saw and the fact that we co-taught the course – literally simultaneously. It was great to have someone to defend me in the meeting and set the record straight.

FOR THE REVIEWERS: If you are a more senior, more powerful, or more male faculty member, and want to help women, here is what I recommend:

Ask to Talk About the Evaluations. If you consider yourself a mentor or even a human being, it is not enough to just try to justify things after they come to a head, I recommend that you actually talk, discuss, and strategize with younger faculty about how they can combat the negative effects of sexist/racist evaluations. You will have to read the evaluations. If you think it is difficult to read these comments, just think about how the person being evaluated feels. Suck it up, and read them, so you know. Then, talk to the person. Try to cut through the bullshit to make the class better (take the criticism) and make some lemonade from those lemons. There are probably correctable actions in the comments. Fairness (or perceived fairness) in grading, being prepared, being on time, and returning assignments are all common complaints that are correctable. Other critiques, such as “Do more examples,” or “The exam wasn’t like the home work,” can be discussed. Basically every lazy student makes these same complaints. You can discuss how many examples are done and the exams, but probably the amount is just fine.

Evaluate the Person’s Teaching Yourself. You could sit in on a few classes and evaluate the teaching yourself. Many schools/departments already do this because they realize that evaluations are problematic. Many schools still don’t. There are some issues with this. If the person or students know there is an outside observer, it could skew the results – like a wave function collapse. What if the professor is rude, snappish, or otherwise terrible? You might not see it when you evaluate in person. Another issue is time. I understand it takes time to mentor someone and do these things. If it means someone’s career (tenure decision), isn’t it important that you do what you can – especially if the person is under-represented in your ranks?

Be an Ally. When evaluating the person for merit, promotion, or tenure, be an ally. Don’t let other colleagues gang up or misuse information that you know is biased. Remind your colleagues about unconscious bias. You can even go so far as to send out an implicit bias test, and challenge people to take it. Hopefully, you will have other allies. If not, you might have to discuss some things in private and let some other people know the types of terrible things students have written about the person.

These are my suggestions, but I am sure the readers have others. Post and comment here to continue the mentoring. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

 

Comments on: "Getting Past Sexist Evaluations" (4)

  1. Thank you so much for these tips! I’ve just been through evaluation myself and some of the situations you mentioned have happened to me, too.

  2. Excellent post.

    As someone who evaluates faculty, I’ve observed several people teach. I don’t think having an observer skews the results too badly. I agree that observations provide a helpful complementary view to the student gripes. I agree also that observers need to be aware of their own biases as well.

    I have a social scientist friend who has told me about “crone-ing” which apparently has been studied. Older women faculty are regarded as mother-figures by some students, and so those students react more negatively when they get critiques from those faculty, because mom should always be positive. Unfortunately, I don’t have a citation for this work.

  3. […] I said in the last post, sexism and racism by students is real and exists. I gave some advice for how to combat sexist or […]

  4. […] for help. I have said this before when talking about sexist evaluations, but you will have to swallow your pride and ask for help about embarrassing situations. As I said, […]

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