Instructor diversity vital in education, national study indicates

Senior lecturer of English Angela Williamson teaches gender and women’s studies. The class has a focus on ecofeminism, which is the idea that people and the natural world are interconnected rather than separate, as well as how the natural world impacts women differently than men. • photo by Coulson Richards

A national study has indicated that end-of the-semester student evaluations show an implicit gender bias among students in college.

The 2015 study published by Innovative Higher Education analyzed student evaluations and found that students generally tended to see female instructors as less fair than their male counterparts, particularly if instructors were less than 40 years-old.

College students across the country fill out forms at the end of each course they take called Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET). These evaluations are an effort to standardize reviews of professors and refine teaching methods. Many of the surveys request quantitative and qualitative information, asking students if they agree with statements like “the professor used class time effectively” on a 1–5 scale, 1 being “do not agree” and 5 being “agree completely.” The results compose a quantitative profile of the professor, supplemented by student comments.

In their evaluations, students would use such words as “knowledgeable” and “passionate” statistically more often for male instructors than female instructors. The student comments for female instructors tended to be dismissive and deny their expertise in their field. There are perceptions of organization and ability to manage classroom discussions that tend to be more favorable to male than female professors.

Erin DeMuynck, assistant professor in the geography-geology department, speaks on the extra challenge female instructors face.

“For men, it’s assumed that they have this knowledge. If they’ve got a Ph.D., they know it. Women, on the other hand, are often expected to prove their knowledge and prove their expertise,” DeMuynck says.

Ageism also tended to be skewed towards female professors more than male professors.

“Young female professors are often given less credibility and are seen as less authoritative or less expert in their field than young male professors,” says assistant professor George Waller of the political science department.

“As they grow older, that degree of gender bias seems to diminish somewhat, so that elderly female professors are often given less credibility and are seen as less authoritative or less expert in their field than young male professors,” Waller says.

The difference in words used to describe male and female instructors in SET is not always negative in its content; however, it may still be disrespectful in the way it targets gender.

“A lot of my student reviews are like, ‘Oh, she’s so nice.’ I get a few, ‘She’s really cute,’ and those are positive things—they’re trying to be kind. I appreciate that, but they wouldn’t be saying those things if I was a guy,” says Bethany Reilly, lecturer in the physics and astronomy department.

Bethany Reilly, who teaches physics and astronomy on campus, is one such instructor whose SET responses from students have been partly influenced by gender. • photo by Coulson Richards

Senior lecturer of English Angela Williamson says a student’s overall college experience benefits directly from having a balance of male and female instructors by being exposed to ideas and challenged by questions that instructors of the same gender may not have provided. Along with new, different perspectives come new ideas and, possibly, innovations. The importance of gender diversity in college instructors can be demonstrated in the diverse perspectives through the different teaching styles and the unique personal experiences that instructors can bring to the classroom.

“Students have to remember that their education is the sum total of all of these different voices and all of these different subject areas and teaching styles,” Angela Williamson says. “We need diversity because different people will ask different questions that we wouldn’t have even thought of. So, why is it important to have women in the sciences, and why is it important to have people from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds in the sciences? It is because they will ask questions based on their experiences that other people will not.”

“If we look at colleges as an institution, I think it’s really important that we have instructors that have diverse characteristics because I think it’s important to demonstrate to students that one can have an appreciation for [a] discipline, and one can be knowledgeable and an expert in their field regardless of all those characteristics or backgrounds,” Waller adds.

Currently, a little over half of the tenured professors at UW-Fox are women, with 15 female professors out of the total 27 tenured positions on campus.

“There has been a conscious effort within academia to bring in multiple perspectives and in ways that we may not always be aware of. Our biases limit our knowledge … . You want as wide of a perspective on the world and experiences as you can get as a student,” Williamson says. “That’s what I think, as students, you should be actively seeking. Take different professors just to find out, in ways that you might not even be able to articulate or see directly, the unique things that each one will bring to you.”