Do Biased Teacher Evaluations Contribute to the “Leaky Pipeline” of Women Faculty

A new study led by Whitney Buser, senior academic professional and associate director of academic programs in the School of Economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology finds that teaching evaluations may play a role in the “leaky pipeline” affecting the attrition of women faculty members.

Dr. Buser and her research team investigated whether bias exists at the outset of the semester and whether backlash after grading exacerbates it. “We know from the literature that female instructors fare worse in student evaluations, but with nearly all research on SETs done from end-of-semester evaluations, it’s hard to pinpoint how, when, and why gender bias arises, and how much exists. That was the goal of our study,” Dr. Buser said.

Nearly 1,200 students in economics courses were surveyed. The first three questions were gender neutral. Students were asked if they would (1) recommend the course, (2) recommend the instructor, and (3) whether they found their instructor interesting. Next, they were asked if they found their instructor to be (4) knowledgeable and (5) challenging, both of which are widely seen as male-like qualities. The final two criteria asked students to evaluate how (6) approachable and (7) caring their instructors are — qualities usually associated with women.

The anonymous surveys were conducted twice. The first survey was administered on the second day of class to assess participants’ early impressions. The second survey was given the day after students received their grades on the first exam.

On the initial survey female instructors were rated significantly lower than male instructors on all three gender-neutral criteria – recommend course, recommend instructor, and interesting – and the male-leaning criteria of challenging. There was no significant difference between male and female instructors observed for the communal qualities of caring and approachable. By the time of the second survey male instructors improved on every trait.

“The gender discrepancy between the surveys was really driven by male instructors’ evaluations improving over time. This finding indicates that students view male instructors more favorably as time goes on, which was not at all the case for the women,” Dr. Buser said. “It was clear that exam grades made the evaluations split apart, even though there was no significant difference in exam grades between female and male instructors. As we predicted, this difference indicated a clear backlash against female faculty.”

Biased teacher evaluations could negatively impact decisions on promotions or the granting of tenure to women faculty.

Dr. Buser notes that “we hope this work will highlight the presence of gender bias and encourage the development of more objective teaching evaluation tools that take this dynamic into account. Eliminating or reducing gender bias in teaching evaluations could have an enormous impact on women and their ability to thrive in academia.”

Dr. Buser is a graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. Prior to joining the faculty at Georgia Tech in 2020, Dr. Buser was and associate professor of economics and the chair of the business and public policy department at Young Harris College in Georgia.

The full study, “Evaluation of Women in Economics: Evidence of Gender Bias Following Behavioral Role Violations,” was published in the journal Sex Roles. It may be accessed here.

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