MORRIS: Evaluating our bias

Animal Spirits

When former Texas Governor Ann Richards gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, she noted that another woman, Barbara Jordan, had given the keynote twelve years before.

vivecaMorris“Two women in 160 years is about par for the course,” Richards quipped. “But, if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did,” Richards said of the iconic 1930s dance duo. “She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Yale course shoppers, take note. Today, a quarter century later, in many college lecture halls, the so-called “Ginger Rogers Effect” – where women have to tread a finer line and exert more effort than their male colleagues to earn the same recognition – may still be going strong, according to studies of student course evaluations.

It’s well-documented that women leaders face a different, and often higher, standard when they are evaluated. In order for women leaders to be perceived as effective, they need to show both strength and sensitivity, while male leaders only need to show strength, according to one such study.

This unconscious bias impacts students’ evaluations of teachers, argues Lisa Martin, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies gender bias in the college classroom. Martin thinks that students view men and women teachers as equally effective in small seminar-sized classes, but that in large lecture classes, women face a double standard, resulting in poorer evaluations.

In a stunning 2003 experiment, researchers took a Harvard Business School case study about a real venture capitalist, Heidi Roizen, who succeeded by using her “outgoing personality … and vast personal and professional network.” Half of the students read the case study about “Heidi,” and the other half read the exact same case study about “Howard.” While students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, Howard was widely seen as a more likeable colleague. Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

We tend to react negatively when a person acts contrary to their gender type. And it’s men who we expect to be leaders.

Some of our common expressions reflect this dilemma. “I often hear students say of a professor, ‘He’s a great guy,’” former Dean of Yale College Mary Miller told me. “But what is the equivalent of ‘he’s a great guy’ for women? Spare me if you think it’s ‘she’s a great gal.’ Much is embedded in the term ‘great guy’ – it suggests personality and the ability to do exceptional, noteworthy work. There is no parallel phrase for women. I’m advocating for ‘she’s a great guy!’”

This possible gender bias matters because it could impact female faculty advancement. Student evaluations are an “essential” part of the faculty promotion process, the Registrar’s Office website states. If this bias is real, it may be contributing to a greater problem of gender inequality at Yale. Despite the fact that Yale today hires close to equal numbers of men and women junior faculty, women accounted for just 29 percent of faculty who received tenure from 2000-2012 and remain at Yale, according to a Women’s Faculty Forum report.

It is also worth asking if this bias could create a self-fulfilling cycle in which female professors and department coordinators trend toward placing women in smaller classrooms, limiting their advancement, as Martin posits. It’s harder to become a Yale teaching rock star from an LC seminar room versus from the stage of the law school auditorium.

As Yale invests more in Massive Open Online Courses, this problem may be exacerbated. Only 11 percent of the current Open Yale Courses (5 of 42 courses) are taught by women. (This underrepresentation is not unique to Yale. Women teach zero of Princeton’s Coursera MOOCs.) “While MOOCs are a great equalizer when it comes to students around the world,” wrote A.J. Jacobs for The New York Times, “they are a great unequalizer when it comes to teachers. MOOCs are creating a brand of A-list celebrity professors who have lopsided sway over the landscape of ideas.” If gender bias exists in large course evaluations, it’s more likely that most of these academic superstars will be men, and we will lose the opportunity to export gender equality to viewers that might otherwise never see women in higher education or in positions of power.

As I choose my Yale classes this week, I pore through student course evaluations on OCI and rank my CourseTable worksheet in descending order of “Prof Rating.” Like many of my friends, I weight my peers’ assessments of professors heavily. But this fall I’ve started reading course evaluations with greater skepticism – and I hope you will too – in an effort to be aware of, and hopefully mitigate, any unconscious bias.

Viveca Morris is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at viveca.morris@yale.edu.

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