The Quandary of the Female Professor

Harriette J. Cooke, the first female full professor in the U.S., in 1871.

It’s that time again for a new term to begin.  I’m meeting all of my master’s and doctoral students in these first couple of weeks, and I’m faced with the same dilemma I’ve faced since I began as a professor 6.5 years ago.  Do I change my teaching style to deal with the inherent sexism and internalized oppression of my students?

This might seem like a dramatic claim.  Most of my students are women, after all, so how can sexism be impacting my teaching?  Unfortunately, it’s the sad truth.  I’m a teaching professor, so the vast majority of my performance evaluation is based on student course evaluations.  Those little bubbles that students fill in at the end of the course are significant.  I usually do quite well on these evaluations.  Only a handful of my students every year rate me anything other than Above Average or Excellent.  What I find to be the most interesting, though, and the most telling, is the qualitative remarks that students make on my evaluations.  Generally, if I receive a lower quantitative mark, it is accompanied by a qualitative remark about how I’m not warm enough.  I’m intimidating.  I should present myself as more of a coach instead of a professor.  My comments on papers should be more kind.

I’m by no means a perfect professor.  Sometimes I forget to respond to emails.  I make mistakes in grading now and again.  Some students don’t like my low-lecture, high-collaborative-work teaching style.  I’m not for everyone, and that’s okay.  What does bother me, though, is when I see comments like I described above.  Perhaps as a bisexual professor of varying levels of “femininity,” this bothers me even more.

It bothers me because I care deeply about my students.  I have very high expectations of them, but I also spend an average of 23 hours a week meeting one on one with students so that I can provide feedback on their assignments in advance.  I remind them in every class session to take some time for self care in the upcoming week.  I reiterate weekly that I will provide them with as much support as needed in order for them to be successful, even after the course has ended.  I tell them I’ll meet with them daily if that’s what they need, and they should feel free to ask anything at any time, even if it’s something they “should already know.” I close every class session with a “benediction,” – an inspirational video about teaching designed to keep the wind in my students’ sails.

My care, though, doesn’t only manifest as kindness and inspiration.  I have very high standards for student work, and I expect those standards to be met. I expect that students will read the instructions on assignments and be proactive about asking questions if they don’t understand something. I give clear and straightforward feedback on assignments.  Once they choose to submit a final version, I don’t allow additional rewrites.  I often dispense with small talk in emails, simply because I’m answering hundreds.

When I see an article published like this one, Bias Against Female Instructors in Inside Higher Ed, it resonates with me.  This article reports on a 5 year long study that examined over 23,000 student evaluations of teaching, and found that:

““In two very different universities and in a broad range of course topics, SET [student evaluations of teaching] measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” the paper says. “Overall, SET disadvantage female instructors. There is no evidence that this is the exception rather than the rule.”

Accordingly, the “onus should be on universities that rely on SET for employment decisions to provide convincing affirmative evidence that such reliance does not have disparate impact on women, underrepresented minorities, or other protected groups,” the paper says. Absent such specific evidence, “SET should not be used for personnel decisions.””

The results of the study indicate that for US instructors:

“perceived male instructors were rated significantly more highly not by male students but by female students. Male students rated the perceived male instructor somewhat significantly higher on only one criterion — fairness (p-value 0.09). But female students in the U.S. sample rated the perceived male instructor higher on overall satisfaction (p-value 0.11) and most aspects of teaching. Those include praise (p-value 0.01), enthusiasm (p-value 0.05) and fairness (p-value 0.04).”

Female students aren’t immune to the societal expectations of female behavior.  The fact that most of my students are female doesn’t protect me from feeling the impact of this systemic issue; internalized oppression is incredibly difficult to deal with, and it has taken me decades to even begin to address my own.

Thankfully, USC, where I teach in the Rossier School of Education’s stellar online programs, is quite progressive when it comes to the treatment of NTT (non tenure track) faculty.  Rossier even more so.  Active steps are being taken to improve evaluation of all faculty members’ teaching efforts, and to balance student evaluations with other measures of teaching.

In the meantime, however, I face the same decision I’ve always faced.  Do I change how I teach and interact with my students to try to balance out the inherent bias that may be applied to my student evaluations? I shared an early version of this post with a colleague and mentor of mine, and she had some brilliant insight.  She connected this dilemma I’m in (we’re in) with the issues that face women on a larger scale.  How women are perceived in the workplace continues to be a major challenge to women at all levels, in all careers.  We tiptoe along on a balance beam of perception; if you’re sweet and kind, you’ll be seen as weak, but if you’re assertive and decisive, you’re seen as hostile.  It’s often a no-win situation.  Even in writing this piece, I struggled.  Do I share my own teaching evaluation scores? Do I explain what I do for students to try to build a community of care?  If I include these things, some will say I’m being defensive and overreacting (another common way that women’s voices are dismissed).  If I don’t include them, some will say I’m really just a terrible professor who is bitter about her teaching evaluations.  I elected to be open, and let the Internet judge me as it may, hoping that those who are in the same situation as I am will find it resonant, and knowing that no matter what I write, some will dismiss it.

I hope that these findings spur a larger conversation about not only how we evaluate instructors, but how we can support and challenge our female students as they begin to unpack the internalized oppression that many of them carry as a result of being raised in what is still a deeply sexist society.  These findings give me hope that things can change, and give me support when I speak up to ask that things be done differently. I can and will use my voice as a female professor to challenge these systems of oppression.

As for my courses, I’ll continue to do what I have done in the past; I’ll continue to hold my students to high standards and give clear feedback.  I won’t try to adjust my demeanor to be more “feminine.”  I stand by my teaching practices as being what students need even if it’s not always what they want. Student evaluations will be what they will be.

Published by Dr. Corinne Hyde

I'm an Assistant Teaching Professor of Clinical Education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. My research focuses on faculty adaptation to online learning, synchronous virtual classrooms, and the intersection of learning theory and technology. I teach mostly learning theory and technology/new media literacy courses to graduate students. Prior to becoming a professor, I was a classroom teacher in a high needs school in Los Angeles, a private educational administrator, a community preschool teacher, and a behavior interventionist. I hold a B.S. in Elementary Education from The University of Central Florida, and a M.S.Ed. in Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, with a focus in Educational Psychology, from the University of Southern California. I have been certified as a classroom teacher in FL, CA, and LA, and I hold administration and ELD certifications in California and Louisiana. I currently live in Louisiana with my husband, my daughter, and my 3 dogs.

One thought on “The Quandary of the Female Professor

  1. I really appreciate your point of view; I’d not seen the report on gender bias but have seen other analyses (including quasi-experimental) showing negative correlation with active learning classrooms and more challenging content. Just curious – have you considered adding the SALG to your routine? That survey is (unlike student surveys) well validated, and I am acquainted with folks who have used it to counter the negative student surveys that they got when they were transitioning to active learning or flipped classes.

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