Are students biased against female profs? Or old ones?

Prof. Pettigrew considers Rate My Professors

One of the things that professors frequently discuss when students are not around is the whole set of difficulties faced by female professors in an academy, and indeed a world, that has historically been dominated by men.

So I was very interested to see this piece by student Easha Acharya, who argues that female professors have a harder time of it because students are biased against them. The idea here is that students are accustomed to the idea of a male professor, and are thus less comfortable with female profs. As a result, she argues, students see the authoritative male professor as normal and right while efforts to be authoritative by women are perceived as overly aggressive.

I was intrigued by this piece because my own intuitive sense on the matter was nearly the reverse. My sense has been that female professors are viewed by students are friendlier, more approachable, and more helpful than males who are seen as aloof, difficult, and arrogant.

Curious, I gathered some quick data and did some rough and dirty analysis. Drawing on the scores from Rate My Professors (which is already problematic, but provides accessible public data), I calculated the average rating for English professors in my department based on gender. I only considered tenure and tenure-track faculty (which fortunately gives about an even split). This admittedly small and local sample did nothing to support Acharya and only a little to support me. The average score out of five for men was 3.54. The average for women: 3.86. So students seem to prefer the female English profs in my department, but only by a small margin.

But gender, of course, is not the only characteristic against which one might be biased, so I tried breaking down the same numbers along a different line, age. Here the distinction was a bit greater. Professors under 50 scored, on average, 3.96 out of five, while profs over 50 scored 3.4. This might seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t older, more experienced professors be better teachers? Or are they increasingly tired and jaded? Do students tend to prefer professors closer to their own age (or at least their parents’ age)?

To complicate matters further, these two variables may play off each other. I have heard it said among professors that older women are more subject to bias than their equally aged male counterparts. Where an older man might seem like a wise sage, the older woman is interpreted more and more like an elderly lady whose day is long past.

All of this raises troubling questions for universities. Where precisely are the biases? Do they apply equally in all disciplines? How can they be combated? And most of all, as this piece cited by Acharya points out, is it not another reason to call into question the value of student evaluations of university professors?

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.