Off the Board, Opinion

Evaluating gendered bias in course evaluations

‘Tis the season—for course evaluations. At McGill, the online form asks students to effectively grade their professors, by identifying the degree to which they agree with statements such as, “Overall, this instructor is an excellent teacher.” These data are then made available to all McGill students, but open-ended feedback is reserved for professors. In Fall 2016, McGill implemented a policy for professors and teaching assistants to report hateful and discriminatory comments in course evaluations. This is a positive step, but the University has yet to sufficiently explore whether bias against minority and female faculty members in course evaluations goes beyond just hateful speech.

Course evaluations are extremely important avenues for feedback, particularly for professors to improve their teaching; however, universities also commonly use course evaluations to award tenure, raises, and other awards. If female and minority professors are paid less in part because they receive fewer glowing reviews from students—and as a result, less recognition from a university—administrators must address this.

Recent Statistics Canada data show that in the 2016-2017 academic year, women comprised about 40 per cent of full-time academic teaching staff at Canadian universities—a little over a three per cent increase from 2010-2011. However, after breaking down the category of “full-time academic teaching staff,” another picture emerges: Women represent 48.5 and 43 per cent of assistant and associate professors respectively, but only 27.7 per cent of full professors. At McGill, the salary gap between each of these titles for tenure-track professors is over $10,000 per year.

One positive is that in all professor ranks, the number of women has been increasing since 1970, when only 12.8 per cent of full-time teaching staff were female. Although at McGill women account for just one third of tenure-track faculty, the national trend would suggest that this number will continue to increase. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time.

Yet, other evidence suggests there is more to the story. Search the word “smart” on a database of reviews from, compiled in 2015 by Northeastern University Professor Benjamin Schmidt, and you’ll find that it is used about 50 to 100 times more per million words of text in reviews of male professors than of female ones. In some departments, “funny” is used over 500 times more to describe men than women. But try “rude,” and, in all departments except engineering, “rude” is more frequently used to describe female professors.

In my three and a half years at McGill, I’ve been taught by 26 different professors. Of those, only six were female, none of whom were visible minorities.

Schmidt’s analysis may not represent a full picture of discrimination against female professors, yet, alarmingly, even seemingly neutral evaluation category responses—comparable to McGill’s scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” in its course evaluation system—are skewed, too. In a 2014 North Carolina State University study, students enrolled in online courses gave lower scores to professors who were presented online to them as female. Even categories like “promptness” drew lower scores if the professor was perceived to be female, despite the fact that the male and female professors being evaluated responded to students at exactly the same speed. In contrast, when all professors were presented to students as male, all of their satisfaction scores increased, regardless of the actual gender of the instructor.

What’s more, a recent study in the Journal of the European Economic Association of student reviews at the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University found that while male and female students were both harsher in evaluating women, male students were much more so.

One possible solution to this apparent trend of discrimination, taken by McMaster University in July 2015, is to recognize that a discrepancy exists, and then compensate for it accordingly. After finding that its female professors earned on average $3,515 less than their male counterparts, even when controlling for seniority, tenure, faculty, and age, the university raised each female professor’s salary by the same amount. Albeit a band-aid solution to ingrained tendencies to view female professors as less competent, it at least ensures that in the meantime, women don’t suffer the financial consequences of sexism.

Furthermore, if such an entrenched bias exists against women, it’s not unlikely that visible minority professors face similarly—or even more—biased evaluations. An investigation into any university’s course evaluation results should therefore also look at the effects of race.

In my three and a half years at McGill, I’ve been taught by 26 different professors. Of those, only six were female, none of whom were visible minorities. Regardless of whether my experience is an anomaly, as part of its efforts to address systemic discrimination, the University must investigate whether course evaluations are putting its female and minority professors at a disadvantage long after they are hired full-time. Until then, without being aware of it, students may be perpetuating the gender gap among the highest-paid ranks of professors through their course evaluations.


Emma Avery is a Managing Editor at The McGill Tribune and a fourth-year Anthropology and Urban Systems student. She is passionate about Liverpool FC, dogs, and St-Viateur bagels.











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