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Chloe Lew: Evaluations should reflect instruction quality, not gender bias

(Victoria Chang/Daily Bruin)

By Chloe Lew

Feb. 23, 2015 12:12 a.m.

This myth goes all the way back to the elementary school playground: Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

We’re in college now, but variations of this gender divide just keep on coming. An interactive chart developed by a professor at Northeastern University lets you plug in any word – for instance, “genius” – and see how many times that word is used in reviews on the student evaluation site, Rate My Professors. Word frequency is split between gender across a variety of subjects: Orange dots represent the data for female professors, and blue for male professors.

If you play around with the chart for just a few minutes, here is what you will find: In nearly every subject, men are smart and literally every other synonym for smart, and women are stylish and nice.

The problem of inherent gendered language is deep-rooted because most of us do not realize we use it. But since evaluation comments are reviewed by supervisors in judging whether professors deserve promotions and merits, gender-biased language in evaluations has high stakes in the careers of professionals. It’s our job as students, faculty and administrators to make sure the language used in evaluations reflects objective views of instruction quality, and not comments on irrelevant personality flaws and wardrobe choices.

This is not the first data to suggest that female faculty are held to a different standard than male faculty. For years, female faculty at the UCLA Anderson School of Management have experienced inhospitable work environments and fewer promotional opportunities than male faculty. Multiple reviews of one female lecturer included commentary on her legs.

Other studies have shown that female professors receive consistently lower marks on student evaluations than their male counterparts. Just a quick perusal of our classmates’ reviews on UCLA’s own professor evaluation site Bruinwalk.com reveals the same word choice patterns as the Rate My Professors analysis shows: A single female professor is called “shrill” and “high-pitched” as many times as a single male professor is called “brilliant.”

Students and faculty alike must learn how to use more objective and productive language in UCLA’s instructional evaluations, from the formal ones distributed at the end of the quarter by the Office of Instructional Development to the more casual ones written on BruinWalk. This movement can start with fairly simple steps, such as representatives from the OID or professors themselves making brief announcements to students before soliciting evaluations about how comments should only address the instruction quality. And as more reviews are submitted online, the OID can screen comments on the online evaluations for potentially gender-biased or otherwise discriminatory words that students can review before submitting.

At places of work, discriminatory language is flagged and sent to Human Resources, or employees are reprimanded for their bias. As more departments move their official evaluations by the OID online, the OID could use online screening to flag biased evaluations so that academic personnel and department chairs can place less weight on them during their own faculty reviews. The analysis of words used in Rate My Professors reviews can serve as a tool here, pinpointing the words that are most split by gender, from arrogant for men to rude for females.

Our students and faculty, who will face evaluations and even be evaluators for the rest of their lives, should be held accountable for their words. It’s simple: If you use biased language, you sacrifice your evaluation’s significance.

Deleting words often associated with one sex and not the other – “bossy,” “nurturing” and even “funny” – from our evaluation vocabulary is a priority because the more we use them, the more we read them. When we read each others’ similarly biased reviews, we collect data on all the patterns we see and whatever unconscious bias we had is further confirmed, said Norma Mendoza-Denton, a UCLA professor of anthropology and expert on language, gender and culture.

Encouraging more constructive feedback is an effort we all have stakes in. Too often, professors simply distribute the OID’s standard evaluation forms with the apologetic attitude that the evaluations are a mandated burden, that it’s just that time of the quarter again. That attitude must be dropped, and replaced with one that explains exactly what points of feedback a professor finds helpful.

Meanwhile, students must recognize their own unconsciously gendered word choices fuel the harmful gender stereotypes they will face for the rest of their academic and work careers.

Creating fair and productive evaluation processes is just one piece of a much larger issue of gender inequity in higher education and the workplace. But it’s an important one nonetheless in ensuring that the next time 10th week rolls around, a professor can anticipate reading constructive reviews about the tone of her lecture, and not about the tone of her legs.

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