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The Words Female Professors Hardly Ever Hear From Student Reviews

A “genius” professor is probably a man. A “crazy” one is probably a woman (if you didn’t like her). Mining 14 million teacher evaluations to examine how we view the sexes.

It’s no secret that women face double standards in the workplace, and that this is reflected in the words others use to describe them. Women are abrasive (a word men never see in their performance reviews). Men are assertive. Women are bossy. Men take charge.

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But ingrained stereotypes start way before enter the job market. This is demonstrated powerfully by a search tool created by Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, which looks at the words used in 14 million student reviews on the site RateMyProfessors.com. To use it, type in any word and you can see how often it appears in reviews of female professors versus male professors. (The results are broken down by field of study and normalized by gender, which takes into account that no fields have a 50/50 gender breakdown of female and male professors).


Playing around with the tool is eye-opening. Many search terms show clear gender disparities. “Funny” is used about twice as much for men compared to women. “Shrill” is not very common overall, but almost exclusively applies to females when students use it in their reviews. The term “crazy” is used about evenly to describe both genders when the teacher reviews are overall positive, but for negative reviews, “crazy” is used far more frequently to describe women. Oh, and “genius”? Also a very large gap in favor of male professors.

What’s most interesting about all of this is that students didn’t seem to think their female professors were actually worse than their male teachers, when you start looking at very generic terms. For example, “bad teacher” and “good teacher” appear at close to equal frequencies for professors of both sexes in most fields. It’s the more colorful adjectives that appear to differ by gender the most.

Left: Crazy (positive). Right: Crazy (Negative).

Women did have the edge when it came to some positive adjectives, but that too fell into line with what you’d expect of gender norms. “Helpful” and “friendly,” for instance, are traits reviewers more often ascribed to women.

It’s not clear from any of this whether female professors are in reality less funny and more helpful, or whether they are just perceived to be, and Schmidt notes in an explainer of his methods, the data set isn’t perfect. But more formal research studies have consistently shown that student evaluations of female teachers are definitely affected by sexist perceptions, conscious or not.

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A recent study from North Carolina State University showed this dramatically. The researchers had two teachers, one male and one female, give the same exact online course twice each. Both instructors pretended to be the opposite gender for one of their sections. As Slate put it, the results are astonishing: Students evaluated the instructors who appeared to be male higher than those who appeared to be women across all 12 categories of ratings. It’s hard to get more clear cut than that.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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