Gender Bias in Academia and Beyond: The Battle Continues

As if it hasn’t already been well documented, another study is set to be released that demonstrates what we already know – that women who teach in higher education are unfairly judged in course evaluations. A recent article in The Economist previews the study’s results, which show that “on a scale from zero to 100, the evaluations place female instructors an average of 37 slots below male ones. Students taught by women gave lower ratings even to teaching materials that were the same for all course instructors, such as the textbooks and the online learning platform.” Of the 20,000 course evaluations that provided data for this research project, the authors found that “both male and female students gave worse ratings to female instructors, though the men were much more prejudiced. Most worryingly, the bias was particularly pronounced in the case of junior instructors, for whom student evaluations are much more crucial for teaching awards, tenure decisions and even salary negotiations.”

While this news isn’t really news, it does raise questions about the number of studies it will take for there to be any movement to acknowledge and address the problem. One author recently suggested that such movement may, in fact, never happen. In her article “Why Men Don’t Believe the Data on Gender Bias in Science,” Alison Coil states,

A vast literature of sociology research shows time after time, women in science are deemed to be inferior to men and are evaluated as less capable when performing similar or even identical work. This systemic devaluation of women results in an array of real consequences: shorter, less praise-worthy letters of recommendation; fewer research grants, awards, and invitations to speak at conferences; and lower citation rates for their research. Such wide-ranging devaluation of women's work makes it harder for them to progress in the field.

As concerning as this is, she goes on to say:

Given the enormous amount of data to support these findings, and given the field in question, one might think male scientists would use these outcomes to create a more level playing field. But a recent paper showed that in fact, male STEM faculty assessed the quality of real research that demonstrated bias against women in STEM as being low; instead the male faculty favored fake research, designed for the purposes of the study in question, which purported to demonstrate that no such bias exists.

And such results are not entirely surprising. Much has been said about gender bias and sexual harassment in science and technology. The now famous Google memo by James Damore, in which he argued that women are biologically inferior to men and, therefore, unlikely to achieve equality in the sciences (and for which he was fired), has even been praised by some men in STEM. The New York Times highlighted the backlash that is occurring in STEM fields against the presence of women in the tech industry. One particular individual went so far to suggest “that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.” While this thinking used to be considered “fringe,” it appears to reflect a growing sentiment. The NYT piece stated that although “studies and surveys show there is no denying the travails women face in the male-dominated industry, some said that the line for what counted as harassment had become too easy to cross and that the push for gender parity was too extreme a goal.”

Is this the future for higher education today? Are we likely to see a backlash against women in academia? I have written about my own experience with course evaluations, and I must admit that nineteen years into my academic career I cannot see that gendered responses are any less frequent.

What are we to conclude, then? For me, the answer is easy, but the work may not be: there is no option but to persist and push regardless of whatever backlash we might face. Women play an exceptionally important role on college and university campuses – and diversity of all kinds among faculty, staff and students is necessary.

The work, therefore, must continue in the face of sexism, harassment and bias. But let’s move beyond the data gathering and analysis – we have our proof. It is time to work on solutions.