Why Students Judge Female Professors More Harshly


University students are used to male professors. It’s not surprising — as of a few years ago, women held only about 24% of full professor positions in the U.S., despite the increasing presence of female students on campus for the past 25 years. At Yale University, women make up half of the student body, but only a quarter of tenured professors. As a result, students have become used to learning primarily from male professors.

Unfortunately, their feedback has begun to show it.

Professors everywhere may be anxious to see what their students have to say at the end of the term, but women get it the worst. When students hold their male professors to a different standards, they have a serious impact on the professor’s ability to succeed. Negative feedback can lead to insecurity or uncertainty for female professors, which in turn changes the entire experience of college for both students and staff.

Most professors take their student evaluations seriously, as they should the student feedback provided to the university after a course is completed is used by the administration to make decisions about who will be tenured and promoted. Unfortunately, evaluations are often thought of lightly by the students themselves.

What's more, students who review female professors more poorly not all sexist, women-hating, or ignorant young academics who have a distinct preference for male professors. The running theory is that students enter a course with preconceived notions of what women are typically good at — and based on those notions, characteristics such as assertiveness, ambitiousness, and authoritative are seen as "unusual." They are then interpreted differently when exhibited by women. From my experience, assertiveness is often viewed as forcefulness in a woman;and ambitiousness is perceived as petty. Authoritative is viewed as too imposing or aggressive. According to expert analysis, students have a tendency to appreciate female professors more in intimate, seminar-style courses whereas men rule the floors of large lectures that require a “bigger” presence. University classes tend to get smaller as one progresses through college, so this causes a huge problem: if students have overwhelmingly male professors in their first and most developmental years of college, by the time they progress into their junior and senior years, they will have formed a sense of familiarity and trust with the type of figure they’re accustomed to — and those figures are disproportionately male.

I can vouch for the fact that university students are used to male professors. After two years of being "undecided" as a major, I decided to officially move into political science. Once I had declared my major, it took an entire year for me to have a class with a female professor. Now I'm in my final year and out of seven classes, only one of my professors is a woman and indeed it is for a small seminar.

My professor is young, perhaps in her late twenties. In just my second week with her she was on the brink of becoming tenured; she only had to defend her thesis before a panel of decorated scholars and academics. She admitted that she was nervous and may not be able to focus completely. Given the underwhelming numbers that make up female tenured staff, it is unlikely that many of her assessors will be women. It’s a vicious circle: student evaluations don’t see women as authoritative, and as a result women become less authoritative. The students are not to blame, and they lose out just as much as their female professors do.

It is the hiring process that needs to be changed. It has now been 41 years since Congress passed Title IX, which barred sex discrimination within education. While women have succeeded greatly as students, the glass ceiling at the professional level is ultimately felt by every member of an institution. Martha West and John Curtis of The American Association of University Professors wrote that “the barriers for women in higher education . . . place serious limitations on the success of educational institutions themselves.”

These limits affect students the most, and have a direct role in shaping our opinions, both within our majors and on the broader notion of equality. We can't afford to educate a new generation of academics, business people, and artists that think women can't lead, or teach — we need to break the cycle before it begins again.