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USRIs tainted with gender bias

Female profs get a tougher shake than male counterparts

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Addressing female professors with sexist slang like "bitch" or "sexy" is academic suicide. However, gendered comments like these are a common occurrence this time of year as students complete anonymous teaching evaluations, according to University of Calgary President's Advisor on Women's Issues Dr. Claudia Emes.

The Universal Student Ratings of Instruction system was developed to allow students to rate their professors' teaching abilities, but a faculty report found female professors routinely received lower overall USRI scores than their male counterparts. Despite these findings, administration and the Students' Union stand by the USRIs.

The findings, which are part of the Next Steps Report of the Gender Equity Project, examined teaching evaluations in the faculties of kinesiology, engineering and science, and found the mean USRI scores of male professors to be higher than the mean scores of female professors in every instance. Written responses also tended to reflect gender bias.

"When students are commenting on a female professor their comments tend to be more personal and more aggressive," said Emes.

Emes noted an example presented in the report, where comments about a male professor read: "He is very challenging and a very busy man. His research is very important so we are lucky to have him teach our class. He helps the students by having his grad students answer questions." A similar comment about a female professor read: "She is a bitch. She does not make herself available to the students."

"This is a typical example," said Emes. "It happens regularly."

Emes explained that gender bias in USRIs and other teacher evaluations can be damaging because they are used as part of professors' annual evaluations and promotion review. She suggested a better indicator of performance is student supported recognition, like the SU Teaching Excellence Awards.

"It's discouraging for women that there appears to be an inherent bias," said Emes. "The tool is perhaps doing the job students would like it to do, but it's not helping the professoriate in ways that it should."

Despite the gender biases, both U of C administration and the SU said the differences are minimal.

"The USRI as an instrument has its imperfections but the fact that there are slight variations doesn't invalidate its use," said U of C Associate Vice-President Academic Dr. Robert Woodrow.

Woodrow said the USRI is only part of instructor evaluation, and he is more concerned with the written portion of the evaluation. He said written comments about female professors often present sexist, rather than constructive criticism. "Wears sexy clothes" is another example taken from the Next Steps Report.

"It would not necessarily damage an individual," said Woodrow. "It was clear when the survey was being designed that it was not meant to be the only indicator of instruction."

SU VP Academic Paige Forsyth said despite the flaws, the questions on the USRI are gender-neutral and students need the USRI system to ensure their voices are heard.

"I don't think that there's any way that the USRIs are gendered in themselves," said Forsyth. "It's important to have USRI to have a standardized rating system for promotion and tenure."

Forsyth mentioned while there are differences in the average rating between male and female professors, the differences are small and she believes they will lessen over time.

The full Next Steps report can be found at www.ucalgary.ca/UofC/departments/PRES/.

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Comments

``Emes noted an example presented in the report, where comments about a male professor read: "He is very challenging and a very busy man. His research is very important so we are lucky to have him teach our class. He helps the students by having his grad students answer questions." A similar comment about a female professor read: "She is a bitch. She does not make herself available to the students."''

The comments are not similar at all, otherwise they would not show contrast between comments about male instructors and comments about female instructors.

Were these comments about instructors teaching the same course? Did the two instructors being compared have the approximately the same amount of professional experience? Are they of similar age? Were the class compositions the same?

The comments aren't of the same length, nor do they describe the same elements of teaching.

There may be gender bias, but without context, we have no chance of determining that based only on two isolated data points.

The link to the full report was given in the print edition, and is now also given at the end of the online story. Decide for yourself.