She’s Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations

Girl Sitting at Desk

Girl sitting at desk flipping through textbook pages at Putnam School. 1961. Gar Lunney. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada, e010976007. CC by 2.0. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/7797311412/

by Andrea Eidinger [1]

I would like to acknowledge and thank the many female instructors who got in touch with me over the past week, not only for their bravery in sharing their experiences with me, but for their strength in continuing in their dedication to the field of history and education. I am profoundly grateful and honoured.

“I think your feminist stances are slightly overcorrecting reality. I’m sure minorities had a harsher experience than women, ESPECIALLY today, a point you seem to overlook. You’re a really nice person though.”

That comment comes from my student evaluations from one of the first courses I ever taught, back when I was still a graduate student. At the time that I read that, I burst out laughing. I mean really, how else can you react to that kind of statement? But many courses and student evaluations later, I am starting to think that this is reflective of a larger problem in the world of academia, and history in particular, with respect to female sessional instructors and course evaluations.

Over the course of the past year or so, there have been a number of studies that have emerged detailing the gender bias against female instructors in student evaluations.  According to one study, male professors routinely ranked higher than female professors in many areas. [2] For instance, male professors received scores in the area of promptness (how quickly an assignment was returned) that were 16% higher than those of female instructors, even though the assignments were returned at the exact same time.  Another research project, which examined word usage in reviews of male and female professors on “Rate My Professor” found that male faculty members are more likely to be described as “funny,” “brilliant,” “genius,” and “arrogant,” while female faculty members are more likely to be described as “approachable,” “helpful,” “nice,” and “bossy.”[3]

While many of these studies discuss the negative impact that this bias has on tenure and promotion few consider how devastating they can be to sessional instructors, particularly given the overrepresentation of women at this academic rank. Although data on sessional instructors in Canada, both contract and regularized, remains scarce, what we do know based on a 2016 report on sessional faculty at publicly-funded universities in Ontario is that 60.2% of sessional instructors identity as female. Most of these individuals have Ph.Ds. and will spend roughly 4 to 5 years working as a sessional instructors with the hope of securing  full-time positions within academia. During these 4 to 5 years, 53.2% of these individuals will secure contracts that are less than 6 months in duration while the next largest group, at 18.2% will not have any current contract at all.? And declining enrolment in history courses across the country means that jobs of any type are becoming more and more scarce.

The effectiveness of sessional instructors is often evaluated based primarily on student evaluations, particularly when it comes to questions of hiring, contract renewal, regularization, and promotion to tenure-track positions. (This is in spite of solid evidence that student evaluations are not good measures of teaching effectiveness.) Consequently, female sessionals often face a serious disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.

Here is a quick sampling of some of the more problematic comments I’ve received over the years:

  • “The focus on social history was good but I did not learn events leading to confederation. I didn’t come out of this course with any more information, except gender and race struggles, than I came in with.”
  • “Although Andrea stated on the first day she would teach a peoples[sic] perspective it was not illustrated how much was going to be focused on first nations and women’s history.”
  • “A bit biased in her views: very feminist and consequently an alternate view isn’t respected.”

While these remarks only represent a small percentage of the student comments that I’ve received on evaluations, they are extremely troubling. They also appear to be fairly representative of the types of comments that female instructors, particularly those who appear to be younger, receive on a regular basis. While writing this piece, I put out a call on social media for Canadian female instructors who teach history to get in touch with me if they were willing to share some of these comments on an anonymous basis. Eight women came forward and shared their stories. These comments and stories generally fell into five categories: bias, inexperience, unprofessionalism, behavior/appearance, and sexualization.

One of the most common critiques is that of “bias.” You can see several examples of these types of comments that I’ve received above. Many female instructors are heavily criticized for including women and gender history in their courses, and this is often described as them imposing a personal bias on history. They are often accused of “only having one point of view” and “shutting down opposing views.”

For instance, one instructor had a student that complained, “it was obvious that she didn’t quite enjoy the boys telling her that men are biologically superior. She rapidly dismissed their explanations as outdated and sexist without giving them the reason (although she did later on in the course elaborate). But it was clear that those students had lost interest since their ideas were being rejected.”

Related to this problem are comments about female professors being “inexperienced,” “new,” or “too young.”  Female instructors often have to face criticism from students who don’t feel that they are qualified to be professors. This is particularly a problem for female professors who appear to be younger than they really are or who happen to be short. Several of the instructors shared comments from students about them being “newer,” or just “getting started in teaching.” In one case, an instructor relayed that, “I also recently had an issue with a mature male student who made comments about me being “early in my career” and that he may be able to “help me” through his own line of work. He also expressed unsubstantiated doubts about my qualifications for teaching the subject matter after admitting to doing an online search of my background.”

On a related note, this can often result in direct challenges to female instructors in classes. Recently, an instructor related the following exchange on Twitter:

Another common complaint is that female instructors behave “unprofessionally.” The reasons for this can vary significantly, but often relate to references to one’s personal life. For instance, one instructor I spoke with had been forced to cancel a class because her child was sick. She joked about it in the following class. Then, on her student evaluations, she noted the following comment: “I found it very unprofessional that the Instructor referenced her child as an excuse for not being available or for missing class. This is not the concern of the student or any reputable faculty. Those issues should remain private and availability should be clearly indicated without reference to the Instructors personal life.”

Female instructors are criticized on everything from their behaviour to their appearance. Many are told that they should “smile more” or be “more approachable and friendly.” One student wrote, “she sounds like a dictionary with all the words she uses.” In some cases, students comment on their clothing choices in student evaluations, with comments like, “I like how your jewellery[sic] matches your clothing” and “I would love to know where you shop. You have some great dresses.”

More pernicious are the sexualized comments that female instructors received. These ranged from comments that “she’s hot” and “the prof is not hard on the eyes” to “I would really like to get you into a room alone and have some fun.” Finally, one instructor was told “I like how your nipples show through your bra. Thanks.” As the instructor herself noted, “this one led me to never wear those bras again. I now wear lightly padded bras exclusively. I was horrified when I got this one. Horrified. And not because my nipples were showing. Who the eff cares? But because someone was looking at me that way and sexualizing me while I was teaching a class in political history.”

Instructors have handled such comments in different ways, but nearly all of the instructors that I spoke with have stopped reading comments on student evaluations entirely. This is particularly the case in more recent years, as student comments have become increasingly aggressive and at times violent. Not only are these comments not helpful in any regard, but also they are profoundly unfair.

The end result to these kinds of comments is a situation that puts female sessional instructors in an un-winnable position. Their job performance is judged on teaching evaluations that are significantly biased against them. And yet teaching evaluations are used to make hiring decisions, where female instructors are ranked alongside with their male peers, on the assumption of an even playing field. And when there are no second chances and bad teaching evaluations can spell the end of your entire teaching career, female instructors get the short end of the stick.

Further, there are few support systems in place for female instructors to help them deal with these kinds of comments as well as misogyny in the classroom. While some departments and department members are sympathetic, others are less so, and some are openly hostile to even the suggestion. Female instructors are routinely told to just “ignore” these comments,[4] or are reluctant to even raise concerns for fears of being accused of “not being able to handle it” or of not being sufficiently “grateful for having a job.” Most of us end up feeling entirely alone. The situation is often worse for women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGTBQ+ instructors.

However, it does seem that at least one Canadian university is starting to take this problem seriously. In May of 2014, the University of Waterloo initiated the Course Evaluation Project Team, to “assess the current practice of course evaluations and provide recommendations for improvement.” Their draft report was released to the university community in November 2016, recommending the adoption of a cascaded course evaluation model that would be consistent across all faculties. More than ninety associations and departments responded, and the final report is pending following a full review of this feedback. Three groups of faculty in particular submitted the most detailed responses, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo, the Status of Women and Equity Committee, and faculty members from the department of psychology.[5]

Each of these responses recommended that student evaluations should no longer be used to evaluate faculty members due to the significant gender, race, and other biases. They all specifically refuted the idea that careful design can be taken to counter the gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Instead, these reports advised that written comments in student evaluations should only be for the instructor’s use, and that alternative assessment tools be used instead, such as teaching practice inventory or correlating teaching with in one course with student grades in later courses. It remains to be seen what the final report will say.

While I can’t provide recommendations about what kind of system should replace student evaluations, what I can say is that based on the feedback that I’ve received and conversations I’ve had with other female instructors, gender bias in the classroom, and academia, is a serious problem that needs to be addressed openly, with honesty and compassion. Not only do these biases end careers, but they also deprive students of superb instructors.

This post is the first in a series of posts examining being female in academia and the realities of being a sessional instructor in today’s job market. If you have any stories you would like to share, please get in touch with the author at andrea [dot] eidinger [at] gmail [dot] com.

Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.

[1] Special thanks to Joanna Pearce for her comments on the piece!

[2] Lillian MacNeil, Adam Driscoll, Andrea H. Hunt, “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching,” Innovative Higher Education 40 (2015): 291-303. See also Anne Boring, Kelle Ottoboni, and Philip B. Stark, “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness,” ScienceOpen Research (2016): 1-11; Patti Miles and Deanna House, “The Tail Wagging the Dog: An Overdue Examination of Student Teaching Evaluations,” International Journal of Higher Education 4, no. 2 (2015): 116-126; and Natascha Wagner, Matthias Rieger, Katherine Voorvelt, “Gender, Ethnicity and Teaching Evaluations: Evidence from Mixed Teaching Teams,” Economics of Education Review 54 (October 2016): 79-94.

[3] Scott Jaschik, “Rate My Word Choice,” Inside Higher Ed (February 9, 2015). You can use the tool itself, which was developed by Ben Schmidt, here. For information on how he developed the tool, click here.

[4] Thank you Christo Aivalis for the suggestion of this example.  The comments section of this article (and many similar articles) highlights the prevalence of the ‘just ignore’ attitude.

[5] To see the background research for the study as well as some of the other responses and commentaries, including those from students, click here. Interestingly, of the responses posted that website, only the Federation of Students was fully supportive of the draft report’s recommendations.

29 thoughts on “She’s Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations

  1. aimeemorrison

    I was totally shocked to see the UWaterloo report held up as the answer. I am a tenured faculty member at UWaterloo. Every year I submit materials for a merit review. The ONLY thing that counts toward the assessment of my teaching is my evaluations. That. Is. It. I don’t hand in syllabi or assignments, there are no classroom visits, NOTHING. The university has now removed the comments from the evaluations for merit review, so now it’s just raw numbers. That. Is. It.

  2. aimeemorrison

    “You taught ENGL108D: Digital Lives. Of 38 students, 34 filled out ACQ [Arts Course Questionnaires]; they awarded you a score of X.X for questions 1-9 [detailing everything except workload], and an X.X in the instructor category.”

    Seriously. That’s the evaluation of my teaching upon which the departmental assessment committee and the Dean determine my worth as a teacher.

  3. andreaeidinger

    I included the Waterloo report simply to show that universities are slowly starting to look for better ways to evaluate teaching. But their recommendations in the draft report are horrifying. They think the evals should continue, and that design will eliminate gender and racial biases. Which is total bs. I’ve been subject to the same kind of assessments, and have often been told that my usually scores of 4.25 to 4.75 on student evals were low. Out of a five point scale.

  4. Orakel09

    Thanks for this report. It reflects my own experiences (I am a just tenured law professor in Germany) so well – I practically had the same comment in an evaluation about my sick baby boy, stating that: she should not stay at home when her baby is sick. If she has not organised childcare she should not take a teaching job (mind you, I was professor at that time…and I had arranged for the class to be shifted to another day).

    It is so important to raise awareness for this bias – please keep doing it!

  5. Ted McCormick (@mccormick_ted)

    The policy at Concordia is that qualitative/written comments are for the instructor’s eyes only; only numerical scores are submitted and used for formal evaluations at the department level or above. This appears to be based on a naive notion that numbers are either more objective than words from the same source, or else simply that numbers can’t be used directly to comment on appearance, etc., and so provoke less complaint. That’s bad enough; but in practice what gets looked at are not the absolute numbers but the deviations from the departmental or faculty average scores, which are marked with little chevrons pointing one way or the other on the evals. So to be considered a good teacher is not to get a “good” score but to get an above average one (i.e. to have some chevrons pointing the right way). Needless to say, this takes an already bad problem and gratuitously worsens it for anyone systematically disadvantaged by these evaluations. Unlike Waterloo, I guess, other elements of the dossier are taken into consideration, at least at the department level. But I haven’t heard a good case for keeping evaluations given what’s now known about them.

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  7. Nurglitch

    I feel like anyone in a University setting that complains about an instructor sounding ‘like a dictionary’ deserves a Fail on whatever course they were evaluating.

  8. Sandra Evans

    This is sickening. I had an awful job interview once where the instructional segment began with one of the professors evaluating me shouting at the top of her lungs, “Elle est belle!” in the seconds before I began teaching the 20 freshmen/sophomores. It was incredibly humiliating. After reading this article, I think I actually got off easy.

  9. Belle

    As someone who has spent a lot of time as a student in the U.S., I definitely can get behind getting rid of teaching evals. The questions almost always dealt with things that I, as a student, didn’t care about. And they never ask questions about whether or not the professor took a student’s poverty or social anxiety into account. It’d be nice someone asked about that. I’d defiantly be interested in seeing a study on the reasons why student evals have been getting nastier.

  10. LSmith

    A female colleague of mine here in the US received the following comment on one of her course evaluation: “She thinks she knows more than we do!”

    Yes…she probably does.

  11. Johhny

    “I think your feminist stances are slightly overcorrecting reality. I’m sure minorities had a harsher experience than women, ESPECIALLY today, a point you seem to overlook. You’re a really nice person though.”

    “The focus on social history was good but I did not learn events leading to confederation. I didn’t come out of this course with any more information, except gender and race struggles, than I came in with.”

    “Although Andrea stated on the first day she would teach a peoples[sic] perspective it was not illustrated how much was going to be focused on first nations and women’s history.”

    “A bit biased in her views: very feminist and consequently an alternate view isn’t respected.”

    it was obvious that she didn’t quite enjoy the boys telling her that men are biologically superior. She rapidly dismissed their explanations as outdated and sexist without giving them the reason (although she did later on in the course elaborate). But it was clear that those students had lost interest since their ideas were being rejected.”

    “I found it very unprofessional that the Instructor referenced her child as an excuse for not being available or for missing class. This is not the concern of the student or any reputable faculty. Those issues should remain private and availability should be clearly indicated without reference to the Instructors personal life.”

    “They are often accused of “only having one point of view” and “shutting down opposing views.”

    If you see a pattern of people complaining about pushing a feminist agenda and dismissing opposing views, have you ever stepped back and thought that you might be?

    You use examples from male students and examples from unknown genders, considering women make up 60% of the university student population perhaps you should focus more on them than on the MINORITY.

    People take these classes to learn about history, if you want to dismiss views other than your own without repercussions maybe you should teach women’s and gender studies where you’ll be safe from the dangerous male evaluations.

    better yet, get a STEM degree.

    you live in a bubble.

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  13. Cameron

    So your students complain that you inject left-wing feminist politics into the course and, when challenged, you dismiss any dissenting viewpoint…and then you post those comments so as to say “Look how sexist my students are.” Constant political preaching combined with an ability to engage intellectually when one’s views are challenged is pervasive among (male and female) university professors. That, combined with the fact that you felt it simply making this criticism of you was proof of your students’ sexism makes me rather inclined to believe that the criticism is true.

    Did it occur to you that many of those anonymous comments might have been simply made by conservative women who found your unwillingness to actually engage with ideas you disagree with unimpressive?

    Heck, the very first quotation in this piece is a student, essentially, asking you to “check your privilege” because you didn’t discuss racial minorities often enough. Response? Look at how sexist my student is.

    An older student criticizes you for not mentioning the anniversary of Vimy Ridge. What precisely is sexist about this, aside from your completely unwarranted belief that he wouldn’t say this to a man? Your entire basis for accusing this man of sexism is that he’s male and you’re female. I wonder if you can see the irony.

    Men and women on ratemyprof have different adjectives used to describe them? Well, since it’s a proven fact that men and women act and think exactly the same all the time, I guess I have to concede this one: that definitely proves that most people just plain hate women, and it definitely doesn’t in any way indicate that men and women act differently in the classroom.

    Some of your students said you’re hot? Do…do you mean to say that 18-year-old boys fresh out of high school are…obsessed with sex? Perish the thought! Well, at least we know the solution: continue to deconstruct the ideal of the “gentleman” as patriarchal and sexist and keep ridiculing any and all criticism of the sexual revolution as prudish, old-fashioned, and hateful.

    (Also, how heteronormative of you to assume all those comments were made by men!)

    And some students said they liked your dresses and jewellery? Say it ain’t so! Horror of horrors! Cursed be the day I was born!

  14. Really?

    “particularly given the overrepresentation of women at this academic rank. Although data on sessional instructors in Canada, both contract and regularized, remains scarce, what we do know based on a 2016 report on sessional faculty at publicly-funded universities in Ontario is that 60.2% of sessional instructors identity as female.”

    So you are just assuming the employment situation for an entire country with little to no evidence. I wonder why students may have made a few complaints.

    Also, 60/40 isn’t a big over-representation. If you think so I look forward to you talking to the NDP about their over-representation of female nominees this year.

  15. Don Clement

    As a former (male) sessional instructor, I think that most of the comments and the post itself, however valid the observations about gender bias, are missing the underlying problem of instructional evaluation. That is that students are simply not qualified as evaluators, and it is shocking that student OPINIONS, replete as they often are with lies and mendacities, are relied on, sometimes exclusively, for instructional evaluation! Especially in the millennial world, where truth, fairness and integrity are trumped by an unprincipled focus on success, defined as outcompeting others.

  16. aimeemorrison

    Wow. There’s a lot of men in this comment section far more willing to believe some complainy and inappropriate comments from undergraduate students than they are to be willing to even listen to a female PhD holding professional educator outline the systemic gendered nature of course evaluations.

    If you are reading this post, and you are not a female university or college instructor, have you considered really really listening to what is being said? Just because it’s not your experience doesn’t mean it’s not true. Andrea and her sources are sharing information that maybe you don’t know about. Instead of telling them that they are wrong or they’re misunderstanding or the students obviously have a point, ask yourself why you can’t hear what they’re saying as possibly true.

    And you can dislike evaluations in their totality as terrible instruments, but that doesn’t mean that even in that rotten system, female instructors (and disabled, or queer, or racialized instructors) don’t get it even worse that able-bodied white men.

  17. Cameron

    aimeemorrison: Did you just assume my gender? 😉

    More seriously, did it occur to you that there is a good reason for the skepticism? Many of the comments are nonsense, as is the norm with this sort of system (what students want their professors to do does not always overlap with what they need their professor to do for them to actually learn), the ones about shutting down any view that doesn’t tow the left-wing party line is something I’ve personally seen all the time in highly credentialed Ph.D holding professional educators of both sexes.

    The difficulty with Ph.Ds is that they sometimes saddle those that hold them with the view that, because they are so very brilliant, anyone who disagrees with them must be doing so because of ignorance. Humility is a rare virtue among academics.

    So, a professor shows student comments saying that she preaches political sermons and shuts down disagreement. She doesn’t even bother to say that the comments are untrue or to even describe what she does when a student disagrees with her in class. She just posts the comments and proclaims that the very fact that the student made this criticism is proof of their sexism. She also concludes that a student must be sexist due to an utterly innocuous comment about Vimy Ridge. Forgive me, but my response to that is NOT “Well, I’m sure she is completely unlike the vast majority of university professors and in fact teaches in a balanced and non-politicized manner.”

    Without being in her class myself, I of course have no way of knowing for sure how she responds to debate in her classroom. The way she responds to criticism, more than the criticism itself, does make me inclined to think that she, like the vast majority of university professors, has a tendency to sermonize and handles students’ challenging of her views poorly.

  18. Avery

    Cameron, I feel like it might be relevant to point out the class was on the second World War and Vimy Ridge is a First World War battle so no it wasn’t very relevant to the class.

  19. Sean

    This has been up for a day and some guys are already adding comments that only further illustrate the author’s point. Boys, this isn’t an attack on being male; it’s a response to students being shitheads to female professors (or any female in leadership). The point is shown through hard data rather than just emotion and personal experience (both of which are absolutely relevant). Even if you’re totally against gender equality, that doesn’t mean you have any reason to think it’s OK to downplay someone’s teaching ability because she’s hot, not hot enough; old, not old enough; authoritative, not authoritative enough, etc.

    Thank you, Andrea, for sharing this. It’s eye-opening and needs to be heard.

  20. Cameron

    Avery, my point had nothing to do with whether the student’s comment about Vimy Ridge was warranted (for the record, I agree that it wasn’t relevant). The point was that the comment wasn’t in any way sexist, and the only reason the professor has to believe that it was is that the speaker was male. The notion that he wouldn’t have said this to a male professor is laughable. Do students never make irrelevant comments in male professors’ classes?

  21. wkh

    Cameron, that’s actually kind of the point exactly you seem to be not getting. No, students do not talk down to their male instructors with the same dismissive and disrespectful tones they do to female profs. What about that is so hard to believe? No, students, especially male ones, do not challenge male profs the way they do female profs. The male profs are automatically assumed to know what they’re doing — a privilege not granted the same way to their female profs.

  22. Amanda

    Thank you Dr. Eidenger! Superb article: technically excellent, very interesting subject, and important information for readers to have.

  23. Donica Belisle

    As Rebecca Solnit puts it, “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.” (http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175584/)

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