If you're ever reading professor reviews online and find one professor described in glowing terms, chances are the professor is a man. A new study found that college students describe male professors as "brilliant" or "genius" far more than they use such words for female professors in online reviews. Who says kids today aren't sexist?
"Male professors were described more often as 'brilliant' and 'genius' than female professors in every single field we studied — about two to three times more often," said Daniel Storage, the University of Illinois graduate student who led the study, which analyzed 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessor.com. And in fact, students were most likely to use such words to describe male professors in fields where women and African-Americans are underrepresented, including physics and philosophy. And researchers were unable to find any other factors to explain the pattern of results other than race and gender.
In other words, not only do students think that men are more brilliant, but if you look at how likely students are to call men "brilliant" or "genius," you can predict which fields are the most dominated by white men. So does this mean that students are more likely to think a white man is a brilliant genius when he's surrounded by other white men? Does it indicate that a field being dominated by white men makes it seem like the sort of place where you'll find brilliant geniuses? Or are women and people of color actively shut out of the fields where people expect brilliance and genius?
This last possibility actually already has some scientific evidence to suggest it might be real, but in truth it's probably a combination of factors. That's the fun thing about institutional sexism and racism — everything is so interconnected, it's often impossible to point to just one problem. And by "the fun thing," I of course mean "the reason you typically feel like screaming into the void."
One thing is pretty clear, though, and that's the fact that students are predisposed not to see women as "brilliant" or "genius" and that female professors have an uphill battle if they want the same kind of glowing reviews, either online or, presumably, in the internal reviews most schools ask students to fill out. Which then in turn makes it that much harder to advance in a field that's already predisposed not to think of women or African-Americans as having what it takes. And the whole institutional cycle continues.
So, is there a way out of this cycle? Well, if you're a college student, maybe the best thing is to think about the way that you rate professors. If there's a female professor that you think is brilliant, use that word to describe her in your evaluation.
And overall, let's all appreciate the professors that deal with these obstacles and manage to advance anyway. Because you guys really are heroes.