Study reveals gender bias in TA evaluations

A college class had two teaching assistants: one male and one female. At the end of the semester, the students scored the male TA higher on course evaluations, while the female TA got five times as many negative reviews.

There’s just one problem: They were the same person.

Emily Khazan, a graduate student in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida, conducted the study in a 136-person asynchronous online class last fall. Half of the students were told they had a male TA, the rest a female TA, but Khazan actually fulfilled TA duties for the whole class, using text-based interactions in an online learning platform. 

While previous studies have shown that women and people of color may receive harsher faculty evaluations than white men, particularly in STEM fields, this study extends the finding to teaching assistants — the end of the often-leaky pipeline bringing underrepresented groups to academia.

“Girls are told throughout their education that they’re not as good at science and math as boys. You have this pool of people who made it through all of that and are still being told by their students that they’re not as good. It can have a compounding effect,” Khazan said. 

Another troubling finding: Female students were more likely to give negative evaluations when their TA was female. All of the female students assigned to the fake male profile gave positive evaluations. 

“We don’t really have a good explanation for that,” said co-author Laura Greenhaw, Ph.D., an assistant professor of agricultural leadership with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We really need to dig into intragender bias.”

The male TA didn't actually take part in the class. The female TA did all of the TA duties.

Students in the online class saw these photos accompanying similar bios for each TA. Jesse Borden, left, got higher scores on teaching evaluations than Emily Khazan, right. But Khazan actually fulfilled TA duties for the entire class.

The overall bias favoring the male TA wasn’t shocking to Khazan and Greenhaw, but did surprise their co-author, associate professor Steve Johnson, Ph.D., with UF’s department of wildlife ecology and conservation.

The photo and bio of the non-existent male TA assigned to students in the experiment belonged to Jesse Borden, a UF grad student and a co-author on the paper. For Borden, the results helped to quantify the biases female colleagues have described.  

“As a cis-gender white heterosexual male, I recognize that I am unable to really grasp these sorts of bias and don't know them from personal experience,” he said. “I am lucky to have worked with, learned from, and been friends with some fantastic people, including Emily and Laura, who have helped me recognize both my privilege and the systemic and widespread bias against women and minority groups.”

Even just a handful of negative evaluations can haunt a prospective professor, shaking their confidence and affecting their job prospects. While the study’s findings only trended toward statistical significance (98.4% positive evaluations for the putative male TA vs. 90.9% positive evaluations for the female TA), “selection committees aren’t looking at statistical significance. They’re looking at the evaluations, and that can have a big impact in hiring,” Greenhaw said.

Preparing graduate students, particularly female TAs, for negative evaluations could help, as well as making students aware of implicit bias, the researchers said.

“The study highlights the need to mentor our grad students through this experience and put in more intentional work to move women through the pipeline,” Greenhaw said. Even for women who make it into academia, she said, “those two or three harsh evaluations don’t get easier.” 

The findings reinforce calls to re-examine the role of evaluations as indicators of a classroom success, she said. 

“We have to ask, are we really evaluating good teaching with these measures?”

The paper was published in the NACTA Journal.

Alisson Clark November 3, 2020