BY: RAVEN PFISTER
Rate My Professor. The bane of my (and presumably every other professor’s) existence. The place where students can unabashedly bash us with no fear of recourse because they have the protection of anonymity. To me, students’ ratings are like flipping someone off in your car, except much worse for the recipient of the gesture because the middle finger never goes down on RMP. The ratings cannot be deleted or modified by professors; they can be reported to RMP administrators and removed if they violate posting guidelines, but those determinations are only made by RMP. Professors can respond to ratings, but that just seems childish, especially since our responses aren’t anonymous (unless we create fake student accounts, which some disgruntled profs have been known to do, but I digress). Seriously though, is it really that bad for professors? Do they even care? Shouldn’t they stop whining and suck it up? Well, it depends on who you ask… According to a recent study analyzing data from 14 million student reviews on RMP, female identified professors were more likely to be rated on their appearance and/or personality, whereas male identified professors were more likely to be rated on their skills and/or intelligence. On the negative end of the spectrum, female professors were commonly described as bossy, annoying, ugly, frumpy, disorganized, playing favorites, strict, demanding, or rude, while typical positive terms were: helpful, nice, role model, nurturing, and stylish. And how is being stylish relevant to one’s professorial skills again? Anyway, for male professors, common positive terms included: smart, brilliant, intellect, knowledgeable, awesome, a star, the best professor, and genius (for the latter label men outranked women in every discipline). As for negative descriptors for men…not so much. Men only outranked women for one negative term—demanding—and they only did so in five of the 25 disciplines on RMP (women beat men in the other 20 disciplines). For all other negative terms in all disciplines, women…for the win? Perhaps a slight silver lining: both women and men were about equally likely to be labeled as lazy, tough or easy, distracted or inspiring. So there’s that.
Other studies have also shown apparent student biases against female professors. Last month, the New York Times reported that when instructors graded and returned assignments to students in the same amount of time, students rated female professors as less prompt than their male counterparts. As if negative reviews about academically relevant issues aren’t enough, women are also more frequently rated on their attractiveness or lack thereof. Just last January, Vice Dean Adam Scales at Rutgers School of Law admonished students for their “wildly inappropriate and adolescent” comments about a female professor’s appearance that, according to him, would almost never be directed at a male. Scales continued: “…after a lifetime of hearing these stories [from women], I know [sexism] when I see it. Anyone who doubts this would find it instructive to stop by and ask any one of our female professors about this and similar dynamics.” Well Dean Scales, I took your challenge (on a small scale…no pun intended) and this is what I found.
Female professors from multiple disciplines at various schools frequently said they don’t read, or they try not to read their RMP reviews primarily because of fear (or knowledge from having read them before) that they will be negative. Negative ratings are seemingly even more worrisome for women whose jobs are not secure (i.e., non tenure track), because if negative RMP reviews are echoed in official evaluations, their job performance may be questioned. Some female colleagues mentioned anxiety, particularly about appearance related ratings. Others discussed the triviality of the “hot pepper,” but also expressed glee (albeit sarcastic) at having one or more. It’s a sad state of affairs when women have to worry about pleasing the “male gaze” in addition to all of the other responsibilities that come with being a professor. The men I talked with didn’t have many appearance concerns or much anxiety about RMP at all, which makes sense considering the relative infrequency of their negative ratings as compared with women.
From my personal experience, when I was younger, more fashionable, and arguably more attractive, my ratings were more positive than they are now, yet often unrelated to the quality of my work. Gone are the days of the hot pepper for me, and I would say good riddance except the evaluations I get now, especially the negative ones, are also typically unrelated to my teaching abilities. Generally, students who rate me negatively seem not to like me or my personality and they usually assume I don’t like them. Typically those assumptions correlate closely with grade complaints. Students label me a “hard grader” or say how well they do in all of their other classes, so it must be my fault that they didn’t get an A. They also regularly pin their poor performance on their perceptions of my feminist values, claiming, “it’s not my fault I don’t use gender neutral language,” or one of my personal favorites, “she’s an extreme feminist, so she’s biased.” Hmm…maybe I should stop burning my bras on the first day of class…nah.
In all seriousness though, RMP ratings reflect broad (mostly unconscious) biases in the US. Generally, people think more highly of men than they do women and men tend to be praised for the same qualities that women are criticized for. This phenomenon is not limited to RMP. Last month, The NY Times reported that in the office “a man who doesn’t help is busy; a woman is selfish.” And in a recent study of employee performance reviews at 248 tech companies, women, unsurprisingly, were much more likely to receive critical feedback than men, being described as abrasive, aggressive, and emotional.
Some may argue that men are just more qualified or better at what they do. But I would ask those folks, “who created the qualifications or definitions of better or worse?” The truth is, we’ve come a long way in the US in terms of equalizing the playing field in very overt and visible ways (e.g., voting and property rights, Title IX, etc.), but at the end of the day, the things that we currently label “standard” or “normal” or “good” (and their opposites) were at some point assigned those labels by human beings. Of course the creators of language, and by extension, knowledge, assigned the more positive labels to themselves…duh! But last time I checked, it’s 2015. Not all women are nurturing, maternal, emotional, and traditionally attractive and not all men are assertive, aggressive, authoritative, and forceful, nor should they be expected to be. If women or men don’t live up to these socially constructed “standards” we should not judge them as better or worse for it. If a woman is assertive, it doesn’t mean she’s bossy or a bitch. If a man is emotional, it doesn’t mean he’s a wimp or any less of a man. If women or men don’t meet traditional and somewhat antiquated expectations, perhaps we should consider changing our expectations instead of trying to force people into boxes that they’ve long since escaped.
So to get back to the original question of whether professors should just suck it up and get over it: on the individual level, perhaps, especially for women. It is probably better for their health, esteem, and overall well being to ignore RMP altogether because the negative reviews will continue as long as the site exists. But whether we should just get over it as a society is a whole different question, and to that, my answer is an unequivocal: NO. The gendered ratings on RMP are indicative of a much bigger structural problem in our culture. Whether individual people loathe women and femininity is up for debate, but the loathing our culture harbors for women and femininity, especially through our language practices, is crystal clear. We live in a society where in nearly all culturally valued arenas, women are considered less worthy than men. When only 20% of congress and fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, we can no longer treat double standards as individual issues. Women can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t have any boots. The logical first step is to change our language practices, which will lead to changes in how people think. Words unsaid can eventually become unthought, and we as a society will never even come close to being equal unless we change our language to match the dynamism and multitudes of identities that exist in our world.