OPINION: UD women face misogyny during SETs and remote learning

The University of Dayton is preparing for its Student Evaluations of Teaching. Cover photo from University of Dayton

Mary McLoughlin
Opinion Editor

Last semester, I wrote an op-ed about the impact of misogyny and other bias in SET (Student Evaluation of Teaching) surveys. (Spoiler: Students held women to unfair standards and evaluated women harsher than men even when their performances were identical.)

This week, we received emails reminding us that it’s almost that time of year again, so it feels like a good time to revisit that discussion and talk about what SETs mean when the classroom has moved online. 

As the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates gender-inequality for women all over the world, it’s important to consider what the pandemic means for women at UD.

In many ways, the added pressure of quarantine and the move to online learning exposed just how fragile many of the threads that had just barely been holding academia together for women really are. 

We already know about the double standards reflected in student evaluations of female professors.

Students expect their women professors to be nurturing and supportive.

When they live up to this expectation, students view them as less knowledgeable.

When they don’t live up to this standard, they punish their professors through evaluations.

Students ask more from women professors, and punish those professors more harshly when they don’t give in.

For example, one study found that academically entitled students were more likely to ask women for extensions or favors and exhibited more negative reactions when those requests were denied. 

Research also suggests that women in academia face unequal care and service obligations when compared to their male counterparts.

Research on the “Mom Penalty” finds that, because women are expected to fulfill the majority of childcare responsibilities, parenthood stalls the careers of mothers in academia far more than fathers.

Even for women who aren’t mothers or caretakers, our expectation that all women provide care and nurture works its way into the workplace as well as the home.

A study of the service obligations among male and female faculty finds that women bear the brunt of service obligations such as sitting on committees, advising students, and providing mentorship.

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Now, as journal submissions from women faculty drop across disciplines, it’s increasingly clear that where balancing family and work responsibilities was once difficult, the productivity needed for tenure is now nearing impossible. 

Since we know that our expectations that women will keep the academy and the home running smoothly means women now have less time to put into research, we can assume that the same is true for women struggling to develop online classes.

But even if women had the same time or energy to invest in online teaching, that wouldn’t make a difference.

In one study, students in a large class were assigned either male or female section leaders for their course. While male students rated their male instructors higher than female instructors, those with female instructors performed better on the final exam.

This gender bias exists online as well. Research has shown that even when male and female professors teach identical online classes, women are evaluated more harshly. When gender is the only variable, it’s hard to ignore the misogyny at work in these evaluations.

In a recent town hall, President Spina announced that while tenure and tenured-track will not be laid off or put on furlough, non-essential, non-tenure track faculty will have contracts delayed until mid-summer.

Reflective of national trends, women make up 60% of non-tenure track faculty and instructional staff at UD.

Given that women at UD are more represented in these precarious academic positions than they are in any other type of position (women make up 50% of assistant professor positions, 40% of associate professor positions, and only 26% of full professor positions), it’s clear that coming layoffs will likely have gendered impacts. 

SET surveys are shaped by the larger misogynistic culture that devalues care work as feminine and overlooks or even punishes women for their participation in service work.

We cannot use their biased results as a lens through which to understand the work professors are currently doing or to look toward what our university should value or become. 

Our lives are becoming increasingly precarious and, with those changes, it’s becoming clear that we need ways to make caring for one another more sustainable.

I appreciate all the efforts UD has made to make sure that students who are struggling are cared for, and I have been touched again and again by the efforts my professors have made to provide comfort and support.

But if UD as an institution is going to ask professors to step into those care roles, then the labor that this requires cannot go unrecognized or uncompensated. And we cannot continue to expect women to continue carrying this heaviest parts of this burden. 

UD’s decision to freeze tenure clocks was an important first step, but we cannot end there.

Academia needs to reconsider the type of work that we value as labor, especially within tenure decisions where care and service work are often obstacles to promotion because of the time and energy they consume. And that starts with taking care seriously—not as something that women do on the side, but as a fundamental aspect of all relationships that makes learning possible.

This recognition means rewarding women who rise to that occasion and holding their male-counterparts to the same standards.

Since mentoring and support sustain academia and make research possible, tenure evaluations should consider this invisible work as part of the research process.

Now, more than ever, we should critically evaluate teaching. But these conversations should be aimed at evaluating how academia’s culture is failing faculty, staff, and students rather than how those at the university, and especially women, are failing to live up to academia’s impossible demands. 

Last semester, I said male professors need to talk about gender bias in evaluations.

This is still true, especially given the success of these interventions.

But this time, the stakes are much higher and involve all of us. While we should continue to rely on one another for care and support, we need to be more thoughtful about who we lean on and what we ask on them.

When we lean on each other and share the burdens of care, our community as a whole is stronger.

But when those obligations land unevenly on some members of our community and not others, the already overburdened individuals holding up our institution risk falling. 

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