Home | Policy & Reform | The importance of tenure and gender fairness for female academics: new study

The importance of tenure and gender fairness for female academics: new study

Two US economics researchers have found that female academics on short-term contracts are more likely to grade their students' assignments harshly compared with their male counterparts in the same career situation, which can lead to several negative consequences.

Also, students are more likely to give female instructors or tutors less favourable teaching evaluations.

These significant findings was gleaned from a decade of data made available by a major US university. The researchers, who published their study in Economics of Education Review said the practice “reflects the combination of gender-related and financial vulnerabilities facing such teachers when they award grades”.

“All lecture faculty are going to be very sensitive to their teaching evaluation,” said one co-author, Veronica Sovero, an assistant professor of economics at San Francisco State University. 

“But it’s going to be even stronger for these female faculty who are on uncertain contracts.”

Sovero and Amanda Griffith, an associate professor of economics at Wake Forest University, commenced their study by aiming to prove two well-known phenomena in universities: short-term teaching staff have a proclivity to mark more leniently, and students tend to give female tutors or instructors worse ratings than men. 

For their investigation, titled Under pressure: How faculty gender and contract uncertainty impact students’ grades, both researchers were given permission to access de-identified information from the US university, resulting in records from more than 170,000 course enrolments between 1994 and 1995. 

The analysis

The study’s abstract makes clear why such a study is necessary and also points to why more work is needed to understand this incongruence between male and female instructors’ marking and student evaluations of each sex’s teaching performance. 

“Although rising average grades appear to be common at post-secondary institutions in the U.S. there is still little work examining mechanisms driving this increase in grades. This paper uses data from a public research university to examine one mechanism in particular: instructor level incentives that are linked to gender and contract status,” the abstract states.

“We hypothesize that instructors with more job uncertainty due to their rank will be most incentivised to award higher grades, as this may lead to better evaluations of teaching and an increase in retention probability. 

“Our results indicate that students receive higher grades when their class is taught by a female instructor with more job uncertainty than if the class were taught by a tenured female faculty member. These higher grades appear to reflect more lenient grading rather than better preparation for follow-on courses. 

“However, for students taking classes with male instructors, there is no significant difference across instructor rank in grades received. Our results have important implications for thinking about the role faculty contracts may play in affecting grading distributions.”

After analysing the data, the researchers found “the proportion of A grades increased slightly among male instructors as their contract status moved from uncertainty toward tenured positions”. What was noteworthy, however, was that the female members of staff tended to grade more harshly as they moved towards tenured status, with the proportion of higher grades decreasing and lower grades such as Cs increasing.

Just why this is the case is perplexing and worthy of further investigation. 

The authors concede that the study contains some limiting factors, such as the use of a single university. However, at the same time, Sovero said the university in question “appears representative of many research-intensive universities, including its general prioritisation of research over teaching".

While more research is needed on why male and female instructors mark in different ways when enjoying similar employment status, the research still makes a worthy contribution in exploring how universities must “take steps that may have been pointed out to them in the past," Sovero said, "including giving their instructors longer-term contracts and trying to reduce bias in student evaluations of teachers".

For instance, on the topic of reducing gender-based bias in teacher evaluations, Savero recommended something as simple as making students aware of concepts such as unconscious bias and reflecting on their decision-making. 

In a world that is becoming far more conscious of gender bias, the researchers noted that such studies are in universities’ best interests. 

“The study... reflects a growing willingness among universities to participate in such research − often on the condition of anonymity − to help improve their operations,” Sovero added.

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