Last updated April 1, 2019 at 11:59 am
The biases experienced by some teachers vary according to their sex, background and faculty, according to a UNSW study of university student attitudes.
Students are more likely to rate male university teachers higher than their female counterparts in some areas of STEM and Business, according to Australia’s largest review of student experience surveys.
The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined almost 525,000 individual student experience surveys from the University of New South Wales students from 2010-2016 across five faculties – about 2,400 courses and 3,100 teachers. It is the first study to examine the interaction between gender and cultural bias.
“These results have enormous flow-on effects for society, beyond education, as over 40% of the Australian population now go to university, and graduates may carry these biases with them into the workforce,” says Yanan Fan, a statistician from UNSW who led the research.
The study showed that in Business and Science, a male teacher from an English-speaking background was more than twice as likely to get a higher score on a student evaluation than a female teacher from a non-English speaking background. In Engineering, there wasn’t a significant swing against female teachers, except male English-speaking teachers were 1.4 times more likely to get a higher score than teachers in all other categories. For Medicine, local students were more likely to give lower scores to female teachers from non-English speaking backgrounds.
“In the Business and Science faculties in particular, male English-speaking teachers have the highest probability of getting the highest possible grade at six, out of six possible scores,” says Fan.
In Arts and Social Sciences, there was no statistically significant bias against female teachers. The results suggest that where there is a larger proportion of female teachers, such as in Arts and Social Sciences, there is less bias. Bias was observed, however, against male non-English speaking background teachers when evaluated by local students.
Fan said there was growing evidence to suggest that all aspects of employment, from hiring to performance evaluation to promotion, are affected by gender and cultural background.
“Reducing bias will have great benefits for society as university students represent a large proportion of future leaders in government and industry,” she says.
Study shows need for change
“The results show universities must be models of equity and diversity in order to breakdown inequalities that persist in even the most progressive of workplaces,” adds Merlin Crossley, UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic.
“We regard student experience surveys as essential, but we have to know how to interpret the results in order understand unconscious bias and how we can bring about change.”
Dean of Science at UNSW and co-author of the study, Professor Emma Johnston, says encouraging more women at the professorial level, in leadership positions and in membership of key committees will help shrink these biases.
“We need to continue to support women at all levels of academia in STEM across Australia, in order to smash stereotypes that create the partiality that exists within our community.”