Judge My Professor: Rate My Professor Analysis Turns Up Traditional Gender Stereotypes

By Emily Ashbolt, Biomedical Physics, 2017

When Benjamin Schmidt began his Bookworm Project, a large-text analyzer of online volumes, he had no idea of the controversy it would stir.

Schmidt, who is an assistant history professor here at Northeastern and part of the core faculty in the NuLab for Texts, Maps and Research, cites one of his interests as the “relation between history and data.”

The societal takeaways that can be skimmed from large data became very apparent to the researcher, and everyone else, after one aspect of his Bookworm project analyzed over 14 million reviews on Rate my Professor, the online college-professor ranking site. The analysis was based on word choice versus gender, and the results were unfortunately predictable.

Male professors were far more likely to be called intelligent, brilliant, and smart. The women? Bossy and annoying, with “shrill” voices.

The sexist responses suggest an already well known bias for anyone receiving feedback, from performance reviews to interviews, in which men and women are given different results, sometimes drastically, for the same skill.

This research also comes along with a North Carolina State University study showing that students of both genders rate online professors they’ve never met higher if they think they are men than if they are women.

This kind of judgement can be extremely detrimental to women looking for respect in academia, from their students and colleagues alike, as it reinforces the idea that men are taken more seriously and valued more in professional settings.

However, the results weren’t all bad news. Women were more likely to be described as role models, and men were much more likely to be “dumb” or “idiots.”

The analysis is also broken down by major, creating an interesting visualization of professors from various departments that students find amazing (Criminal Justice usually comes out on top — or maybe the students are just scared of their professors finding negative reviews?)

Schmidt was quick to explain on his blog that he “wouldn’t describe this as a “study” in anything other than the most colloquial sense of the word,” citing many more details that would be necessary to draw solid conclusions from data of this kind, such as that one in sixty professors reviewed might have been assigned the wrong gender anyway due to code glitches, and that Rate My Professor has dropped in popularity in scores since its peak in 2005.

However, as a general overview of student bias in the classroom, Schmidt’s tool certainly provides some food for thought. With Trace Reviews approaching, maybe give a shout-out to that funny female professor you have, or the well-dressed male. Value the person for something that you might not have thought to before.

And put an end to the bias, at least in some small way.