Mid-Semester Procrastination Destination: Gendered Language

Spring break is in view, but here’s one last distraction as you make the final push to tomorrow. If you’ve been feeling frustrated about sexism lately (or just always), this website is probably just going to make you angry, but it’s very interesting. Professor Ben Schmidt of Northeastern recently made an interactive chart allowing you to look at words used to describe professors on RateMyProfessors broken down by gender and department. Read on for some examples, thoughts on methodology, and general fuel for your anti-patriarchal rage.

 Some of the things I observed during the ~40 minutes I spent on this website were that an insane number of terms are gendered, a lot of these terms are used in super sexist ways, and that apparently most of the people who use the term “pedantic” take lots of philosophy classes. (Which explains… a lot about my life.)

One interesting way to look at gender differences is to search for synonyms. While male profs are more frequently described as boring, women are more frequently described as uninteresting. While “boring” is used more frequently overall, the split still seems significant. “Uninteresting” reads as a statement not about the act of teaching, but about the person herself.Aevil wtffffnother fun (well, “fun”) thing to do is to search crazy words that probably shouldn’t be used to describe any professors. For example, “evil.” Particularly disturbing is the prominence of this descriptor in male-dominated fields. The thought of (likely male) engineering students describing their female professors as “evil” on the internet is pretty horrifying.

It’s worth noting that the data available and the way they were collected affects the results. Schmidt himself notes this in his FAQ. Some things to consider include:

How many professors there are in a given field, and the gender divide. The least trustworthy data are those about, say female engineering profs, for whom they are far fewer reviews. (The chart below shows the total gender breakdown of Schmidt’s data.)

Schmidt used an automatic gender package to assign gender based on names. Male professors named Sydney, for example, might have been misgendered. The packages uses U.S. Census data from 1789 to 1940, so I also don’t know how the program deals with non-Western names.

Also, when you search a term, you don’t know the context. It’s possible that when I searched for “boring,” some of the uses were things like, “This class is never boring!”

From Schmidt himself:

RateMyProfessor excludes certain words from reviews: including, as far as I can tell, “bitch,” “alcoholic,” “racist,” and “sexist.” (Plus all the four letter words you might expect.) Sometimes you’ll still find those words typing them into the chart. That’s because RMP’s filters seem not to be case-sensitive, so “Sexist” sails through, while “sexist” doesn’t appear once in the database. For anything particularly toxic, check the X axis to make sure it’s used at a reasonable level. For four letter words, students occasionally type asterisks, so you can get some larger numbers by typing, for example, “sh *” instead of “shit.”

Despite these factors, and the fact that RMP ratings are undoubtedly not a representative sample of how most college students feel about their professors, the extent of the gender divides on some of these terms are, I think, telling. In the gallery below are some screenshots of other words I thought to search. I’d be interested in hearing and seeing others; comment with your findings!

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4 thoughts on “Mid-Semester Procrastination Destination: Gendered Language

  1. Alumni

    Try asshole or dick and you’ll see that there are also gendered insults aimed at male teachers.

  2. Let'sExposeAllOurBiases

    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS! Gender bias in teaching reviews affects a lot of female professors (also at Wes!); these professors end up needing male colleagues’ support in defending their own teaching.

    Bias reaches very far….!!

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