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Picking a Descriptor Also Picks a Gender International Debate
Who needs a test when we've got English?

Picking a Descriptor Also Picks a Gender

March 2, 2015 1223

Intelligender kit

Who needs a test when we’ve got English?

A friend of mine calls me professor of genius studies. It’s a sort of slip of the tongue, as I teach in gender studies, but it‘s also funny because everyone knows that genius is not associated with gender studies, and I’m the wrong gender anyway. A genius has electrified hair, big glasses, problems talking with mere mortals, and is white and male. Disney confirms this repeatedly, as does Christine Battersby in her 1989 study Gender and Genius.

Now the anonymous online ranking system, RateMyProfessors.com, has been subjected to algorithmic sifting to find that genius is a term students apply to male professors at least three times the rate for women, depending on the discipline. Brilliance is also something men do better in university lecture theaters, according to these ratings, and in music male professors are seven times more likely than female professors to be virtuoso performers. That was by over 3 million students. Consistently more knowledgeable and smart, men are also handsome, cute, charming, funny and sensitive.

The Conversation logo

This article by Alison Bartlett originally appeared at The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “Rate my professor’s gender?”

So we know what’s coming next. As this is a gender mapping, women professors are consistently more likely to be described as feisty, bossy, aggressive, shrill, condescending, rude. You get the picture. We are also ahead on that vanilla descriptor, nice.

These fascinating results are enabled through the work of Assistant Professor Benjamin Schmidt from Northeastern University, who released an interactive chart that groups results from about 14 million reviews over a couple of months from RateMyProfessors. It’s easy to use: type in the word and the results will be graphed, split by gender across discipline and per million words.

Schmidt notes that “not all words have gender splits, but a surprising number do. Even things like pronouns are used quite differently by gender.”

Indeed, even the definite article, the, is applied more to men than women. Note that these results are only distributed by the gender of the rated professor, not by the gender of the reviewing student. And they can also be sorted by whether the review was positive or negative overall.

This graphical mapping of language used by American students to rate their professors tells us that gender is repeatedly constructed through the language we use to differentiate behaviors and values, and that women still face systematic obstacles in academia.

This usable dataset has been noticed by online media commentators and compared to other studies that demonstrate that teaching evaluations, citation, promotion and research funding are all highly gendered practices.

This is part of a larger narrative about women and work, about the structural hostility when women enter workplaces that are traditionally occupied by men. Such workplaces have already normalized the authority and historic contributions of men – often they are literally built for men, as in the cases where women’s toilets have to be added to buildings (including parliaments).

The mass introduction of women into higher education as academics and as students is only relatively recent. In my university, for example, the ban on employing married women was rescinded only in 1976. These structures take generations of making visible, naming and countering.

It’s still sobering to see evidence of the ways gender – or should we be calling it misogyny – is so deeply embedded in language. Australian feminist Dale Spender has been talking about this since the 1970s: how language is male-centred (man comes to stand in for humanity); words reserved for women are derivations/deviations from the word for men (actress, woman); the sexual double standards (stud and slut); and the lack of words to name sexism, rape, sexual harassment, child abuse – all words which have entered our vocabulary since that time.

Spender attributes this lineage of English partially to the history of dictionary, but the impact is that it limits the ways in which we can construct our social world and speak to each other as gendered social beings.

Because this is just raw data, though, we can find other things about gender in it as well – you can search for whatever word you want, and its antonym. Women are more likely to be caring, helpful and encouraging, as we might expect in a society that continually associates women as carers, but we’re also more likely to be uncaring, unhelpful and discouraging – again consistent with the higher expectation of women as carers.

With a different set of terms, though, women are much more likely to be described as feminist, creative, fabulous, amazing, wonderful. Men are consistently ahead on crude, old, vulgar, outdated, misogynist.

I wonder what would happen if we made this the lead story:

Women professors are fabulous, amazing, wonderful; men crude, vulgar, old.

It doesn’t fit with the stories we tell about women, or universities, but it’s there in the data as well. And it doesn’t contradict the systemic oppression story; in a whole different way it supports it.The Conversation


Alison Bartlett is an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Western Australia. Before that she taught literature at the University of Southern Queensland for 10years. Her teaching and research is mainly around gender and sexuality in popular culture and literature. She has written two books – Breastwork: rethinking breastfeeding (2005) and Jamming the machinery: contemporary Australian women’s writing (1998). Bartlett has worked with the National Museum of Australia to propose a collection to represent the Australian women's movement, and is interested in how the recent feminist past is being remembered and mobilized.

View all posts by Alison Bartlett

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