Research Case Study

Impact: Overcoming bias against female teachers

  • Tagged under

    Economy, business, politics and society

Friederike Mengel

Essex research has uncovered a bias against female teachers which could hinder their career progression and earning power. A study involving Friederike Mengel from the Department of Economics has led to universities across the globe changing the way teachers are assessed – a move which has benefitted both teachers and their students.

The challenge

As an economist Professor Mengel is interested in exploring how social identity and discrimination affect people’s chances of success in the labour market. She and her co-authors Jan Sauermann and Ulf Zoelitz were concerned about the mounting evidence of gender gaps in academia.

They set out to discover more about the issue.

What we did

Professor Mengel and her co-authors examined nearly 20,000 teaching evaluations filled in by students at a top business school in the Netherlands. She compared these with information on teacher performance to assess whether poor assessment was linked to poor performance.

“We found no differences in performance between male and female teachers, but we found causal, not just correlational, evidence of bias in the way women teachers were evaluated, particularly by their male students. This bias has potentially harming effects on junior women’s careers, both directly as it means they are less likely to be promoted, and indirectly by knocking their confidence in their teaching ability,” said Professor Mengel.

Having largely ruled out performance differences between male and female teachers, Professor Mengel concluded that gender bias was the reason female teachers were doing less well in the workplace than their male counterparts.

What we changed

Their research generated a huge amount of interest, both in academia and beyond. As a result Universities across Europe, Canada and the United States have changed the way teacher assessments are carried out to try and eliminate the potential for bias. Changes include swapping more general questions for ones which specifically ask about teaching quality and asking students to provide evidence for the score they have given a teacher.

Changes have been introduced at 14 universities so far: University of Alberta, University of Birmingham, Brown University, University of Colorado, Hertie School of Governance Berlin, Maastricht University, McGill University, Orgeon University, University of Rochester, Sheffield University, Tilburg University, Toulouse School of Economics and Union College. 

According to one university, without Professor Mengel’s evidence they would not have been able to make the University Senate understand the potential harm being caused to female staff when teaching evaluation relies predominantly on potentially biased student ratings.

Professor Mengel’s work is not just benefitting teachers. It is also being used in teacher training, with participants reporting it has made them reflect on their teaching style and make changes for the better. 

Based on the number of teachers and students in the 14 universities which have introduced changes so far, it is estimated 25,000 teachers and 425,000 students have directly benefitted from Professor Mengel’s research.

It has also helped increase understanding of gender bias and has encouraged wider public debate.