Prepare to Be Shocked

From Scientific American, “Physics Students Reveal Bias For Male Lecturers”

When it came to questions of physics ability—whether the lecturer had a good grasp of the material, and knew how to use the equipment—male lecturers got higher ratings by both male and female students.

But when asked how well the lecturer relates to the students, each gender preferred their own. And while female students gave a slight preference to female lecturers, male students overwhelmingly rated the male lecturers as being superior. The research appears in the journal Physics World. []

Crazy, right?  I just can’t. believe. this.

When I was trained by one of those test prep companies to teach the GMAT, I was told that I would need to be on top of my game from the get go because I was a woman.  The instructor told me that, unfortunately, that’s just how it works, especially when it comes to the types of people who want to go to business school.  In particular, I needed to be aware of the “Alpha Males” who would assume my stupidity or ignorance until I proved otherwise.  The guy in the class with me was told that, on the contrary, he just needed not to seriously mess up because the class would trust him the entire time unless he did something to show them that he was not smart enough to be teaching them.

And then once, while I was a teaching assistant for a large introductory history course (taught by a white female professor – who rocked, btw), I was discussing with my students the way that bias affects whether we believe someone or not.  We were talking about the phenomenon of women historians having to defend against an “agenda” when they discuss women, or gay historians doing gay history, or black historians doing black history, etc.  White male professors, however, get to coast on their authority and their supposed lack of bias.  When they teach women’s or gay or black history, it is simply to give you the facts.  And when they teach you about white people or men, there’s no “agenda” behind it. It’s hard to explain the reaction of the students but some of them got it.  But most of them didn’t.  Because it is a hard phenomenon to recognize.

It’s so hard to recognize that SA is publishing this report about a study that says what almost everyone would imagine to be the truth about bias in the hard sciences.


2 thoughts on “Prepare to Be Shocked

  1. Wow. This is almost as surprising as when Sotomayor was asked by a white male Senator if she would be “biased” because of her sex and race.

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED I tell you.

    And yeah, I got the same warnings when I was going to teach LSAT prep for Kaplan. And one of my friends, who is a research chemist in private industry, has experienced innumerable instances of obvious sexism in performance ratings and task assignments.

    What’s really funny/scary/disturbing is how it’s not terribly surprising when white men attempt to become “experts” in any given field focused on “other” people, but when non-white people cross “boundaries” – say, when an Asian student majors in African American Studies – those same white men often get so confused. At least, that was the experience of many of my friends at a major US East Coast university. I think that goes to show how deeply inculcated the idea is that intellectual disciplines are “owned” by white people (and white males, specifically).

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I agree so much with your final paragraph. As someone in a history department, you are not wrong about that weirdness that people get when a non-white person studies a different non-white group. It is utterly confusing for many people.

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