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By Megan Cooley

Megan CooleyBeing assertive for a woman in the sciences and any professional setting can quickly earn you a reputation as an “insert explicative here.” Why? Why do women struggle with this type of branding while men who are assertive are not viewed in a similar derogatory manner?

NPR recently discussed a study conducted by researchers from UC Berkley and Sciences Po regarding the merit of student evaluations of teachers in general. The authors firmly object to these evaluations and state that they only serve as a measurable unit of staff performance for universities. The study showed that overall student performance on exams was not affected by an instructor, but in fact the evaluations showed a gender bias imposed by the students on the instructor. Interestingly, European students were harsh on male instructors regardless of student gender; however, in the U.S., female students were more biased against female instructors than male instructors. Perhaps there is some underlying cultural difference here, but for now we will focus on the bias that females impose on other females in the U.S.

As the primary elections are winding down, Hillary Clinton is struggling to gain ground over Bernie Sanders to win the delegates necessary for the Democratic nomination. Countless editorials from the Washington Post alone show criticism of her mannerisms saying she is shrill and she shouts—anything but what a woman is supposed to be, right? However, when Bernie Sanders yells, and he often does, he is viewed as passionate.

Is it plausible to think that this reaction to Hillary Clinton is imposed on female instructors in the classroom to some degree? The study would suggest that, to some extent, it likely does carryover. The director of the study asked instructors to dress in drag and change their names. While students taught by either instructor did not perform better or worse on final exams, female students favored Paul over Paula. That’s odd, or is it?

Having been on both sides, my experiences have been as follows: as a student, female instructors were either nurturing—you could go to them if you had an academic or personal problem—or they were assertive and direct. To be honest, I learned the most from the instructors who were assertive and remember less from those who were more nurturing.

As an instructor, I conducted my lectures in a direct and succinct manner, no friends, and no favorites. I appreciated those students who put forward effort and didn’t make excuses. Some students respected this approach and to others I was cold and uncaring. I was generally rated worse on my evaluations than my peers, male or female, and honestly I see this as more a criticism on my teaching style rather than on my gender. Interestingly, I generally had more positive verbal feedback from my female students and any incidences that resulted in negative verbal feedback were from male students.

The bias women appear to impose on other women in the study is interesting. It seems like an intolerance towards each other. Is this born out of jealousy, or perhaps are females more competitive with one another? In my experience, most female scientists are very driven individuals. They have goals in mind and a path that they want to carve out for themselves in their respective disciplines. This might translate to female students as: we want information in the most direct and succinct manner because this is a stepping stone along my path to my ultimate goal. We don’t want another mother; we want someone who will help us get to the next step.

Megan Cooley is not authorized to speak on behalf of MRIGlobal, and the opinions expressed are my personal opinions and not those of MRIGlobal.

Megan Cooley, Ph.D., is a Staff Scientist at MRIGlobal. Her work is focused on analytical method development and analysis of biological samples as a part of the Product Development and Repository Management Division.