sexism in universities

Students love to complain about women and people of colour – their teachers. Here’s what happens next.

Any minute, your university students will get an email with a link. That link leads to one of the most dire tools of university performance, the evaluations of course content  and teaching quality.

These evaluations are meant to provide feedback to enhance course design and teaching methods. However, for several decades research has shown that despite the questions being asked, the factors influencing students’ responses have a minimal amount to do with either the course or teaching quality. 

They are instead shaped by student demographics, prejudice towards the teaching academic, and biases shaped by the classroom and university setting.

Despite the clear flaws underpinning the data student evaluations collect, universities continue to use this data as a measure of an academic’s teaching performance. Evaluation results influence an academic’s likelihood of being hired on a continuing basis for contract and sessional staff, receiving promotions for existing staff, and being fired or managed out during staff restructures.

This is a flawed method of evaluating people and it raises questions of why the sector continues to use student evaluations. But the negative impact is complicated further by the fact that we know evaluations impact on different groups of academics to different degrees. The groups impacted the most are the groups the academy declares to value, hopes to protect, and claims to have an interest in fostering their careers.

I recently completed a study where I reviewed the findings of existing research about student evaluations of courses and teaching. The paper, Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching, found that across studies covering more than 1,000,000 student evaluations, it is clear that women are at a disadvantage compared to men.

Different studies suggest the disadvantage can vary in size, and is highly dependent on disciplinary area, student demographics and other factors, but across the board, women are judged more harshly than men. At the extreme, this means women are more likely to fail evaluations than men, and researchers have routinely cited examples of more capable and higher performing women receiving lower scores than their less capable male counterparts. These results predictably mean women fare worse in job applications and promotions, and has been cited as a reason why women are represented less in the professoriate, and fill fewer leadership positions.

The same is true of factors such as race, gender, sexual identity, disability, language and other marginalising characteristics. Studies in different locations across more than two decades of solid research continually find that if an academic is not a white, English speaking, male in the approximately 35-50 year old age group and who students perceive to be able-bodied and heterosexual, this will result in some form of lower evaluation result. The negative repercussions of these results are also cumulative; a woman will receive lower results, and a person with a visible disability will receive lower, so a woman with a visible disability is likely to be treated extra harshly in the evaluations of her course and teaching.

What also cannot be ignored is that as a majority of the existing data originates from large-scale quantitative surveys, repeatedly researchers have noted that the rates of people within the sector who are disabled, identify as LGBTIQA+, people of colour, are refugees or immigrants, or a part of other marginalised groups are so underrepresented in the higher education sector that they do not count as a valid sample size.

At the broadest level, multiple studies showed that evaluation results can be impacted by disciplinary area and assessment type. Several studies have shown that academics in the sciences and associated fields receive lower evaluation results than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences. Similarly, it has been noted that academics whose courses use essays and presentations for assessment fare better than those who rely on exams.

Institutional factors that have nothing to do with the class, or the academic teaching the class, have also been cited as reasons an academic will receive a lower evaluation score. Lower results can be given because of the class scheduling, class location, classroom design, class cleanliness, library facilities, and even the food options available on campus; all factors beyond the control of the academic teaching the class.

Official university responses to why they continue to carry out student evaluations when evaluations are so flawed and prejudiced towards the sector’s most vulnerable groups are rare. Existing studies suggest universities need data about course content, teaching quality, and student satisfaction, and student evaluations are the most cost and time effective method of gaining this information. In the past, perhaps the lack of data around evaluations was enough to convince institutions that a method of data collection that was seemingly not perfect was still acceptable due to the data that could be obtained rather quickly and easily. 

Considering what we know in 2021, time and cost effectiveness are not good enough reasons to continue a flawed practice that so blatantly discriminates against the sector’s women and those from marginalised groups.

Dr Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University. His research examines higher education administration and policy with a particular focus on investigating the inequities that persist in the sector.

A different kind of academic performance: using the arts to address sexism in Australian universities

The 2015 Australian census data establishes that women make up 56.7% of the staff in Australian universities, yet there is a dearth of women in university management and the professoriate. Men outnumber women by a ratio of 1 to 3 in these positions.

Women in academia face several key inhibitors to achievement within their careers including a ‘boys club’ culture, and a form of academic masculinity where men dominate discussion by framing statements as questions, and call female colleagues and peers ‘ladies’ or ‘girls’. Groups such as the Chilly Collective have argued that the climate for women in academia is less than welcoming. Clearly there is a need to take action and challenge this kind of everyday sexism.

Feminists describe sexism as elusive and difficult to pin down in complex institutional university structures, so much so it gets reproduced even by those who seek to challenge it. As Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar, asserts, sexism is slippery because it is often implied rather than obviously demonstrated and lurks within the everyday actions and speech of staff and students. Slippery sexism becomes so commonplace it often goes unnoticed or ‘let go’ by those who experience it. The micro-aggressions that everyday sexism (re)produces are often not recognized by those who experience it as well as those who perpetrate it. Eventually, many learn how to allow it to exist in their everyday lives. We become tired of it; to speak out every time is exhausting, and then when people do speak out they are trolled. In academia, such a speaker would often be labelled as over-reacting, angry, difficult.

In 2015 we formed a group called #FEAS – Feminist Educators Against Sexism to research and pin down sexism in universities by making visible statements about the ways women encounter misogyny during their career. We create performance arts interventions to help bring sexism into the open and to make audiences aware of its presence in universities. We use the hashtag #FEAS to make use of, as well as comment on, the pressure for academics to network and be entrepreneurial, able to self-promote and brand themselves as an extraordinary individual within the institution.

#FEAS connects to the history of feminist activism, sharing its intentions, collective approach and heart with the consciousness-raising activities of second- and third-wave feminism. We use a ‘Guerilla Methodology’ like the feminist artists known as the Guerilla Girls which is activated through humour, irreverence and facts to explore:

  • Collective action – reflecting feminist activism and the notion of women sharing power with women
  • Irony/humour – comedy and puns which disrupt sexism within formal academic settings such as conferences
  • Subverting the everyday – rethinking common events to highlight the everyday nature of sexism in universities

Our first performances took place at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) 2016 conference. Our performances were collectively designed during two collaborative workshops funded by an AARE Strategic Initiatives grant. The workshops enabled women academics at all stages of their career to meet, hear about the ongoing research by Diezemann & Grieshaber into women’s academic career progression as well as brainstorm our arts interventions.

The interventions

We performed three interventions at AARE 2016:

  • Sexist/anti-sexist Bingo – a comment on the ways women often view their professional success as being due to luck or chance. We developed a sexist/anti sexist bingo game that paid attention to some of the sexisms women endure at conferences and we distributed these to women AARE delegates throughout the conference.
  • Stand-up Comedy – a performance that draws attention to the slippery, evasive nature of everyday sexism through irony. Workshop participants condensed their personal experiences of sexism into single sentences or phrases. We then took these and turned them into ‘jokes without a punchline’ that were performed as a pop-up, stand up comedy. Linda Knight, #FEAS co-founding member, dressed as a 70’s style stand up comedian and read out not so funny statements such as “my Dean always calls me darl” accompanied by canned laughter
  • T-Shirts, Business cards, #FEAS ‘brand’ logo – we irreverently referenced the marketisation of higher education and the notion of the corporate academic. Applying for funding has become increasingly futile because of governmental changes to funding priorities and the worsening conditions of possibility for women due to the favouring of priority research areas that can have higher proportions of male academics. The branding intervention reflects this ceaseless self-promotion and entrepreneurial work.

More than just interventions: Researching sexism in the everyday

Sexism in universities is endemic. It often takes the form of male colleagues commenting upon the physical appearances of their female colleagues – university systems were shown to often blame the victim of sexism through practices such as the compulsory naming of complainants. In addition such comments were often ‘let go’ by participants as they were so much a part of the fabric of the everyday. ‘Mansplaining’ was also rife: women academics being lectured on personal research expertise, and being told who to read by male academics.

Our interventions are not only about these everyday sexisms. We also intervene into the conventions of empirical research methods. Each of these arts-based interventions have resulted in empirical data that does something radically different: it mobilised people in instantaneous ways, through their audience participation, their wearing of the t-shirts, their postings on social media sites using the #FEAS hashtag. And it continues through daily requests to join our facebook page, to continue using the #FEAS hashtag, to wearing the t-shirt to the recent Women’s March in Melbourne and Brisbane to planning for the next batch of arts interventions. It is a project that is making a difference, no matter which way you look at it.


Emily Gray (RMIT University, Linda Knight ( and Mindy Blaise (Victoria University respectively work across Education, Early Childhood, Gender, and the Arts. They formed #FEAS (Feminist Educators Against Sexism) in 2016 during their project, Developing Arts-Based Interventions into Sexism in the Academy. The project, funded through the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) responded to existing research into sexism in the academic workplace by using humour, irreverence and collective action to interrupt everyday sexisms within Higher Education.