Teacher gender biases are real and have lasting effects on students’ grades and study choices



Two important models in education are true around the world. First, women outperform men in most subjects, and boys do not surpass girls in math and physics in high school. Second, more women than men enroll in higher education. However, female enrollment in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) degrees is disproportionately low.

My research with Professor Victor Lavy has shown that teachers’ gender prejudices at least partly explain these low enrollments. We measured this bias in an innovative way based on how teachers rated different groups of students. We have followed the effects over many years, showing that this bias skews students’ grades in school and their post-school education choices.

We also found an association with the quality of teaching: the most effective teachers have a non-sexist attitude.

What did the study examine?

There are proof that beliefs about a specific group can determine the behavior of individuals towards members of that group. And these behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, can affect outcomes for those exposed to them. So we explored the question: if you have a pro-boy math teacher, how does that affect students’ performance in the subject one year later and their likelihood of enrolling in a math degree two years. later ?

To answer this question, we used administrative data from Greece that corresponds to students, teachers and classrooms. Our study sample included more than 400 teachers from 21 high schools over eight years. The data records the progress of students in grades 10-12 and is linked to university admission.

Thus, one can see the trajectory of the students, including the test scores in 11th grade, the standardized high stakes exams in 12th grade, attendance, the quality of the tertiary institution in which they are enrolled, as well as the choice of diplomas.

How was teacher bias measured?

To measure teachers’ gender biases, we used the difference between two tests that each student takes in all subjects in grade 11. A test is external, scored by an external examiner, and the names of the students and therefore the gender are masked. For the other test, noted by a school teacher, the names of the students and their gender are revealed.

These tests cover the same curriculum and examine the same skills. Both tests are high stakes, as the results count towards college admission two years later.

We calculated the gender differences in the results of the two tests for each class taught by a teacher in the sample. This measure shows whether teachers consistently give higher or lower marks when they know the gender of the students (compared to external assessors who do not). This way we could identify a teacher’s gender bias in grading.

We were able to follow teachers’ performance over the eight years to get a persistent measure of their bias in different classes with different groups of students. We have found that gender bias among teachers exists and is persistent. A teacher who acts in one classroom in a pro-boy manner is very likely to act the same way in another, even seven or eight years later.

Our results indicate that these biases are deeply rooted in the attitudes and behaviors of teachers. Only 15% of teachers have gender neutral behavior.

Many teachers favored boys and many teachers favored girls, these behaviors varying depending on the subject. For example, algebra teachers had a more favorable scoring behavior for boys than for history or ancient Greek.

Teacher prejudices affect students a lot

We then studied the impacts of these biases on students’ high school math scores and on university admission. We have found lasting effects. Male students who had a pro-boy math teacher in grade 11 performed better in grade 12 math.

Studies of France and Israel found a similar model. However, these studies used a weaker definition of teacher gender bias and were unable to follow the same teacher over time.

Using detailed data on student attendance, we also found that students whose teachers were gender-biased were less likely to miss class for no reason and less likely to be kicked out of the classroom. This suggests that students exposed to biased teachers might be less motivated to attend class or less engaged in learning.

After school, teacher biases continue to have a significant effect on the likelihood of students entering tertiary education, the quality of the university and the curriculum. These effects are similar for men and women.

However, it is only for female students that teacher biases have a significant effect on the chosen field of study. Students who had pro-boy math or physics teachers in Grade 11 were less likely to enroll in college math or physics courses two years later. Teachers’ gender biases appear to have little effect on the degree choices of male students.

This could be explained in part by a discouragement effect on girls which diminishes their self-confidence and their belief in their abilities and prospects for success.

The impacts are long term

Teachers’ gender biases appear to have longer term implications for women, affecting their career prospects and income.

In Australia, only 35% of university degrees in STEM disciplines are attributed to women. Although 58% of students in higher education are women, the rates are much lower in STEM subjects: 40% in architecture and building, 17% in computer science and 16% in engineering and related technologies.

These STEM degrees are associated with high salaries. This means that women are underrepresented in high paying professions. This trend is true for most OECD countries.

Gender neutral teachers are more effective

Our final important finding is that the most effective teachers have gender-neutral attitudes. This suggests that less effective teachers may harm their students twice: first by being ineffective and second by gender discrimination.

From a policy perspective, training that improves the quality of teachers is also likely to reduce gender discrimination in schools.



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