Most academics will have tales of students coming to them in tears and begging for a deadline extension, or even for their work to be bumped up a grade.
But who is considered to be the softest touch – a male or female lecturer?
A US research team has conducted two studies looking at this vexed question and concluded that students are more likely to turn to female professors when they want special favours.
For the first study, 88 male and female academics from throughout the US were asked to estimate how often students from their most frequently taught course made demands relating to their work, asked for special favours or made friendly overtures to their teachers.
The result was clear: not only were students more likely to target female professors with special requests, but they were also more likely to try to make friends with them – yet another emotional burden as far as some teachers were concerned.
Next, the researchers decided to find out if a certain type of student is more likely to ask female lecturers for favours. Some 121 undergraduates at a US public university were asked to imagine that they were taking a sociology class taught by a fictitious female or male professor.
They were then asked to form an impression of the academic based on their class introduction, as well as listing the lecturer’s characteristics.
After reviewing the profile, participants were given scenarios that involved imagining requests for special favours, such as extra credit and study guides, despite the academic having a stated policy against such requests.
Additional scenarios involved asking for above-and-beyond favours such as requests to boost grades, retake a test or have an academic go over all missed class material personally with the student.
Participants were then asked the likelihood of the academic saying “yes” and of themselves reacting negatively if the academic said “no”.
Students who believed that they were deserving of academic success were particularly likely to ask their female lecturers for extra favours. They were also more likely to react negatively if favours were denied.
Writing in the journal Sex Roles, Amani El-Alayi, Ashley Hansen-Brown and Michelle Ceynar surmise that the belief persists that men are more respected and authoritative. Students may even assume that it would be pointless to oppose male professors, let alone nag them, because they won’t easily be swayed.
Overall, the authors conclude, demands for extra favours were found to have a negative impact on female professors.
“Aside from contributing to burnout and taking time away from career-enhancing activities, greater demands and special requests from students may affect female professors’ career advancement by causing them to get less favourable course evaluations – or even more complaints filed against them,” the authors explain.
“Students may perceive female professors as less fair than their male counterparts if female professors are expected to expend exceptional effort to help out their students in unrealistic ways.”