The Gendered Language Students Use to Describe Professors

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In her latest piece, Olga cites a fascinating (and disappointing, for those who take our two X chromosomes with a dash of wit) piece of data: College students are more likely to use the word “funny” to describe their male professors than female ones.

You can clearly see the trend using this addictive interactive, created by Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. Schmidt compiled 14 million student reviews from the popular evaluation site His tool allows you to quickly visualize the students’ use of any word or phrase, split by professors’ gender and by academic discipline. (He’s been interrogating the data in a number of other interesting ways and discussing its limitations on his blog.)

What other words are used unevenly across genders?

I had some intuitions, which were confirmed by a quick search: No matter the academic subject, words like “rude,” “condescending,” “shrill,” and “picky” were used more frequently to negatively describe female teachers, whereas men were more likely to be “arrogant,” or “egotistical.” And when it came to praise, students used words like “helpful,” “friendly,” “nice,” or “energetic” more often to describe women educators, while seeing men as “brilliant,” “smart,” or “genius.”

Of course, my own biases influenced my searches; though a few were reassuring: “inspiring,” “engaging,” and “fair” were used pretty evenly to describe men and women. Still, it was a little alarming to so easily find the results reinforcing existing discussions about the prevalence of gendered perceptions of intelligence within academia: Men are more likely to be seen as inherently gifted or talented, while women are more motherly, hard-working, or empathetic. This is particularly an issue in STEM fields, where inherent intellectual brilliance is typically seen as a requirement for success.