Mon | Jan 25, 2021

Kristen Gyles | The alpha female vs the beta male teacher

Published:Tuesday | January 14, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Across various countries, the results of research have been the same – students prefer their male teachers and professors. At all levels.
Kristen Gyles

With school having resumed, my mind goes back to one of the many issues it is felt have been impacting the academic advancement of many students – gender bias. We all have heard the allegations of gender bias on the part of teachers, but we hear less about the prejudices of the students themselves.

Across various countries, the results of research have been the same – students prefer their male teachers and professors. At all levels.

Is this an indictment on the female teachers? Is it that male teachers simply offer something crucial that female teachers fail to provide, especially during the adolescence phase? Or is the prejudice completely baseless?

In a 2015 study carried out by a joint team of researchers across the United States and France, teachers facilitating an online class operated under ‘virtual drag’ (that is, male instructors assumed female virtual names and identities and female instructors assumed male names and identities). Students rated the teachers higher when they thought they were male, regardless of their actual gender.

In another portion of the same study, a different set of students were randomly placed in classes, of which, collectively, the instructors were both male and female. The results were pretty much the same. The male teachers were rated on a notably higher level. This is the bias. The question is: is the bias totally unfounded?

The study ruled out the possibility of the rating differences being as a result of male teachers having better teaching capabilities, since when the students were assessed, those taught by the males actually performed slightly worse on average.

The research team found that male students in particular were a lot more likely to give higher ratings to their male than female teachers.

Over the decades, many educators have pondered over the question of why male students seem to be performing worse than their female counterparts, but with male students in particular seeming to have this bias against their female teachers and with so few male teachers being present in our classrooms, could this be one of the many factors contributing to male underperformance?

If actual differences in teacher performance are really not the cause of this overwhelming bias, then what is? There is a general perception in the classroom that male instructors are more knowledgeable than the females. But, far beyond, this I have to ask: could this just be a mirror phenomenon of how we generally view men versus women, mothers versus fathers?

There are certain labels that women wear regardless of where in the world they are born. ‘Overdramatic’ is a popular one. ‘Emotional’ is next in line. ‘Petty’ might take the cake, and all in all we tend to see women as being simply less capable of making a rational decision. Is this why students feel a greater sense of assurance being educated by a male?


In our Jamaican context, the stereotype of the loud, obnoxious mother with the bonnet on her head, cursing at her neighbour about the dog that barks too loudly, is even more extensive. The miserable ole higue who is always riding the back of her innocent and pious, overworked children about unfinished homework or the untidy room just needs to ‘chill’. The cool dad, however, is welcome to come over any time since he might bring KFC like the last time … he’s the life of the party. Mom should take a page out of his book.

Interestingly, in an observation study carried out across three Caribbean countries, Jamaican female teachers overwhelmingly said they preferred teaching males. The boys, according to them, would likely forget about the ‘cussing’ they got today by tomorrow, and were a lot less prone to holding a grudge over it.

The girls, on the other hand, would likely remind them (the teachers) of the verbal chastisement even years after they had already left school. One thing is certain, though, there is an admittance that in many cases they told their students off. Maybe a perpetuation of the same stereotype?

The truth is that women in general try very hard. We try very hard to be acknowledged and respected, and with relatively softer vocal tones and smaller frames, we sometimes have to try a little more than our male counterparts to be heard and respected in the classroom. It is easy for students to misinterpret this overexertion as uptight irritability. In turn, they brace themselves for a defence against the miserable woman.

There are so many contributing factors that could explain why students seem to prefer their male teachers. This issue is clearly pivotal to the improvement of schooling, since any underlying biases or even very legitimate concerns that remain unaddressed can easily undermine other efforts to make learning easy.

Let us look further into this matter and see how well we can help to change students’ negative perceptions that help to hamper their academic progress.

Kristen Gyles is an educator. Email feedback to