Professor superlatives

5 minute read


Our department is hosting an event called “Profscars” (like the Oscars, but for profs). The social chairs organizing this event emailed our entire student body asking for nominations for superlatives for each professor. A friend of mine pointed out that basically all of the women got superlatives based on their clothes/looks or mom status. I took a closer look and felt similarly appalled/taken aback, and then I did what any aspiring data scientist would do and decided to do some stats.

I counted the number of professors who had at least one superlative related to their physical appearance or that was related to parenting/familial status (e.g. most mom-like, most likely to talk about her kids, most grandfather-like), and separated it by men and women.

Comment on appearance or familyMW
No comment215

The fisher’s exact pvalue for this distribution of comments is 0.2, so it looks like there isn’t technically a significant difference in the distribution of comments between men and women.

That said, it’s interesting that the majority of the male appearance-related comments were relatively creative and at times included an aspect of the person’s personality, even in the looks-based superlative: “best shoulder definition”, “least likely to wear socks with boots”, “silverfoxiest”, “best knowledge to height ratio”. The women’s categories, on the other hand, were more generic - “most fabulous outfits”, “most adorable”, “most likely to have adorable earrings”, “best arms” (with a few more creative ones like “best pattern rocker”, but for the most part relatively uninspiring).

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that the stats didn’t help me make our case - but I think this is probably partially driven by sample size. Out of 49 people listed, only 14 (28%) are women. And I’m sure if we dug down into lecture vs. professor status, and core-professor vs. joint-appointment we’d find some other interesting break downs by gender. My department is definitely thinking about this issue and working to improve it, but we’re all fighting against a long history of inequality, especially in academia.

I think what I’m taking away from this is that:

  1. We need more women faculty in my department
  2. It’s really easy to come up with appearance-based superlatives. What’ll be more interesting is to see who wins which categories, and how the winning superlatives differ between the men and women faculty.


My friend is amazing and brought up a really good point:

the average number of comments per person is about the same regardless of gender (about 2.2 - 2.6, depending on whether you include people who didn’t receive any comments), but the types of comments per gender is drastically different.

If you count the total number of comments each person received, and categorize these comments by whether they included a mention of appearance or family, then it’s a much different story.

Comment on appearance or familyMW
Not mentioned7518

The p-value for this distribution of comments is 0.003.

Something else that my friend also brought up is that we ignored personality-type comments in these classifications - but many of these superlatives tended to be about what would traditionally be thought of as more feminine characteristics. Interestingly in our case, it also looks like a lot of the male faculty got these sorts of comments too. Guess we have a department full of grandpas…

This also made me think about the appearance comments: many of the men’s appearance-based superlatives were things like “best beard,” “tallest,” “best shoulders” - typically male traits (obviously, these are guys) which are associated with strength and stature. But is it fair to say that the men’s appearance-based superlatives were less problematic than the women’s ones? The “problematicness” of these categories is entirely confounded with the people’s genders: because these are silly student-nominated categories, we are enriching for looks-based superlatives. Men and women have different physical features and/or society has told us to notice different ones, and also society has told us how we value these features (i.e. male ones are associated with strength and dominance, female ones are associated with fragility and definitely not STEM). So I think it’s all confounded, but at the same time - the “problematicness” of the women’s superlatives is real - regardless of where it comes from.

I think it’s just on us collectively to ensure that we put in critical thought for these sorts of spontaneous, student-nominated efforts. Much like my previous post about our student-nominated speakers being all male, I think it’s just on us to be vigilant and to put in the effort to reverse the natural trends that will otherwise keep re-appearing over and over.

tl’dr - let’s work to live in a world with more of these creative and meaningful superlatives, for the women especially but also just for everyone:

Most interested in student career development

Most likely to earn Leslie Knope #bossbitch status for being inspirational

Most likely to hand you a periodic table of elements