RateMyProfessors.com Retires the Sexist and Uncomfortable “Chili Pepper” Rating After Academics Speak Out

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If you were ever a college undergrad, you likely went on RateMyProfessors.com to figure out whose classes to aim for. The site has always been one you had to take with a grain of salt. If you were looking to be challenged intellectually, you’d have to wade through reviews that were high simply because the classes were easy (no judgement—I did this with some requirement courses). On most pages, you’d also see one or two bitter reviews from people who were clearly angry their teacher expected them to do the bare minimum work. It’s not anywhere near perfect, but it had its uses.

Unsurprisingly, one database showed that women were more likely to get descriptions like “demanding” or “bossy” or “frumpy,” while men had more occurrences of words like “smart” or “intellect” or “genius.” Women were more likely to be called “teacher” and men “professor.” Infuriating as this is, these are things you come to expect of any review site that invites anonymous comments from young people.

It’s essentially the same bias that we see in teaching evaluations, where female professors receive disproportionately more comments about their personalities and appearances than their male colleagues. However, if you’ve been on the site, you likely also saw one unnecessary and uncomfortable review factor on Rate My Professors: the “hotness” chili pepper icon rewarded to professors students deemed attractive.

Clashing with a professor’s teaching style or warning others about the expected amount of effort is one thing—rating and presenting a professor’s appearance when there’s already a ton of scrutiny and bias around the appearance of female professional? Gross.

Neurology professor at Vanderbilt University BethAnn McLaughlin went to Twitter to call out the site for the feature:

The site’s Twitter account removed the chili peppers, but claimed that they were “meant to reflect a dynamic/exciting teaching style”.

As Buzzfeed pointed out, however, the site included roundups like “Hottest Professors” and has shared content in the past that suggests the chili pepper was about physical attractiveness and not spicy learning.

McLaughlin spoke more about the pepper in an interview to Buzzfeed, saying, “Some of my friends who had taught previously and meet the criteria for quote-unquote hotness … that’s not always a badge of honor. […] They’re often targets of comments about how they look and how they dress, and it undermines their credibility.”

“That’s not a context you want to be sexy in. That’s not a compliment,” she adds, before pointing out that her male colleagues have also spoken to her about how uncomfortable the rating makes them feel.

Some might see the “chili pepper” as a harmless feature applied to both men and women, but when we think about the amount of harassment and abuse of power women experience in academia combined with the biases that are constantly undermining their qualifications, it becomes clear that it’s really not an innocent icon. #ImmodestWomen has been a movement encouraging women to own their titles and expertise, and it’s necessary because female professors and doctors are constantly scrutinized for their apparent femininity, lack of femininity, and other things that don’t have to do with their actual ability.

Goodbye chili pepper, you won’t be missed.

(via Buzzfeed, image: Rate My Professors, Erik Forsberg on Flickr)

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