A 2015 study has found the physical attractiveness of female students to be a statistically significant implicit factor in grade results. For male students there is no significant relationship between attractiveness and grades, and the results were consistent regardless of faculty members’ gender.

The study was conducted at Metropolitan State University using data from 5,394 individuals and 103,803 grade observations in subjective (e.g. humanities) and objective (e.g. mathematics) courses. Student identification photographs were evaluated on a scale of 1 to 10 and then divided into the following three groups: less attractive, average, more attractive. An increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was correlated with a 0.024 increase in grades on a 4.0 scale. However, students in the least attractive group were found to earn an average grade point of 0.067 less than the other two groups.

In online courses, however, these biases disappear. The researchers posit that since faculty may not have access to profile photos and are not engaging in-person with students, they are significantly less likely to factor in bias for attractiveness.

A further explanation, not fully explored by this study, may be that female students considered unattractive are less likely to participate in the classroom or engage with professors and teaching assistants after class. Factors such as shyness may inhibit students from asking for subject clarification either in class or during office hours. This appears to be supported by the online course results where factors such as public anxiety and shyness may be significantly limited.

While this study is effective in highlighting implicit discrimination female students—in all levels of education—face, the research methodology has a number of limitations. The research design is conducted through a single case study which does not include cross-sectional data comparison. Furthermore, while the authors claim their findings are statistically significant to the study, the impacts on grade reports would be trivial.

While this study has a number of potentially limiting factors, the implications of its results serve to reinforce the very real issue of gender bias in education. It is a call for additional research and action to solve this problem that women face throughout their academic and professional careers.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.