Political Science Is Rife With Gender Bias, Scholars Find

August 30, 2013

By many measures, women in political science do not achieve the same success as men. Their ranks among full professors are lower; their teaching evaluations by students are more critical; they hold less prestigious committee appointments; and, according to a new study, their work is cited less frequently.

Why? And what can be done to change this? Those questions absorbed two panels here at the American Political Science Association's annual meeting on Thursday. The problems are not new, and most likely not limited to political science. But the researchers who presented their findings hope that hard data and some serious self-reflection will spark change within the discipline.

"We are not the first people to talk about bias in academe, but the trick has been to show evidence that in fact this exists," said Barbara F. Walter, a political-science professor at the University of California at San Diego and co-author of a new paper showing a gender citation gap in international relations.

In that paper, "The Gender Citation Gap," Ms. Walter and her colleagues found that even after controlling for many variables—including what the subjects wrote about, the methodology they used, and where they worked—women were cited less frequently than men were. In their review of more than 3,000 journal articles published from 1980 to 2006, articles by men received an average of 4.8 more citations than were articles by women. (The average number of citations per article over all was 25.)

The authors came up with two explanations: Women tend to cite their own work less than men do, which can have a multiplying effect as time goes by. And men, who dominate the profession, tend to cite other men more than they cite women.

In political science, men dominate
In 2010, 71.4 percent of all faculty members in the field were male.

Women who enter the field do not move up
In 2009, 42.1 percent of female faculty members were assistant professors and 29.4 percent of female faculty members were full professors.

Source: American Political Science Association

That and other research led to discussions among panelists about how men and women have different professional experiences and how that can harm women as they work toward tenure.

Another paper, "Women Don't Ask? Women Don't Say No? Bargaining and Service in the Political-Science Profession," found that women in the discipline are asked more often than men are to take on committee assignments, but their service appointments are generally of lower stature.

"Women are doing more service but not doing the prestigious service that could pay off in a professional sense," one of the authors of that study, Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, chair of the political-science department at the University of Iowa, said during a panel titled "Minding the Gender Gap in Political Science."

Another study, done at an unnamed large public university in the 2011-12 academic year, showed that, as class sizes got larger, students evaluated female professors more negatively than they did male professors. Is that due, panelists asked, to a gender bias in which men are expected to be forceful and women to be nurturing—something possible with 10 students, but not 200?

Such differences, combined with the challenges of juggling family and work, speakers said, could explain in part why women are much less likely than men to make the leap between assistant and associate professor.

"I have seen so many qualified women leave the profession," said Ms. Mitchell. "And it really motivated me to try to figure out what's going on."

Exploring Solutions

A key part of dealing with those problems, panelists said, is to begin talking about them nationally and locally. At a session titled "Leaning In and Having It All?," Karen Beckwith, a political-science professor at Case Western Reserve University, encouraged the political-science association to create departmental standards that support the mentoring of young faculty members and to advocate for paid parental leave and high-quality day care on campuses. She also wasn't averse to "naming and shaming" those departments that are all male, all white, or both: "Not a bad tactic to use in specific instances."

Ms. Walter, a co-author of the citation-gap study, said such research should be done in other disciplines. She also encouraged departments to take bias seriously during the tenure and promotion process and urged journal editors to study their review and acceptance practices.

A larger, more philosophical discussion also took hold: Should women behave more like men—for example, citing their own work more often—or does society need to change its definition of success?

"We are defining equality in male terms," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University whose article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" caused a sensation when it was published in The Atlantic last year.

Ms. Slaughter, who takes over in September as president of the New America Foundation, said the reaction to her article and subsequent research on the topic had led her to conclude that people need to redefine how they view two fundamental needs in life: making money and taking care of other people.

"What would a society look like that valued caregiving as much as it values breadwinning?" she asked.

In a better world, she said, a person's career path would have allowable ebbs and flows. Men and women could scale back for a few years to raise children then race ahead later on.

Given that many people live well into their 80s, it seems absurd that a woman in her 40s would find few career choices ahead of her just because she had jumped off the tenure track, said Ms. Slaughter. "We need a second entry point," for women—and men—who take less-conventional career paths, she said.

Universities also need to shed the "flexibility stigma" in which faculty members sometimes decline to use benefits like family leave because they're afraid others will hold it against them.

Finally, she asked, why is it that "we constantly devalue areas of work where more women are?"

In her field of international relations, she noted, men are more drawn to the "serious, hard" issues of security—“guns and bombs”—while women are more likely to prefer topics such as peace and development, which, she said, are not as valued in political circles.

Beth A. Simmons, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, interjected a note of caution to her fellow panelists in her response to their presentations during the gender-gap session. Looking out at an audience that was largely young and female, she said, "We need to make sure they hear positive and useful strategies, not hear that the world is rigged against them and they might as well get out of the profession."

She encouraged women to work with their strengths. A flipped classroom that promotes discussion rather than lecturing, for instance, can work well for women.

At the same time, she said, both newer entrants and more-established professors have work to do: Junior scholars must "lean in," by asking to chair the committees to which they have been assigned, for example, while more senior faculty members must "push back" by calling out biased or discriminatory policies when they see them.