New Research Examines Lack of Diversity in Poli Sci and What Needs to Change

by | August 29, 2015
filed under Feminism, Politics

University lecture hall filled with students

I only remember having one woman as a professor in all of my political science classes in college. That’s pretty sad, considering it was my major. As I recall, there were five professors in the department at the time, and four of them were men. All of them were white. My experience seems to match with analysis done by PS: Political Science and Politics, the American Political Science Association’s academic journal.

Their most recent issue focuses on the lack of diversity in the discipline, on gender and race inequality in particular. While the numbers have improved, as of 2010 women made up only 28.6% of political science faculty. Of that number 86.6% were white. Those statistics are alarming. The series of articles in this edition focus on proposing solutions for how to encourage, recruit and retain more women and women of color in Poli Sci.

There are five related articles in the journal, each focusing on a separate part of the problem. I’ll briefly summarize each of them.

Karen Beckwith’s article “State, Academy and Discipline: Regendering Political Science” begins on the macropolitical level. Beckwith talks about how women in political parties and government have affected change for themselves. She boils things down to three necessary components for change: conducive government and party structures, sympathetic elites, and feminist community allies advocating for change.  Some of the possible outcomes of these strategies are gender quotas, childcare, parental leave, and women in leadership roles. This is a fairly broad analysis, but we get more specifics with the remaining work.

Miki Caul Kittilson looks at women in political parties and legislatures in “Advancing Women in Political Science: Navigating Gendered Structures of Opportunity.” Her more detailed plan for diversity includes urging women to lobby at multiple levels, from the bottom with grassroots organization, and from the top with sympathetic allies. Since our power structures themselves tend to be gendered, more women and allies are needed at upper levels. Some possible solutions are power-sharing rules, and making sure rules for promotion and evaluation are clear and transparent.

Valeria Sinclair-Chapman reviews what is happening at the college and university level. She makes the important point that to remain relevant in an increasingly diverse world, political science needs to change and diversify. Fewer students will choose to study it if it’s not relevant to them. The problems she sees are a leaky pipeline between those who start as undergrads and progress to become professors, inhospitable climates, and research norms that discount collaborative work.

Sinclair-Chapman proposes that women organize themselves at colleges and universities like congressional diversity caucuses do, and position themselves as diversity leaders. They also ought to make connections with similar groups at other schools and across professional organizations. She also highlights the importance of intersectionality between race and gender and making sure that women of color are heard equally. We know this is a common problem in the feminist movement in general, let alone at professional levels like this.

Carol Mershon and Denise Walsh look at the micropolitics of the department itself in “Organizing Women: Diversifying Leadership and Addressing Discrimination in Political Science Departments.”

They cite some depressing statistics about political science departments. Women make up only 18% of full professors, and chair only 12.1% of the top 33-ranked programs in the U.S. Again the problems are similar: attitudes that reward those closest to the white, heterosexual, middle-class norm. Their solutions include organizing at the department level, carefully framing messages, and exploiting openings in existing structures to push for change.

They use the example of the University of Virginia, where a faculty member reported a sexist incident to the chair, which resulted in a gender audit of the department, which led to administrators seeing the inequality implementing changes.

The final piece by Nikoal G. Alexander-Floyd “Women of Color, Space Invaders, and Political Science: Practical Strategies for Transforming Institutional Practices” looks particularly at women of color in the discipline. Their counterparts generally see women of color as invaders of space, since they differ from the norms of the department. They’re often subject to tokenization, too, becoming the face for an entire group of people in their department or at the university. Women of color are hyper-scrutinized, which makes for a more stressful experience and greater likelihood of them leaving.

Alexander-Floyd puts forward some practical solutions. Teaching evaluations tend to rely heavily on student input, which can be biased against women, and women of color. She proposes alternative ways to evaluate staff for promotion, including a multi-faceted profile that looks at teaching style, student work, and professional research. Diversity training for administrators is another tool mentioned, along with diversity caucuses in professional organizations.

Across the articles there are some larger themes that bear mentioning. For one, the majority of our authors talk about organizing as a tool. Whether that’s at the micro level in a department, or the macro level at professional organizations or in politics, it’s shown to be an effective method. This is true in so many different areas outside of academia and across every issue of inequality we face, whether it relates to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, or class.

Many of the articles also talk about finding sympathetic allies in positions of power, Particularly, if women gain positions of power, they can help change the innately imbalanced power structures, norms and rules that promote inequality. They can advocate for things like parental leave, childcare, and power sharing.

The one thing I notice about all of these suggestions is that they place the majority of the burden for change on women themselves. Most of the solutions proposed involve women doing most of the work and using the existing structures to do it. They do talk about the inherent unfairness of the academic structure, but changes far beyond political science would need to happen before that is fully addressed. It seems that, unfortunately, as the women writing these articles have realized, they need to work with what they have. Once departments and faculty become more diverse, more change is possible.

That change is so important for political science. As the head of the American Political Science Association says in his closing thoughts on the subject, political science studies power, and groups who have less power are studied less. The less they are studied, the less understanding we have. If those in power have no knowledge of who they are legislating for, terrible things can happen. Political science departments need to be more diverse because their faculty educates the people who go on to be policy and decision makers, and the ones who advise them.

Photo of lecture theatre by Discott (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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