Gender discrimination in political science and the problem of poor allies

We have a problem with gender-based discrimination in political science. I know that not because I see it, but because I keep on not seeing it, even as so many of my women students and faculty colleagues are acutely aware of it. [1] It works through a multitude of everyday behaviors that add up to unequal treatment and unequal recognition. I describe here, with permission, a number of these as reported to me by students and colleagues in recent weeks. Perhaps most surprisingly, many of the instances of discriminatory behavior described to me involved male friends and colleagues of mine who would likely self-describe as feminists. But they still engage professionally in ways that contribute to everyday discrimination. To be clear, all of these behaviors have been described many times over and better elsewhere. There is nothing new here. But the points bear repeating because the behaviors are pervasive and men are still not seeing them. I start with myself.

In early 2016 Alan Jacobs and I presented some of our joint work at Columbia. Besides the two of us there was a chair and two discussants; a third had to drop out. We were all men. And white and middle aged, and in the nomenclature of our profession, senior. The day before the event, a colleague sent me a short note: "when did this become a manel?" she asked. A manel is an all-male panel filled with people like me, being  all experty on some theme or other.  The term has a sting to it; it works its magic just by pointing out an uncomfortable fact and grouping you with any number of other manels you want nothing to do with. You can even get a badge. So I was duly embarrassed.

But not quite embarrassed enough to do anything about it. I told myself that although manel problems are real, they don't always reflect an underlying problem. It could just happen by chance given the small numbers involved. I suggested roping in a female colleague at the last moment to join the panel; this would be a corrective of sorts but one that would leave the woman who volunteered to do the correcting the least well prepared person on the panel.

The department chair, Page Fortna, suggested something simpler: that during the session, I just point out the issue, maybe noting that the panel was not representative of the department. She asked me to act as an ally of sorts. I thought about it and decided against it. I decided it would be ungracious to the panel participants, who couldn't do much about their own gender; that it would have injected uncomfortable politics into an academic discussion; that by drawing attention to the fact, it would make matters worse; and that in any case there was nothing to apologize for since there was no harm meant.  In short I came up with an abundance of reasons for inaction.

During the same talk I referenced a paper by Jack Snyder and Erica Borghard, but omitting that it was coauthored with Erica.

After the talk I learned that a fairly large set of women in the department, both faculty and graduate students, were disappointed by the all male panel, by the fact that I didn't engage on the issue, and by my selective citing. I was surprised. But even then, I had little difficulty finding excuses for myself. The small numbers argument still worked for me on the gender composition and, embarrassed as I was when the selective citing was pointed out, I explained it to myself on the grounds that I knew Jack better, and of course he was also first author.

Looking back I think I found it easy to explain things away because at bottom I thought of myself as someone who does not discriminate and so there must be reasonable explanations for things that others might see as discrimination.

With quite a bit of distance though I can see problems with my self explanations. For one, these issues likely would not have arisen in the first place had I the habit of applying the simplest mental checks as guards against unintended discrimination. Had I properly asked myself whether there were women in the department that would have been as or more qualified to participate in the panel as the manel members the answer would have been yes. But I didn't ask that question, at least not in time.  Had I a practice of mentally double checking who the full set of authors are on a paper before citing it, I wouldn't have left one out.  But there is a deeper issue. While I believe that such mental checks can be useful correctives, the deeper problem is that I didn't feel it necessary to ask myself these questions or respond in any other helpful way, even after women brought concerns directly to my attention. The hubris of my position seems obvious looking back, that I would so easily rely on my own assessment of the effects of my inaction and dismiss the concerns of smart people that were closer to the issue.

I think it is fair to say that most of the men that I discussed these events with saw them as small issues; some saw the concerns that the women were raising as somewhat overwrought, as I did at first.

In contrast, most women I spoke to did see the problem. And when I discussed the broader issues with my students almost every one of them reported experiencing or observing discrimination, not as unusual events, but as regular, systematic events. Very often this has been through actions of men like me, who think of themselves as concerned about discrimination and tuned in to power inequalities.

Here are some of the broader issues they have described to me.

Stealing ideas, withholding credit. In three instances in recent months, women students or junior faculty I have spoken with have felt that their ideas have been stolen from them by more senior men. Research ideas that they shared with male scholars in good faith turn up in new projects and papers, without recognition. In one case a researcher was developing a partnership with an organization for a joint project when a more senior male showed interest and the partners dropped the female researcher. In a fourth instance I heard complaints of a male co-author minimizing a more junior woman's contributions to joint work. A number of women reported observing that they do not get credited in acknowledgements when they share ideas. In many of these cases the women did not see easy paths to complain and in some cases feared retribution. I was surprised that they would fear retribution, not having seen retribution in our discipline. But that's the point. They are very conscious of a power dynamic here whereas I am blind to it.  Still it's not hard to see power at play here when you look. I imagine the men involved can convince themselves that the ideas were commonplace, or really their own, or that whatever the origin they were fastest to implement, but I'd bet they'd be more careful in how they treat the ideas if they had originated from a senior male scholar.

Seminar cultures. Many of my students described concerns about seminar cultures. That women's comments in seminars are less likely to get picked up or responded to; or if they are, only after they are repeated by a man, without acknowledgement. There is even a hashtag for this:  #hepetition. This is done by both men and women.  But it's not a hard thing to do a check whether a point has already been made, and if it has been, to build on it with acknowledgement. People seem to do that instinctively already when the comments originate from more senior people.

They are also disappointed  when they see speaker series filled by men only. They note hostile dynamics in workshops dominated by men who sometimes turn what could be collaborative engagements into competitions, with points going to the players that intellectually pummel their opponents. I was surprised to learn that some women refuse to attend workshops organized by friends of mine because they find the culture toxic. Again, it is not hard to try to make a routine of checking gender balances and asking why they are off. I have often put together a speaker series or a conference and then wondered, sometimes too late, how come it is dominated by men. In my case it sometimes hasn't taken a lot of puzzling to realize that selections were made on the basis of networks and reputations that reflect exactly the kinds of inequalities that are perpetuated by everyday discrimination.

Poor allies. A last worry raised by women in our discussions was the problem of a lack of allies. They are tired of discussing this issue among women, frustrated by the loss of time and energy spent trying to address it, concerned about being seen as pushy on the issue if they raise it. Perversely there is evidence that women are penalized for promoting diversity while men are not. Male colleagues might recognize and respond to extreme instances of discrimination, or try to think through structural responses to gender inequalities, but they shrug off everyday instances of discrimination. Required trainings in implicit discrimination are seen as a chore. Evidence of discrimination is more likely to be dismissed by men (perhaps, as suggested in this piece, because recognizing discrimination implies that your own success might be partly due to biases in the system that favor you rather than being all of your own making). They profess themselves progressive but don't pay a cost to right inequalities. When it comes down to it they don't hire the research manager that needs to work inconvenient hours so she can look after children, they don't give coauthorship to the woman research assistant, they don't reschedule conferences to avoid weekends even if these are harder for families, they don't give credit where credit is due.

There are many other related issues that were voiced: men get asked about methodological issues in a project while questions about human subjects issues get addressed to women; women are more likely to be chastised for interrupting speakers while men get applauded for mic drop interventions; male students get tapped to give technical support while women are tapped for service work (including one instance where a woman was even asked to organize a date for a visiting male speaker).

Some of these worries may seem small on the scale of things. There are big structural issues to worry about also, for sure (see for instance the evidence in this presentation by Sara Mitchell). And there are horror stories of much more blatantly  sexist behavior (see the recent APSA report and some of the reports from the #metooPhD spreadsheet , for instance). But these small everyday things matter a lot because they are about visibility and recognition. Recognition is the currency of our profession. Recognition affects a sense of self worth and the constant denial of it chips away at self confidence. Ultimately, recognition trades in for jobs, salaries, research grants, and influence.[2]

I don't know what the solutions to all these issues are. I saw last week a psychologist nonsense the idea that implicit bias trainings could help, or that such biases can even be noticed or addressed.  I hope he is wrong and that at least being aware of the results of biases can tip you off to when you fall prey to them. But whatever the solution it seems a good start to acknowledge the problem and note how it is reproduced even by those of us that like to think the problem lies elsewhere.


[1] Thanks especially to colleagues for frank discussions on these issues which motivated this post: Vanessa Boese, Antje Ellerman, Page Fortna,  Alan Jacobs, Sarah Khan,   Laura Paler, Gabriella Sacramone-Lutz, Alexandra Scacco,  Tara Slough, Anna Wilke, and others.

[2] For quite direct evidence on inequalities of recognition in political science see this study by Maliniak, Powers, and Walter.