WiPS "Out of Print" Panel Addresses Gender Bias

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On Thursday December 7th, about thirty students sat in Kohlberg 115 for Out of Print: a Panel on Gender Bias hosted by the student group Women in Political Science (WiPS). Dawn Langan Teele, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a lecture on gender bias in political science followed by a panel of female Swarthmore political science professors. Rina Pearce ‘19 explained that WiPS, which formed last year, held the panel as “part of an ongoing discussion about the department that began last year when WiPS formed. We wanted a high-profile event with a guest speaker to get the discussion going beyond the small circle of people that initially started our group.”


A  graph  shown by Teele that quantifies the discrepancy between female authorship and qualifications

A graph shown by Teele that quantifies the discrepancy between female authorship and qualifications


Professor Teele explained the ways that women in political science are overlooked and suppressed by using statistical data to back up her claims. She explained that the percentage of women who graduate with PhDs, are members of the American Political Science Association (APSA), or are faculty members of the twenty largest PhD granting departments far outpaces the share of women authors in the top ten political science journals. Most of the work women produce is coauthored, while most work men produce is solo authored. This creates a challenge of implicit bias where coauthored articles are looked down upon, and even within that framework it is assumed that the man in a cross-gendered collaboration did statistical analyses, or what is often seen as the more difficult work.  These are just two examples of the numerous ways women in political science are dismissed or not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.


Teele concluded her lecture by attempting to answer the question of where to attack the issue of underrepresentation in journals.  She gave three ways to move forward. First through syllabi: often in syllabi she looks at, only one woman appears. Including more work from women normalizes and validates their research. Second through mentorship: all male research teams are often headed by what Teele calls a White Methods Dude (WMD). Women need role models and WMDs need to train and work for women, too. Finally, recognition: Teele called for an increase of the prestige of qualitative work, as women more often publish qualitative work over quantitative analyses. Through these suggestions, she thinks women can push against disciplinary norms, succeed, and not give in to the ideologies of WMDs.


Professor Teele was asked by one student in the audience about potentially disproportionate impacts on women of color. She explained that it was difficult to determine who was or wasn’t a person of color in her research and that she hadn’t looked into that.

After Teele’s lecture, a panel consisting of Erica Dobbs, Emily Paddon Rhoads, Carol Nackenoff, Tyrene White, and Ayse Kaya was asked questions WiPS had prepared and then fielded audience questions. Pearce said WiPS chose the questions in an attempt to “balance questions about the topic of gender bias and questions about the panelists’ careers more broadly. They wanted “women professors to share their experiences and perspectives, but didn’t want to simplify their identity down to ‘women’ professors, since they are accomplished academics with broad insights.”


Sonya Chen ‘18, political science major, explained “It was really empowering to hear from [the professors]…I actually was not very aware of the gender imbalance in the political science field until maybe my sophomore year. But it’s something I’ve thought increasingly about, especially in terms of who is in my classes and who we read in class.”


The field of political science, like many areas of academia, has been historically dominated by white male professors and continues to be perceived that way. This panel, however, clarified that although most readings in most political science classes will be written by men, there are professors who understand based on personal experience what that is like and who are working to change that.


Professor Nackenoff recalled that at her first job, a female colleague was told by the department chair “it’s time for Lassie to go home and have puppies.” Women and minorities, she explained, were hired because they had to be but were treated poorly. They were unwanted.


Professor Kaya added that while huge strides have been made in gender equality since Professor Nackenoff was in school, she too experienced gender bias as a student and professor. She said that “gender is incredibly relevant day today even at Swarthmore.” Tiffany Wang ‘21 who attended the event echoed a sentiment Professor Kaya expressed, asking “even though we've certainly made progress since when Professor White began teaching, why are we still so far from equality? We've just moved from open discrimination to implicit bias, which might be even more insidious.”


WiPS then asked about intersections of gender with other identities. Professor White, the first woman at Swarthmore to reach tenure track in the political science department, is also a first generation college student and from a small Southern town. She said that her transition to Swarthmore was difficult and at a certain point she “was just tired,” and thus “did [her] best to accommodate the culture around [her] without becoming it.”  She was forced to take aspects of herself that may be unfamiliar to her colleagues, such as her lack of college-educated parents and her Southern accent, and hide them. For her first several years at Swarthmore, she reported feeling profoundly insecure and inadequate.


One of the last questions was about how gender bias appears in different subfields of political science. Professor Nackenoff explained that white men have been studying race for a while. She claimed it was largely accepted as a legitimate field of study; however, she said, men remain largely uninterested in gender and sexuality studies. At panels like the one she was speaking on, they don’t show up.


Proving her point, of the roughly thirty students present, five were men. One left before the panel and one arrived in the middle. Pearce noted this, commenting that “we wish more men had been there.” Dylan Zuniga ‘21, one of the men who did attend the event said he went because he’s interested in taking a class with Professor Teele and gender studies. Although he personally recognizes that gender bias is an issue that he wants to learn more about and try to fix, he said, “the general mindset of males illustrates that gender bias isn’t an issue that concerns them”


John Woodliff-Stanley ‘21, another one of the five men who attended, explained that “One of the most understated components of privilege is the freedom to be unaware of the struggles that other people are facing. I think more women showing up to the panel is a reflection of the privilege that men have to not think about gender bias.”


Professor Teele then made one of the most poignant points of the evening, noting that there are so many mediocre men who submit, publish, and write mediocre work. “We need to make space for mediocre women,” she said. Women, as is true of most marginalized groups, are expected to perform above and beyond the expectations for men. Invoking the trope of the woman who “has it all,” she explained that often women are expected to have more qualifications than their male counterparts. Wang felt that this comment made her think of just how important intersectionality is, echoing that what Teele said holds true for more than just women. “Any marginalized group feels the expectation to be perfect or else they are seen as undeserving of equality to a white male,” Wang explained.


The panelists’ final question from WiPS was “How is academia a form of activism?” Professor Dobbs spoke about the power one has when producing research at elite institution. As a woman, you can help reframe the narrative of what’s important and what work deserves time. Professor Teele added that academic activism revolves around how you change the conversation and noted that the courses you teach change what type of student you get.

Professor Kaya agreed, and added that speaking up is just as important. “If I could go back,” she said, “I would speak up more. Sometimes it’s still not easy but it’s still a form of activism.” She added that it is difficult because “you don’t want to be the b-word or the whiny lady. By not speaking up we are continuing these assumptions.”

Professor Teele furthered, “there is a real vulnerability of speaking up.” In her past, she said she would laugh off small instances of sexism but now regrets not having spoken up earlier. She also noted that the recent slew of sexual assault allegations in the public sphere made clear that there has been a continued lack of collective action. “So many people knew what was going on,” she remarked, adding that it is important to put the social ills one is trying to battle above discomfort or fear of social rejection one might face from doing so.


The notion of activism through academia resonated with students. Chen explained that activism is precisely why she wants a future in political science academia. “There’s freedom to incorporate underrepresented histories and voices in your syllabus. There’s some freedom to do so in your publishing, though it’s also important to recognize that non-tenured faculty are more vulnerable if they don’t stick to traditional theories/methods/etc. But it’s totally dependent on the professor, as a professor can also perpetuate microaggressions and reinforce inequities/non-diverse perspectives through academia.”


When asked about how they incorporate gender into syllabi, Professor Nackenoff explained a tension she had found in her Environmental Politics and Policy course. Originally, she included  a unit on ecofeminism. However, in course evaluations, students said this was their least favorite unit. “I didn’t know what to do about that. To be sensitive to what students want, I dropped the feminist voices. And that doesn’t feel right.”


When asked about where they saw gender biases in the classroom, the professors mentioned women are usually quieter and less likely to speak.  Professor White asked the panel if they had ever realized they were “not contributing as much as [they wanted] to?” All of the women nodded.  She also noted, “I know there have been times in the classroom where I have utterly failed in gender dynamics. I regret that and hope I will be better.”


Chen said “overall, I was also left feeling very grateful that we have such a strong base of female political scientists at Swarthmore who are all dedicated to making the field more diverse and a student group committed to supporting women in political science. It’s incredibly inspiring to see, as an aspiring political scientist.”


This sentiment was echoed by other students. Sara Laine ‘21 wrote that “getting a chance to have a panel of such accomplished female professors share their experiences was inspiring and informative. It didn’t feel sugarcoated either, everything felt very authentic and I appreciated the professors’ honesty.”