The Glass Half Empty: Gendered Problems in Academic Networking

24 August 2013, 1443 EDT

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at the University of Iowa. It is Part 1 of a 2-part discussion. 

Many recent posts (e.g., posts here by David Lake, Dan Nexon, and Laura Sjoberg, and elsewhere by Christian Davenport and Steve Saideman) have discussed professional networking in political science.  Given my belief that academic experiences are not universal, a viewpoint articulated by Will Moore (, I add another perspective to this debate.  I focus on several problems female scholars might encounter in male dominated academic environments, especially as they try to become professionally networked into these groups. In so doing, I draw largely on my experiences at conferences I have attended frequently, including APSA, ISA, Peace Science Society, and the Society for Political Methodology. Gendered problems include:

1) Working hard to find people who look like you

At the 2012 Peace Science Society conference, I spoke to a young woman attending for the first time. I asked her about her impression of the conference and she said it was great, but she was surprised by how male dominated it was. I laughed a bit because I knew that the percentage of women was significantly higher than when I first attended; women constituted close to 35% of paper and poster presenters at that PSS conference vs. 14% in 1996. This kind of perception by young female scholars is an important issue for professional organizations to monitor.   It has also been challenging for the Society for Political Methodology given that many of the paper presenters on the program for the summer meeting are males; only 12.5% of papers at the 2012 conference involved female authors. When we created a women’s dinner at the summer meeting, we received a lot of backlash from various Polmeth participants (men and women). Yet I heard feedback from several women who said they were more comfortable going to the methods conference the next day after attending the women’s dinner. They saw some friendly faces and found someone they could sit by. Journeys in World Politics and Women in Conflict Studies have played similar roles in the quantitative conflict community (of interstate and intrastate conflict scholars); women are able to identify other scholars like them with similar research interests, and this makes it less daunting to walk into a panel or reception where the majority of scholars are men. This increases the chances that women will come back to future conferences. While the mentoring programs that I have been involved with focus on women, they have benefits that extend to our larger academic organizations and make it easier for women to network with male members of their academic community as well.

2) Getting men to pay attention to your work

If you have ever looked at graduate syllabi in International Relations, you are not likely to find many assigned readings authored by women. This relates to another problem of women’s work being cited less often.  In a forthcoming study in International Studies Perspectives Samantha Lange, Holly Brus, and I match the sex of authors (male, female, mixed teams) of articles in ISQ and ISP with the sex of authors in the bibliographies of each article.  We find that male authors are three times more likely to cite the work of other men than to cite articles authored by women.  Working with women coauthors does not improve this situation because when women coauthor with men, their articles adopt citation practices that are similar to all male authored teams.  Maliniak, Powers, and Walter show similar results for a much larger sample of journals and articles over time, with women’s work being less cited than men’s research when controlling for many other factors.  The lower number of citations to women’s work is related to the fact that too few women are represented in our syllabi, review articles, and introductory textbooks (see Kelly Kadera’s discussion). Women might be falling out of the leaky pipeline in part because they have to work harder to get in the elite citation club and because their lower citation counts are held against them by scholars evaluating their tenure records.  Special journal issues typically have higher citation counts and women are under-represented in these networks, further compounding the problems come tenure time (Matthews and Anderson 2001). As noted by Kadera, women are also viewed as the “lesser” scholar in a mixed gender article.

3) Seeing men getting the most prestigious awards. 

The gender problems for citations and course syllabi/textbooks are exacerbated at professional conferences because most distinguished scholar awards are given to men (see APSA’s list), most panels honoring scholars or important books are filled with men, and most presidents of these organizations are men (e.g., PolMeth and Peace Science).  Junior women see few role models for successful women at the top of the professional organizations.  Kadera also notes that these patterns are manifested when our work is presented in media outlets, as reporters are directed to talk with men who are doing important work on a topic. When I first became associate editor for Foreign Policy Analysis, I observed the same bias in my own behavior when assigning reviewers, as the first group of natural reviewers to come to my mind was predominantly male. We not only need to be more persistent in nominating women for top awards and professional positions, we also need to highlight that work to non-academic audiences.

4) Disliking aggressive interactions at conferences

Anyone who knows me would say I have no problem adapting to an aggressive style for academic exchange. Yet many women are not comfortable with this. 66% of women who attend the Political Methodology summer meeting never come back (56% for Peace Science), a conference that has historically been viewed as an intense environment. I was surprised when first participating in all female conferences like Visions in Methodology (VIM) and Journeys in World Politics at how different interactions were from what I was used to. People offered criticisms after first discussing what they liked about a project. Women continued to discuss and help each other at dinners and in the hotel. The conference created a forum for conversation that could then evolve into a longer and more productive discussion. Women bring something different and refreshing to academic exchange and men who are not seeking out exchanges with women in our field are missing out. Even if women adapt to the male standards of aggressive exchange, it often backfires on them (e.g. a male scholar called me “Savage Sara” when I was a graduate student). Women who make strong points can be silenced and ostracized by such epithets.

5) Issues with Sexual Harassment

As Laura Sjoberg’s post on the Duck of Minerva makes clear, there are also sexual issues that women face when networking at professional meetings. Having a larger critical mass of women in the profession will help create networks for women to handle harassment problems as they arise, but we need to be continue to recognize these situations when they occur and talk about them collectively (for a good discussion in Philosophy, see a recent discussion in Salon).

This is the beginning of a longer conversation that we need to have about networking and mentoring. One of my friends in political methodology recently said that mentoring needs to be treated like methods training; it is something that we continually need to work on to improve in our careers, especially when we become more senior. I concur and look forward to engaging in more conversations about this important issue, including a second post about some of the positive developments in networking for women.