Gender in IR, Now at the Cutting Edge

9 April 2015, 1308 EDT

[Note: The following is a guest post by Prof. Dan Reiter of Emory University]

Joshua Goldstein wrote in the preface to his award-winning, 2001 book War and Gender that while finishing his book he “discovered a list of unfinished research projects, which I had made fifteen years ago at the end of graduate school. About ten lines down is ‘gender and war,’ with the notation ‘most interesting of all; will ruin career—wait until tenure.’” This was probably not a completely inaccurate assessment, at the time. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the study of gender and international relations was viewed by many as outside the mainstream of IR, lending itself only to post-modern and critical methods of inquiry. Fortunately, during this period scholars such as Cynthia Enloe, Ann Tickner, Spike Peterson, and others sloughed off this marginalization, producing path-breaking work on gender and IR, asking new questions, posing new theoretical answers, and crafting entirely new agendas.

The status of the study of gender and IR could not be more different today than what it was when Goldstein wrote those words in the mid-1980s, as I describe in a forthcoming Journal of Conflict Resolution article. Since 2000 a new wave of scholars, including Laura Sjoberg, Charli Carpenter, Dara Cohen, Mary Caprioli, and others built on earlier work and broadened and deepened the study of gender and IR. The study of gender is now one of the hottest rising topics in IR. Even better, though in earlier days positivist IR scholars shied away from examining gender, positivist methods such as experiments, statistical analysis of observational data, surveys, and theory-testing case studies are now routinely employed to examine gender in IR alongside the other approaches. And, for those of us crassly interested in publishing in reputable outlets, gender/IR work now frequently appears in top journals and presses. The August 2013 issue of the American Political Science Review, for example, had three articles on gender and IR. Oxford University Press has an entire series on gender and international relations.

There are intriguing and important gender-related questions across the breadth of IR that have begun to be asked and answered. They include: What is the nature of the gender gap in public opinion on the use of force? What are the different ways in which terrorist and insurgent groups use females as combatants? What determines levels of sexual assault in wartime? Are female politicians less belligerent than male politicians? How does societal gender inequality condition a state’s propensity for intrastate and interstate conflict? How does gender condition public attitudes about foreign economic policy? How does a person’s sex affect his or her ability to perform the variety of functions of modern combat? How might gender affect the behavior of other international actors like judges and central bankers? What factors affect global gender equality norms? Can mixed gender units better perform peacekeeping and state security functions? This is an incomplete list, and many important, even fundamental puzzles concerning gender and IR remain largely unsolved. That is, there is much fresh, untilled soil for energetic scholars to cultivate.

And, gender lends itself quite nicely to positivist methods. Though biological sex does not equate to gender, they are of course correlated and sex is one of the easiest personal attributes to observe (much easier to observe than, say, attributes such as preferences or threat perception). The anatomy of how biological sex might affect behavior is directly observable, for example by monitoring testosterone levels in experimental subjects. And, though gender is endogenous to some factors, biological sex is largely exogenous, enabling scholars to skirt some causal inference problems. Last, the field is enjoying the publication of a wide variety of gender-related data sets, including WomanStats, Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts, World Bank data, UN Development Programme data, and others.

Scholarship aside, gender is and will remain a critically important topic in current IR events. The next American president could be female. The national leaders of South Korea, Germany, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, Liberia, Bangladesh, Norway, and a number of other countries are all female. We have the first ever American female chair of the Federal Reserve Bank. Women around the world continue to be the targets of gendered violence at horrific levels. A large part of what makes groups like Boko Haram and ISIS so abhorrent is their treatment of women and girls. The US military in 2013 committed to achieve gender integration in its military, and the UN continues to pursue gender integration of its peacekeeping forces. That is, in many important areas understanding current events and crafting foreign policy recommendations requires thinking about gender.

In short, we’ve now come full circle from Goldstein’s pessimistic mid-1980s viewpoint. For a bright young IR graduate student–female or not, feminist or not, positivist or not–gender is exactly what he or she might consider starting to work on to launch an exciting and rewarding research career.