October 29, 2013

Gender Bias in my Graduate International Political Economy Syllabus

A recent post by Kim Yi Dionne on “Women Authors on African Politics Syllabi” and a response by Tom Pepinksy got me to look at my own graduate courses.  Tom did some accounting and calculated the percentage of women authors on his South Asian Politics syllabus. Only 16.7% of the authors are women.  This is better than the average African Politics course.

I did a similar calculation on my graduate international political economy (IPE) class.

I’m the only faculty currently teaching IR as WashU, and even at our peak we were three faculty.  So I build new  IPE grad classes every year that can be taken by first year students and be of interest to more advanced students.  I always include some recently published or unpublished working papers and build two weeks around them.  In the first week I cover the “classic” works that these unpublished pieces cite.  Then we read the recent papers the following week.

I’m constantly redesigning this course and I often search for other IPE grad syllabi. I look for interesting debates, other topics to cover, and new books and articles.  These details will be relevant very shortly.

IPE is a field with fantastic women scholars across all ranks.  There are plenty of women authors in IPE to choose from, and I have many of their books and papers on my syllabus.  Or so I thought.

Looking at my most recent version of this syllabus, 25 out of 88 readings (28%) had at least one woman author.  That is lower than I thought, but not awful.  At least not compared to the next number. 

When I count up all of the authors on my syllabus (many of the papers have three or four authors), the number of women authors drops to about 20% (28 out of 138).

Damn.  Really?  I pulled a few more syllabi, and quickly eyeballed them. They all look roughly the same.  Some of them worse.  I’m still shocked at this.

How did this happen? 

This might be obvious by now, but here it goes.

1.     When built my syllabus I searched for other syllabi on the web and used this as part of the pool of articles I would consider for my class.  Thus my syllabus isn’t independent of other IPE syllabi and I am replicating, or maybe even amplifying the gender bias in the field.

2.     Taking recently published or working papers and looking at their citations is also problematic.  If there is gender bias in citations (there is) then it will show up in my syllabus as well. 

3.     Me.  And this is the most painful part to admit.  A graduate syllabus, at least for me, is about satisficing.  There are so many interesting books and articles out there that I am often overwhelmed by the choices.  In most cases I’m look for an interesting portfolio of papers that taken together really lead to a great discussion and hopefully help our graduate students identify research questions and methodologies to address these questions.

But there are so many different ways to build a syllabus.  I can’t really say why I choose one author or the other. But the proof is in the accounting.  Somehow I made the choice to only include about 20% women authors. 

What to do about it?

I had a stint as the director of graduate studies along with other administrative roles at Washington University.  Change comes slowly and often requires the support of faculty, administrators, and staff. 

How do I address gender bias in my syllabus?  I can change my syllabus.  Unilaterally.

There are lots of ways to do this. I could set a percentage, say 35% women authors, and see if I could build a graduate syllabus that is just as rigorous and interesting as my present one.  I’m pretty sure I can.

Or I could do something similar to the Rooney Rule.  The Rooney Rule was a rule instituted in the NFL requiring teams hiring a head coach to interview at least one minority candidate.

What I could do is pick a topic for one week of my course and think hard about the best papers in that area.  Then make sure to look a second time at what are the best papers authored by women in that field.

I did a quick thought experiment on two weeks of readings for the course I will be teaching next semester. Just off the top of my head I thought of a bunch of papers on the topic authored by women faculty.  I’m pretty sure I can improve both of these weeks and include more works by women scholars. 

No matter how I do it, I can construct a syllabus that is at least as good as my current one, and include a substantially higher number of women authors on the syllabus with just a little effort.

Rarely I have I come across a problem that is so obvious and has such an easy solution.  I guess it just required someone like Kim to provide some motivation to do a very quick self-study. 

I have clearly made mistakes with my past courses.  I can do much better.  And I will start by changing my syllabus for next semester.


Hi Nathan,
Interesting article. I am not trying to spam, so please forgive the link: On Men Refusing To Grow Up. 2 things stood out in your article: 1) You actually researched your perceived gender bias in graduate international political economy (IPE) class - that tells the world you do care about gender equity, as do most men. 2) You assumed that you should have a 50/50 ratio of men to women. In the article I posted, my research lead me to realize that there is a wage/work gap between the sexes - men, on average, make more, but it is primarily because men and women chose different vocations. It has nothing to do with "gender bias" or "equality". Men tend to choose higher paid vocations. In reading your article, I think you overlooked that one *possible* cause in your conclusion. If only 28% of women and 72% of men write books related to your IPE class (from a total pool) then you actually have complete non-bias. It may simply be that this is an area more men are focused. What do you think?

you should have a 50/50 ratio of men to women. In the article I posted, my research lead me to realize that there is a wage/work gap between the sexes - men, on average, make more, but it is primarily because men and women

Add new comment