• Amy Erica Smith

What can women (and men) do about gender inequality in academia?

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

The Monkey Cage's Gender Series shows us the structure. We can make that structure our ladder.


By Amy Erica Smith

In May 2016, my kid play-dohed my work computer. Two years later I got tenure. See, there's hope.

This week, cohorts of young women are returning to campus for undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD programs. Others are anxiously beginning junior-level post-doc, lecturer, and assistant professor jobs.


These women are just in time to read the Monkey Cage’s Gender Series. That series described with social scientific rigor wide-ranging gender disparities in political science and related fields: from syllabi and teaching evaluations to publications and book prizes.


What are we women supposed to do with this information? I’ve been asking other women this question in recent days.


It turns out one response has been anxiety and sorrow. An accomplished associate professor says she hasn’t yet been emotionally ready to read the series. I have seen sad language and emojis in my Facebook feed. An entry-level assistant professor reports that “a common response” in her female peer group was “opting out of reading further.” The news, she said, was “more depressing than empowering.” A doctoral candidate described herself as “a little numb.”


As a principal investigator for two of these projects, I emphatically believe research on gender in academia can be a force for good. A senior scholar argues, “It’s far worse to not acknowledge the problem.” When we understand the problem, we can start figuring out how to address it.


The solutions will involve collective action and working the levers of power. I’ll come back to that.


But first, what can a sleepless and overworked graduate student or junior scholar do in her own life and career? The answer is, a lot.


The first rule of fight club is this: The best way young women and scholars of color can change academia is to succeed in their own careers. We now know women submit fewer research articles than men do. But when women submit their research, it is accepted as often as men’s work. A seemingly obvious implication is that women—especially advanced graduate students and beyond—should submit more research. In my own peer mentoring, I have seen women’s work transform when they start prioritizing their own research over others’ demands.


So, try to guard your own time and to write five days a week. Postpone, soft pedal, or say no to service, even if it means the committee won't have a woman at the table. Ensuring gender balance is not your sole responsibility. Take risks that men are socialized to take more readily. Send your work out. Nominate yourself for awards. Lower your standards. Embrace rejection. Many of us can point you toward resources to figure these things out. And if reading about gender inequality in academia makes it psychologically hard to do those things, it’s okay to block it out. See the first rule.


But “leaning in” is just one piece of the puzzle. A different senior scholar reports that “much of my agency…comes from decisions I make regarding whose expectations and assessments matter and whose don’t.” Graduate student and untenured instructors’ careers are yoked to standards they don’t control. You can still choose which ones you take to heart.


This involves trying to protect your own mental and physical health. Look for ways to get enough sleep. If you have children or other family responsibilities, try to find people and systems to share the workload. Beyond the intrinsic benefits, well-rested brains make for better scholars.


Other things you can do are relational. Seek out mentors. For many women, it’s important to have role models who match their own identities (racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual). An associate professor describes one strategy: “At conferences, go to business meetings where they’re giving awards to senior women. It’s this wonderful, beautiful thing that will make you feel like you belong and like you can do this.”


And pay it forward. As a teaching assistant or instructor, you are also a role model. You can model concern for equity and inclusion. When you get to write a syllabus, you can teach about diverse groups and assign research by diverse scholars. But you may also need to let more senior scholars carry heavier mentorship loads. See the first rule.


Last, you can pay it sideways. Through discussion with peers—inside your department and outside—you can figure out how to turn gendered structures into ladders women and men can ascend equally. Mentor each other. Read and promote each other’s work.


Yet many changes require collective action, with roles for scholars of all genders and statuses. Assistant professors founded both Women Also Know Stuff and MeTooPoliSci. Agitation from the outside can lead to further changes, such as better handling of sexual harassment allegations.


But we need to acknowledge that agitation has risks. Founding a group won’t write your dissertation or get you tenure, and it could annoy people with power over you. The founders of WAKS and MTPS were junior but accomplished scholars when they began this work. My “gender agenda” emerged as a form of nerdy activism only after I had enough work in the pipeline for tenure. A friend notes that it’s “exhausting being the complainer-in-chief.” So organize, but be smart and strategic. See the first rule.


We can shape systems from the inside, too. Male allies are critical. Women often lament men’s absence at the tables where we discuss these issues. If you’re a man, quietly ask your female colleagues how they’re doing, and loudly promote their work. The instinct for gender homophily might be inherent in our species—fight it when disseminating resources and opportunities.


The great news is that the women and men at the top of the discipline increasingly see this stuff as urgent. The incoming, all-female team of editors of the top journal in political science, the American Political Science Review, is keen to redress a long-standing perception that the journal was inhospitable to work by women and scholars of color. Betsy Sinclair, the current president of Visions in Methodology and president-elect of the Society of Political Methodology, says, “If y’all have ideas for how we can do better, I’m all ears. This is my one shot to make our profession better, and I’m all in.”


I see tremendous progress in awareness of gender issues since I started my Ph.D. program in 2005. Fixing this stuff isn’t going to be easy, but I am intensely optimistic about the present moment.

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