The SOAS report looks at how gender is taught in Politics and Development classes, and finds that it is frequently invisible from syllabi and reading lists. However these issues exist in a wider context of women’s under-representation in academia. The problem of gender inequality in academia presents itself in a number of ways. For example, we found that there were far fewer female authors on our reading lists.
Looking at just one example, we discovered that on the reading list for a core politics course just 16% of the authors were female, only 2 readings out of 188 talked about women and none used gender or feminism as a lens for analysis. Of course, this is only one reading list for one course in one university – but in the report we point to similar findings elsewhere. Even if it is an anomaly, it’s a pretty striking one which requires explanation.
Even if there are fewer journal articles or books published by women in Politics or Development (and this is by no means obvious – can anyone link to some research on this?), the choice of readings to include on reading lists amplify the inequality. It is highly implausible that the 16% figure simply reflects the current state of the disciplines. In the report we explain why we think this is harmful: it sets an assumption that academia is a male pursuit, leads to the absence of role model for female students, and prevents the experiences of half of the population from feeding into academic knowledge.
In this blog post, I’m going to assume that marked gender imbalance on reading lists is a substantive harm, and instead focus on a more explanatory question. Why are there so few women on reading lists? The simple answer is that reading lists don’t change. I’ll outline the simple practical reasons, before moving onto the more conceptual reasons why reading lists tend to include the same authors year after year.
(I discovered this as I was looking for additional readings for my masters dissertation. After downloading various syllabi for African Politics courses at major European and US universities I found that many were identical. Why didn’t I look at reading lists from African universities? I was led by Google search results, which prioritised the more search-friendly Western websites and the couple of others I looked for weren’t publicly accessible.)
Answer 1: Practical Reasons
Firstly, reading lists are a bit like family heirlooms. They get passed down generation to generation through the great circle of academic life. As a student your beliefs about what counts as the “key readings” in your field are influenced by what you are set by your teacher. When, later in your academic career, you come to teach the course, you are likely to include the “key readings” that you remember from your early teaching – even if that means you miss out the best part of 10 or 20 years of scholarship.
Secondly, compiling a reading list takes time, and academics are often very busy and/or disorganised people. In between teaching, sitting on committees and working on their own research, a scholar is unlikely to find time to speculatively read another dozen articles to see if any of them are worth adding to their undergraduate course reading list. Furthermore, teachers are often paid for the class time they teach, not the preparation, so there is no incentive to put in the hours to prepare an evolving or innovative reading list.
Answer 2: The way we are taught
More conceptually, the institutionalisation of disciplines into formalised bodies of knowledge contributes to the fact that reading lists tend to remain the same over time. Specific debates and authors become reified, until they are seen as synonymous with the subject. For example, political theory becomes fixed around the progression of Hobbes, to Locke, to Rawls. You cannot be said to really know about political theory if you haven’t been taught this traditional narrative of the liberal state.
It could be objected that all disciplines are in conversation with themselves, and this requires fixed historical and intellectual points of reference, so that in a discussion everyone is “on the same page”. But, this instinct towards teaching a discipline through teaching the history of a discipline, tends towards excluding more modern writers, which often means excluding female writers.
That’s not to say that every course will be taught like this – simply that it’s a tendency I’ve encountered in my own experience. Students are often taught about the subjects in chronological order, which at first glance makes a lot of sense. However, in some cases this can be problematic. Economics, International Relations and Comparative Government come to mind as subject areas which are risk being taught as century long arguments between a series of white men. Especially with introductory undergraduate courses, a pattern can emerge: starting in the first couple of weeks with either Ancient Greek men or 17th century European men or Early 20th Century Oxbridge men, and the course gradually moves forward through the traditional debates until the last week when something post-modern happens circa 1990 and the course ends. Of course, there is space in this structure for female authors if lecturers are willing to find them – either as contemporaries, or, more likely, as modern day commentators on the central historical thinkers.
This is clearly a huge question which probes to the heart of what it is we are doing as social scientists, or scholars. Moreover, I know that mine is a controversial view to take; not everyone would agree that most course are chronological, or that it’s a problem, or that it’s a problem which has gendered consequences. Fortunately, the practical issues are easier to deal with.
In response to the first two issues – ignorance and time constraints – the solution is easy. An Australian website called Women’s Works was set up with the aim of making it quick and straight-forward for lecturers to add female-authored articles to their Philosophy course lists. Searchable by author or topic area, the database provides suggested readings by women in 19 subject areas: including Metaphysics, History of Philosophy, Logic and Epistemology.
The Women’s Work database provides an interesting counterpoint to the Gender in Politics and Development Reading List we have published elsewhere on this site. Whereas Women’s Work showcases work by women, our reading list focusses on readings about women and gender more generally. That said, there is considerable overlap between the two categories. Much of the current work on gender is by female academics. This maybe reflects women’s frustration with the heteronormative assumptions behind a lot of academic work, and a desire to carve out a space where they feel that neglected issues can be addressed.
But others find this problematic. As discussed at the launch event, some female academics are wary of being labelled as a “woman who works on feminism” or “that woman who works on gender”. This creates stereotype threat which is where women are reluctant to work on gender issues in case they reinforce, or are viewed through the lens of, a stereotype. (Check out the amazing website ReducingStereotypeThreat.org).
Either way, there is clearly work to be done to ensure that the world of academia is open to people of all genders. Whether that’s by providing more balanced reading lists, or working against pigeon-holing certain subjects, positive steps like Women’s Work are a good place to start.