International relations | Australia, South Asia, The World

9 March 2021

A growth of female scholars in political science is a good sign, but all in the field need to pay attention to supporting their growth over time in order to strengthen the field, Shreya Upadhyay writes for International Women’s Day.

Every year, International Women’s Day is a reminder of the issues women face in any field that are a part of. My own experience is in international relations — a field notorious, especially in India, for a shortage of women, particularly in foreign policy, defence, security, and nuclear issues.

The defence policy community across the region, but especially in India, is essentially an old boys’ club. Female experts – whether they be policymakers, journalists, researchers, or other academics –  make up a small minority.

The story remains the same in private companies. Ultimately, issues of security, terrorism, and international relations are seen in masculine terms, and so opt to employ men in much higher numbers than women.

This isn’t just anecdote either – the challenge of locating women in the field of international politics is reflected well in several studies undertaken on bias in academic settings. Findings suggest that in the already male-dominated field of political science, international relations has the highest proportion of men of any discipline.

Another US-based study found that only 26 per cent of the 13,000 political science professors in the United States today are women, with another study noting that there are even fewer female international relations scholars.

Why is this? There is a negative cycle affecting women in the field. Even when women rise to the top of a field, research done by a woman is cited less often, and female researchers are often tasked with more administrative responsibilities in their departments, rather than being able to focus on their research.

More on this: Can women have it all?

Women authors are also less likely to be referenced when they are not writing about issues of feminism, health, or the environment, which are more associated with the feminine than security or terrorism. Studies have also revealed that women suffer a ‘co-author penalty’ – that is, they get far less recognition for writing papers as part of a team, especially one that includes men.

Another problem is the make-up of most international relations conferences. While young scholars are often more diverse than they once were, often the chair and speakers on a panel, and older scholars, are mostly men.

An increase in the number of young women scholars is a welcome sign, but all in the field need to pay attention to where these women go as their careers progress. At the moment, bias is leaving them behind.

This bias is even more pronounced for women of colour, women from developing and under-developed nations, and LGBT individuals. A failure to secure opportunities for these scholars is reinforcing an under-representation of women in the field.

Ultimately, some of these women then drop out of the field, and a low number of women researchers in the field leads to less publications by women. Then, the twin evils of lower publication rates and fewer citations of women’s work creates a cycle of under-representation.

Of course, many women have had success in the field, because there is nothing inherently gendered about the study of international relations. When India’s first female ambassador Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was asked about her role as a woman in international relations, she gave a telling answer: “the question of being male or female has nothing to do with the duty of both sexes to take their part in world affairs.”

More on this: Podcast: Where are the women?

International relations is a gender neutral term, and a duty lies with people of all gender identities to take part in policy-making, conducting negotiations, understanding diplomacy, ensuring peace, and tackling conflict.

Women are clearly capable, just as men are, of being excellent contributors in the field. Indian women like CB Muthamma, the first female Indian Foreign Service officer, Hansa Mehta, India’s first female Vice-Chancellor, who played a key role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Begum Shareefah Hamid Ali, a founding member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1947, have been pioneers for Indian diplomacy.

India also has the example of its first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who provided great leadership in a cabinet dominated by men, and that of diplomats like Arundhati Ghose, who came to be considered an institution of Indian foreign policy in herself. However, as influential as they were, it is telling that these names can still be counted on both hands.

For academics, public policy professionals, or those in the top jobs of private security industry, the strength of female voices simply must be allowed to grow. It is numbers that will provide a space for the debates female policymakers are leading in the field.

A more representative upper echelon of the field will help direct foreign policy and defence security, especially when it comes to balancing its militaristic aspects with others such as soft power, gender and human rights, and environmental and health security.

It thus becomes critical to promote and publicise the research of women-identifying scholars. It is also important for these scholars to be empowered to collaborate amongst themselves and with their male counterparts in constructive ways.

Quotas and token opportunities will not be enough for this – it will be crucial to raise awareness about the issue, promote open discussion, and recognise that gender bias exists in academic networks, publishing, and panels. Only then can those who dedicate themselves to international relations create an ecosystem of enhanced cooperation among all in the field, irrespective of their gender.

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One Response

  1. SamuelRichards says:

    A growth of female scholars in political science is a good sign

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