Barriers to Women’s Participation in Political Methodology: Graduate School and Beyond

Why aren’t more women participating in the Political Methodology society? Statistics on attendance at the summer meetings reveal that from 1984 to 2010, about 25% of participants were women. While this proportion is not notably different from comparable political science subfield meetings, it is the lowest in the group, as 27% of Peace Science Society, 26% of International Political Economy Society, and 35% of State Politics and Policy attendees were women (Dion and Mitchell 2012).

Assuming that attendance at the summer meetings indicates an appreciation for and identification with the community of methodologists, the question deepens: why don’t more women identify with the subfield of political methodology? This essay addresses the question by discussing the social and structural obstacles to women participating in the subfield of political methodology. While many obstacles emerge early in childhood, I emphasize how these obstacles influence graduate students in particular. I identify cultural and societal factors, argumentative and competitive norms, and lack of mentoring as three particular categories of barriers. The hope is that faculty, graduate students, and members of the political methodology society will recognize such obstacles when they emerge and take action.

Cultural and Societal Factors

For women, obstacles to developing an interest in political methodology arise early in their intellectual development, particularly because of differences in how genders are socialized to study math. Standardized tests indicate that boys and girls have similar math abilities in elementary school (Hyde et al. 2008), yet boys and girls are more likely to associate math with boys than girls. Boys are also more likely than girls to associate themselves with math (Cvencek, Meltzoff, and Greenwald 2011). By the time they become teenagers, student performance in math diverges along gender lines. Men outperform women on standardized tests given in high school and college, particularly among students scoring in the top five percent (Ellison and Swanson 2007; Xie and Shauman 2003). The gender distinction persists into adulthood. A survey by the non-profit organization Change the Equation reports that 37% of women say that they are not good at math, significantly different from the 21% of men who say they are not good at math. Women therefore are more likely than men to arrive at college and graduate school with a strong notion that they cannot do math, which produces a belief they also cannot do statistics.

Women’s beliefs about their ineptitude for math are bolstered by a general “imposter syndrome” that appears to limit women more than men. Women tend to underestimate their intellectual and professional abilities, even when they outperform men (Sandberg 2013:29-30). Consider a finding from political science research, which shows that among individuals with similar experience and credentials, women are less likely than men to consider themselves qualified to run for office (Lawless and Fox 2005). The impostor syndrome may limit women from pursuing political methodology, including women talented in statistics, because they are not confident in their ability to do so.

Once women develop beliefs that they do not have the skills needed to study, teach, or innovate in the field of political methodology, their beliefs are often reinforced through social interaction with male and female peers. If both men and women associate math abilities with men rather than women, then socialization inside and outside the classroom strengthens those beliefs. As a personal example, in my fourth year of graduate school, my cohort was asked to list our subfields of specialization on CVs we were developing. I listed methodology as one of my subfields. When we discussed the CVs in seminar, a male classmate remarked, “Meg, I’m surprised you consider yourself a methodologist.” No one made the same remark about any of the men in the class, and the professor did not respond to the comment.

Competitive and Argumentative Norms in the Classroom and at the PolMeth Meeting

Women may be less motivated than men to study political methodology because of norms in the classroom and graduate seminars. While studies are not universal in their conclusions, most indicate that teachers pay more attention to boys than girls, and that boys have a stronger presence in the classroom (Sandberg 2013). Men are more likely to speak up, ask questions, and engage in argument. Frequent vocal participation can give the impression that men are more competent or have a better understanding of the material. That participation may be rewarded by faculty asking the more vocal students to coauthor papers. Faculty may also be more likely to encourage these students to present at conferences, including the political methodology meeting.

Methodology graduate seminars may discourage women if they foster competitive environments. Not only do women favor competitive situations at lower rates than men (Niederle and Vesterlund 2007), their performance is hindered in competitive situations. Some suggest that the gender gap in math performance is the product of competitive classroom environments (Niederle and Westerlund 2010). Research has shown that men outperform women on entrance exams to a top French business school, but that women outperform men in less competitive high school finishing exams (Ors, Palomino, and Peyrache 2013). A natural experiment at Stanford law school revealed that when grading became less competitive, the gender gap in performance disappeared (Ho and Kelman n.d.). Competitive graduate seminars may include those with competitive grading systems (a limited number of As), competition for vocal participation, competition for the instructor’s or TA’s attention, or those within a graduate program that is competitive on the whole.

Norms of behavior within the PolMeth meetings may discourage women if the discourse is argumentative and competitive. I once served as a discussant at PolMeth, and several male attendees told me I was too nice, whereas no female attendees made the same observation. I also noticed that two male audience members who were silent during the author’s presentation whispered to each other throughout much of my discussion. They seemed to be vigorously debating the paper that had just been presented, but their behavior made me feel insecure and disrespected.

As a remedy, one might suggest that women embrace competitive and argumentative norms of behavior and discourse. Yet this may not be this best solution if vocal women are not lauded the same way as men. A recent exchange of blog posts and articles in the New York Times questions the paucity of women in the field of philosophy, arguing that the gender gap occurs because philosophy is an argumentative and verbally combative field. Women who debate aggressively are labeled “shrews”, while women who withhold debate are considered less competent (Schuessler 2013).

Lack of Mentoring

Women may lack the mentoring needed to participate as political methodologists. A troubling conclusion from a recent National Academy of Sciences paper is that male and female faculty are less likely to mentor women than men (Moss-Racusin et. al 2012). In the experiment (N=127), science faculty were given materials of an undergraduate applying for a lab position. The materials were identical, except half were submitted under a male name (John) and half under a female name (Jennifer). The male student was evaluated more favorably on a number of dimensions, but in particular, faculty offered less career mentoring to the female student than the male student. And it wasn’t just male faculty who were biased – female faculty were also biased toward the male student. Some might suggest that mentoring emerges organically – that mentors will eventually recognize the talents of women and provide appropriate nurturing (Sandberg 2013). But as the PNAS study suggests, talented women may be overlooked, and mentors may be more likely to seek out men.

Political methodology as a subfield necessitates mentoring. We do not have data on what motivates attendance, but based on conversations I’ve had at the five summer meetings I’ve attended, graduate students first attend the meeting because a faculty member encouraged them to do so. Political Methodology is a tight society with strong leadership and social networks, and it provides a number of opportunities for continued education and training. Realizing those opportunities requires guidance from faculty already tied into the society. It is possible that women are attending the meetings at lower rates because they are receiving less mentoring or are not receiving the type of mentoring that would tie them into the PolMeth network.

Not Their Cup of Tea?

One might argue that women do not participate in the political methodology society because they prefer not to. After all, research shows that men are slightly more likely than women to describe their work as positivist, and women are twice as likely as men to describe their work as post-positivist (Breuning et al 2005; Maliniak et al 2013). And some subfields in political science seem to draw genders at different rates. In international relations for example, men are more likely to study security, U.S. foreign policy, and methods. Women are more likely to study human rights, international law, and the environment (Maliniak et al 2013, 2008). Could it be that women and minorities just don’t like political methodology?

Even if this is this case, it is nearly impossible to determine whether such preferences are hard-wired, socially manipulated, or both. Let’s say that more men have the methods gene than women. Epigenetics research indicates that genes interact with the environment, including the social environment, to produce behavior. We therefore have a responsibility to consider how our actions have produced a subfield and methodology society with low participation from women and minorities. While institutions, norms, and culture can produce biased outcomes, they can also ensure equitable outcomes. Including more minorities and women is good for the intellectual vitality, rigor, and overall influence of the political methodology society.

What Can Faculty Do?

Most importantly, we must engage in a good deal of self-reflection. None of us, male or female, are beyond reproach. We all suffer from implicit biases. We must carefully assess our how own behavior, our department’s behavior, and the institutions to which we belong produce gendered norms and outcomes.

First, we become aware of our department and institution’s culture. Are we fostering a chilly climate? Are female and minority graduate students equally encouraged to attend ICPSR, and is monetary assistance given equitably?

Second, we become aware of the Political Methodology society’s culture. We should consider an independent, external review of the summer meeting, to get a sense of how social norms, behavior, and discourse might inhibit participation by women.

Third, we assess our classroom environments. Do we ensure equal participation? Is the environment competitive? We also need to observe the social dynamic among the students. Pay attention to gendered or biased comments before, during, and after class discussion, and shut them down. We might also consider interactive teaching, rather than lecture-based teaching, as physics instructors have found that gender gaps in performance narrow when interactive instruction is used (Lorenzo, Crouch, and Mazur 2006).

Fourth, we take stock of what we’re doing outside the classroom. We may need to pay particular attention to talented female students who are holding themselves back. If they are undergraduates, we encourage them to take math, statistics, and economics courses. We suggest they think about graduate school. And we encourage them to pursue a research-intensive project, either under our supervision or through a formal program. Similarly, we should be aware that statements discouraging students from pursuing research and graduate school, while not necessarily gendered, may have a stronger effect on women.

For graduate students, we need to be aware that females and minorities may not knock on our doors to ask about participating in research projects. We can be more proactive in including them in our research. We should also require all students in our methods classes to sign up for PolMeth’s listserve. And finally, we should carefully assess how we choose whom to mentor, and ask if our mentoring proclivities are biased. Faculty can volunteer to serve as a mentor through the Visions in Methodology (VIM) mentoring program.

And finally, we must refuse to participate in a gendered, racist, or ethnocentric culture. We call out colleagues who persistently make gendered comments at the lunch table. We gently notify students (and staff, and administrators) when they refer to male faculty as Dr. or Professor while referring to female faculty as Miss. We think about if we are more likely to interrupt a female or minority colleague, and we hold back a bit, as slowing down thinking has been shown to reduce implicit bias (Saul 2012). We are unbiased in whom we choose to mentor, unless the student is racist or sexist. We subtly model behavior through our own language, referring to leaders and politicians as “she” as often as “he.” We recognize our positions of power, and we use our power to embrace and foster diversity.

What Can Graduate Students Do?

First, graduate students should also engage in self-reflection. Ask: what beliefs do I hold about gender and math and statistics ability? Are my beliefs holding me back? Am I holding my classmates back?

Second, graduate students should ask lots of questions, in and out of seminar. In seminar, small questions can lead to big ideas and research projects, but only if they are asked. Both men and women suffer from insecurity and the imposter syndrome, and everyone fears speaking up. Recognizing the fear when it arises may help students overcome it. Out of seminar, talk to faculty who use methods and who participate in the society. Knock on doors. Ask them how they developed an interest in methods and what advice they have for pursuing methods as a field.

Finally, grad students should get involved in the political methodology society. Apply to attend a summer meeting. Sign up for the political methodology listserve. Attend a regional meeting like the St. Louis Area Methods Meeting (SLAMM). Explore the Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models (EITM) workshops, and ICPSR summer classes. Women can also attend a Visions in Methodology Conference. Female faculty and graduate students can also sign up for a mentor through VIM.

Recommended Reading

Ho, Daniel E. and Mark G. Kelman. n.d. “Does Class Size Reduce the Gender Gap? A Natural Experiment in Law.” Working paper, Stanford University.

Kadera, Kelly. 2013. “The Social Underpinnings of Women’s Worth in the Study of World Politics: Culture, Leader Emergence, and Coauthorship.” International Studies Perspectives 14(4):463-475.

Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman. 2012. ”Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(41):16474-16479.

Pollack, Eileen. 10/3/13. “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?” New York Times.

Sandberg, Sheryl. 2013. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Other References

Cvencek, Dario, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Anthony G. Greenwald. 2011. ”Math–gender
stereotypes in elementary school children.” Child Development 82(3): 766-779.

Ellison, Glenn, and Ashley Swanson. 2010. “The Gender Gap in Secondary School
Mathematics at High Achievement Levels: Evidence from the American Mathematics
Competitions.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 24(2):109-128.

Fox, Richard L. and Jennifer L. Lawless. 2005. “To Run or Not to Run for Office: Explaining Nascent Political Ambition.” American Journal of Political Science 49(3):642-659.

Guiso, Luigi, Ferdinando Monte, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales. 2008. “Culture, Gender, and Math.” Science 320:1164-1165.

Hyde, J. S., Lindberg, S. M., Linn, M. C., Ellis, A. B., & Williams, C. C. 2008. “Gender similarities characterize math performance.” Science 321(5888): 494-495.

Lorenzo, Mercedes, Catherine H. Crouch, and Eric Mazur. 2006. ”Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom.” American Journal of Physics 74(2): 118-122.

Niederle, Muriel and Lise Vesterlund. 2007. “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3):1067-1101.

Niederle, Muriel and Lise Vesterlund. 2010. “Explaining the Gender Gap in Math Test Scores: The Role of Competition.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 24(2):129-144.

Ors, Evren, Frédéric Palomino, and Eloïc Peyrache. 2013. “Performance Gender Gap: Does Competition Matter?” Journal of Labor Economics 31(3):443-499.

Saul, Jennifer. 2012. “Ranking Exercises in Philosophy and Implicit Bias.” Journal of
Social Philosophy 43(3):256-273.

U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2009-2010 Data Collection.

Xie, Yu, and Kimberlee A. Shauman. 2003. Women in Science: Career Processes and
Outcomes. Harvard University Press.

About Megan Shannon

Assistant professor of political science at Florida State University
This entry was posted in The Discipline and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Barriers to Women’s Participation in Political Methodology: Graduate School and Beyond

  1. Mira Fey says:

    Reblogged this on Thoughts and Politics and commented:
    Interesting piece on the gender gap of participation in political methodology

  2. Nonparticipant says:

    All of this resonates with me, a female graduate student. My undergraduate major was economics, and my thesis was in econometrics. I have taken as much advanced training as possible, so I am pretty confident that I can do this. But I have had basically zero mentoring. Everything I did (POLMETH, EITM, ICPSR and more) I did on my own. No one ever encouraged me to go, or helped me prepare, or followed up with me afterward. I just assumed it was like this for everyone.

    I don’t see POLMETH as worth my time to prepare for and attend (as I did in the past). It feels like an old boys’ club, and the people there act accordingly. Tenured male faculty need to actively mentor their young *male* acolytes to not be insecure jerks and need to model with their own behavior what quality criticism and discourse looks like.

    From my position, there is nothing I can do, but I am glad to see that you are writing this. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Style, Substance, and the Impact on Gender Imbalance in Methods | The Political Methodologist

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on Mentoring to Train and Retain Methodologists | The Political Methodologist

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