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Are assigned readings from women professors different?

Gender plays a role in what you read for courses. COD Newsroom, CC BY

Are assigned readings from women professors different?

Do male and female instructors differ in the way they teach international relations (IR)? New evidence suggests that they do.

The value of gender diversity has been emphasized over and over again. Even so, much work remains to be done. For example, only 24% of full-time political science professors in the US are women.

These days 42% of the graduate students in political science in the US are women, which could be a pipeline of more female professors in the future – if they stay in academia. One way to encourage women is to expose students to examples of great research by female scholars. This means paying more attention to syllabi.

Recently, I conducted a study that investigated the international relations syllabi for PhD students, building on a bigger study that will soon be published at International Studies Quarterly. The differences that I found could have important implications for recruiting and retaining female scholars in political science.

Gender diversity of syllabi

A fantastic research assistant, Miriam Hinthorn, gathered data from 73 syllabi. The syllabi came from 42 US universities. Female instructors taught 35 of them, and male instructors taught the others. The syllabi contained 4,148 required readings (each reading could be an article, a book, or a book segment). (Our data do not speak to diversity issues besides gender, like race or ethnicity.)

Here is what we found:

Male authors, either individually or in teams, wrote 76% of the assigned readings (women or coed teams account for the remaining 24%).

This percentage is high, but not when considered alongside the publication patterns of top rated IR journals: overall 81% papers were authored by men in top-rated IR journals between 1980-2006.

The fact is male authors have dominated the IR journals because most IR professors are men, though that number is declining over time. It is not surprising, then, that syllabi are also dominated by male authors.

Women instructors assign different research

However, we found that female instructors design courses differently than male instructors. This happened in two ways.

First, we found that female scholars tend to assign more readings by female authors than male instructors. In our sample, men were authors of “only” 71.5% of readings in courses taught by female instructors.

Male instructors, on the other hand, assigned readings that were 79.1% by male authors. Statistically, that difference is very unlikely to happen by random chance.

Gender of professor matters. UCL Institute of Education, CC BY-NC

Put differently, female instructors assign 36% more readings by women (including coed teams) than male instructors do, or about five readings per course.

Of course, other factors could be playing a role as well, such as course composition, rather than bias per se. Regardless, the findings are hard to ignore.

Our second major finding was that female instructors are considerably more averse to assigning their own research as required readings. They assigned an average of 1.68 readings that they themselves had written (as solo or coauthor).

By contrast, male instructors assigned about twice as much of their own work: an average of 3.18 readings. Again, the difference is very unlikely to be random.

What if female instructors assigned their own work at the same rate as men?

Our estimates show the gender gap between male- and female-taught courses would grow even larger. If female instructors added as much of their own work as male instructors do (without subtracting anything else), research by male authors would then account for only 69.3% of their readings.

That is, female instructors would be teaching 47% more readings by women than male instructors.

How should we design syllabi?

Shouldn’t instructors just try to assign the best readings?

Absolutely. But “best” is partly subjective, and gender affects such judgments. Some scholars, including me, have found that revising their syllabus with gender in mind is not only feasible, it improves the course.

Women are often advised to emulate men in the workplace (eg, Lean In). In this case, however, I believe, it might be better if men emulated the women.

That would increase the amount of female-authored research being taught. It would also mean that at least some male instructors would need to reduce the amount of their own research that they assign in classes.

One or two readings written by the instructor is fine, and perhaps more if the instructor is especially senior and prominent. But too much could crowd out other valuable research – a disservice to the students.

The differences in the way IR is taught to graduate students also could have important downstream effects. Scholars have recently demonstrated a citation gender gap: female-authored research in IR is less likely to be cited than male-authored work, even when many relevant factors like the author’s professional rank and institution are the same. Some scholars have suggested that this gap arises, in part, because of what is assigned on graduate syllabi.

Ultimately, our objective should be to generate a syllabus that best serves our students’ needs: intellectual, professional and otherwise. Thinking about gender balance is one important way that we can do that.