What We Talked About at ISA: The Climate for Women in International Relations and Politics


Yesterday, The Guardian reported on the level of sexual harassment in British universities. Based on Freedom of Information requests (and for this and other reasons necessarily a partial insight into the incidence of harassment) the investigation notes the combination of allegations from students against staff, and from colleagues against each other (roughly 60% and 40% of the total allegations respectively). Perhaps the most high profile media story on sexual harassment in universities so far, The Guardian piece nevertheless follows from a series of stories and controversies, most notably Sara Ahmed’s documentation of specific cases at Goldsmiths (covered in posts on the initial harassment conference, on the nature of evidence, on discovery and speaking out, and on resignation as a feminist issue).

Many of the same concerns have been raised in International Relations (IR) and politics. Individual stories of harassment have long circulated (and been collected anonymously at sites such as Everyday Power and Privilege in IR). At this year’s International Studies Association conference in Baltimore, ten panels were convened on marginalisation, discrimination and violence in professional contexts. Due to a gap in the programme, I was asked to contribute. I opted to describe – and now report in blog form – an experiment in addressing discrimination and bias against women in academia, and to draw some comparisons with IR and politics.

In a recent paper (and highly accessible guide to the issues) Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page[1] illustrate two aspects of the problem of academic sexism:

If it is not enough to blame a single individual, who can be excised from the institution in order to make it clean; it is also not enough to locate the blame entirely with the institutional structure, and in doing so remove any responsibility for individual actions from the academic who harasses students. The movement between individual blame and institutional blame can become yet another way that sexism fails to appear…

…One method of shifting the model of individual accountability is to begin the investigation with the university and to frame the analysis of sexual harassment with the institution at the centre. When the institution is named as the problem that needs to be investigated, individual instances of sexual harassment can be viewed as symptoms of a wider problem.

The movement between individual and institutional blame, and the foregrounding of institution as the problem, serve to orient possible responses to sexism and other discriminations in the discipline. While many interventions to date have worked with individual stories, and offered strategies for dealing with harassment on the basis of support and mentorship, there is also a case for expanding the response to incorporate institutional comparisons. My contribution to that effort is here limited and technical, in the hope that the example of another field may give those invested in IR and politics departments something concrete to think with. The field is philosophy in the United States, and the project in question the ‘Climate for Women’ survey.

In 2004, Julie van Camp argued in ‘Female-Friendly Departments: A Modest Proposal for Picking Graduate Programmes in Philosophy’ that philosophy, as the most male-dominated humanities field, needed some criteria by which a female-friendly department might be measured, and proposed the following:

  1. Does the department show an openness to hiring female faculty members for tenure-track positions?
  2. Are female faculty hired mainly for temporary, visiting, or adjunct positions?
  3. What is the department’s placement record – for women?
  4. Do female graduate students get choice teaching assignments and research experiences comparable to the men?
  5. Does the department have an established policy on faculty-student dating, and is it enforced?
  6. Does the department offer a reasonable selection of courses in feminist philosophy?
  7. Does the department include a reasonable proportion of women among its invited guest speakers at department events and conferences?

The background to the piece was the existence of a ranking system for philosophy departments and graduate programmes known as The Philosophical Gourmet, which had been established by Professor Brian Leiter some time previously, and which was widely treated in the profession as definitive. The Philosophical Gourmet used a survey instrument to build its rankings, and Leiter also provided a range of other information, such as which professors were moving departments, the success rates of programmes in placing graduate students in permanent jobs, and similar. Van Camp’s ‘Modest Proposal’ raised the concern that these rankings might implicitly discriminate against departments that had a high number of female faculty and/or who worked on feminist themes

Fast-forward to 2011, when Professor Linda Alcoff and others set up what they called The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Programmes, which included a report on the Climate for Women in Philosophy. The intention was to create a public ranking which captured the general environment, both for women and for feminist philosophy, that might then inform graduate student choices, and over time shift the relations institutionalised by the discipline (how disciplines discipline, as Ahmed might put it). The Pluralists Guide, also based on surveys, but of “recognised experts” selected by Alcoff and colleagues, broadly sought to determine which departments supported which kinds of research, and which would be most welcoming to traditionally under-represented and excluded populations.

In this survey, respondents agreed or disagreed with statements such as “Students will have access to a community of scholars who share their interest in [the relevant field]” on a 5-point scale. The Pluralist Guide initially did not share the compositional details of its survey, but soon clarified that the climate for women was measured by agreement or disagreement with four statements:

  1. In this department, women students face more difficulties because of their gender
  2. In this department, women students take an equally active role as do men students in seminars, symposia, and the life of the department
  3. In this department, women students are equally supported as men students in their research, teaching, and job applications
  4. In this department, sexual harassment of female students is not a present day or ongoing concern

Rather than a detailed ranking based on numerical scores, the Climate for Women project divided departments into “strongly recommended” and “needs improvement”. This choice was defended as providing broad distinctions rather than displaying – and potentially exaggerating – granular differences (e.g. between a department receiving 4.57 on a scale and one receiving 4.61). The Pluralists Guide attempted similar surveys on race, ethnicity and LGBTQ experience, but received too few responses to share results. This is in itself noteworthy: although the identity of Alcoff, a Latina feminist philosopher, has received the most attention, she was joined by Paul Taylor, who is African American, and William Wilkerson, who is gay (as noted in some sympathetic coverage of the project).

Only three departments in the United States were initially classified by the Pluralist Guide as “needs improvement”: all were Departments that Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet usually put in the top 10, and since the departments listed as “strongly recommended” all specialised in Continental and similar traditions of philosophy, there were instant allegations that The Pluralist’s Guide was a self-interested campaign waged by a philosophical faction, in truth broadly following a schism from the middle of the 20th between different professional associations in the US, and thus not a genuinely disinterested attempt to gauge the climate for women.

As part of the backlash, a number of female graduate students at Rutgers wrote an open letter contesting its ranking, insisting that Rutgers was an excellent place to be both female and a philosopher. Critics further charged that the ‘experts’ consulted in The Pluralists Guide were in effect disputing the view of some of the women actually working in the departments discussed. Alcoff herself justified the failure to consult current graduate students in the programme on grounds that marginalized groups would have a lower response rate.

Brian Leiter himself sharply defended The Philosophical Gourmet rankings. By 2014, philosophers were openly taking sides, some releasing statements of concerns over Leiter’s uncivil language. Some members of the Gourmet report’s advisory board asked Leiter to step down as editor. Leiter claimed in turn that he was being ‘cyber-smeared’. Others, following the lead of John Protevi, released a statement against any rankings (although members of this group were nevertheless in favour of information about programmes and specialisms). Some – including philosophers otherwise seized by the importance of redressing gender inequalities – worried that The Pluralist Guide implicitly made ‘departments that teach feminist philosophy’ synonymous with ‘a welcoming environment for women’ (such was the impact of the dispute that a timeline of the controversy is available).

Leiter’s methodology was more transparent and detailed, and Alcoff conceded a need for improvements to The Pluralist Guide, but there is also a strong sense in reading over the debate that it had turned into a proxy war over the character of philosophy, and the status afforded its sub-branches, which in turn strongly shaped attitudes towards The Pluralist’s Guide. This was the case for both sides of the argument, although of course the supporters of Climate for Women project had strong grounds in pointing to the historical marginalization of women in the discipline.

My contention is that if we hold that there is systematic discrimination and bias against women in IR, then something like the Climate for Women guide must exist, even if we also maintain that a proportion of the discrimination is explained by factors external to IR and politics departments themselves. The demand becomes more pressing still if the climate for women is not only a question of which kinds of scholarly inquiry are supported, but moreover reflects differential patterns of harassment and discrimination, and the exposure of undergraduate and graduate students to them.

Yet, as the story of similar attempts in philosophy shows, there are also difficulties to contend with.

First, there are disagreements over content. The notion of a ‘hospitable climate’ is of course itself contestable and plural, so a survey would have to be definitionally open while also establishing some kind of meaningful distinction between departments. The contestation of definitions may also take on a heightened form, as it did in philosophy, where the survey becomes a plebiscite on rival intellectual traditions, and either loses credence in the field at large or becomes a treasured radical object at the expense of a wider impact. There is a risk of conflating departments friendly to feminism with those friendly to women. Both are important, but as Rebecca Kukla put it in relation to philosophy, “hospitality to feminist work is conducive to, but not sufficient for, hospitality to women”. Measuring hospitality in terms of module content and provision is an obvious step (see also ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’), although also likely to prove controversial in some quarters.

A predictable objection to surveys of this kind is that they threaten to extend the disciplining of intellectual life according to metrics and league tables; that, for all the good intent, measuring the climate for women may become another tool in the arsenal of neoliberal management. On this view, the proper criteria for intellectual climate is intellectual excellence alone. While such objections are properly a matter for debate (and can partly be undone by showing the link between climate and content), a discipline-wide survey almost by definition depends on assent from colleagues who may be skeptical about the existence (or relevance) of systematic inequalities in the first place.

Second, there are questions of scope. Any guide would also have to answer questions arising from an intersectional feminist perspective, and to deal seriously with more than gender inequalities. And yet the very marginalisation of some groups can weaken the reliability of surveys, as the authors of The Pluralist’s Guide found in seeking to measure exclusion by race and sexuality. A multi-faceted guide is obviously preferable, but also enlarges the task.

Third, there are issues of method. Like any social scientific enterprise, a survey instrument would have to establish itself as representative, and explain its baselines and comparisons. To the extent that a guide would seek acceptance of its data from the field at large, it may be forced to make compromises on what counts as ‘sexism’ in the first place. A guide would have to make judgements on how to balance ‘objective’ characteristics, such as the number of full faculty who were female, with more varied or ‘subjective’ judgements which address the more ineffable mood of a place. Survey data stirs worries about comparison. To take an obvious example, departments that attract more feminist students might suffer in such an exercise precisely because the students were highly attuned to issues of discrimination.

Finally, any IR and politics guide along these lines would need profile. The impact of disciplinary initiatives is plausibly linked to the professional status of those associated with it. This seems to have been the case with work on gender bias in publications, which garnered attention precisely because it came out in International Organization (much less has been said about related surveys of gender in the field). A comprehensive survey in IR would need not insubstantial resources and a degree of name recognition to serve as a guide to the uninitiated (the initiated already know and act on departmental reputation).

For all this, our institutions may yet be rendered more accountable through something like this model. To do so, it might follow as an outline Rebecca Kukla’s suggestion of features that would make a discipline truly hospitable to women:

  1. There are a sizable number of leaders and up-and-coming stars in the field who are women, regardless of whether they take up feminist issues
  2. It has a culture of taking women seriously, treating them respectfully, and including them in social networks and professional opportunities
  3. There is a thriving community of feminist scholars who have the means to network with one another and exchange ideas and support
  4. Feminist insights and approaches are not relegated to a ghetto but incorporated, as appropriate, into the mainstream – anyone can draw upon feminist insights and approaches without having to join a dedicated ‘feminist scholar of x camp’, and these insights and approaches are recognized as (sometimes) helpful and philosophically legitimate
  5. The subdiscipline as a whole does not presume that all of its female members do feminist philosophy
  6. The women in the field who do feminist work and those who do not are friendly towards and in solidarity with one another

[1] Whitley and Page are also founding members of The 1752 Group, which grew out of experiences with sexual harassment at Goldsmiths and is so named because £1,752 was the total allotted by the university for a conference on addressing sexism.

3 thoughts on “What We Talked About at ISA: The Climate for Women in International Relations and Politics

  1. Pingback: Για τη γυναίκα – womanradioshow

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