Gender and Diversity in the IR Curriculum: Why Should We Care?

A guest post from Dr. Joanne Yao and Andrew Delatolla. Joanne recently received her PhD from the LSE’s International Relations Department. Previously, she received her MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and her BA in History and Political Science from the University of Chicago. Her research critically assesses international cooperation and environmental politics through an analysis of the first international institutions established in the 19th century to manage transboundary rivers. She is particularly interested in international cooperation, environmental history and historical institutionalism. Andrew is a final year PhD student at the department of International Relations at the LSE. Andrew has received his MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London, a BA in Political Science from Concordia University, and a BFa in Drawing and Painting from OCAD University. His research is concerned with state formation and state building in the 19th and early 20th century with a focus on Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria. He is particularly interested in the sociological development of the state in the post-colonial regions and the Middle East regional state system.


Discussions of gender and diversity have become a hot topic by the proverbial IR water cooler, having increasingly gained attention at ISA through programs sponsored by the Women’s Caucus (WCIS) and the LGBTQA Caucus – amongst other groups and academics who have brought this topic to the table. However, such discussions are also prominent in scholarly inquiry, including Jeff Colgan’s work on course syllabi and Dawn Teele and Kathleen Thelen’s work. While most studies focus on the gender gap in PhD training or the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem – the problem that despite the gender balance at the graduate level, there are far fewer women in senior positions – we feel that the analysis should be expanded. Putting thought into action, we have embarked on a project of our own to examine not only gender but also diversity in IR pedagogy at the undergraduate, masters, and PhD. Unlike other studies of this type, we have sought to examine gender of authors (under the binary male/female assumption) but also diversity in terms of content. Although final results are forthcoming, our analysis has confirmed the 80-20 split between male and female authors across the IR curriculum as it exists at the London School of Economics and Political Science. With regards to diversity content, our preliminary results have shown that there is indeed a lack of diversity content overall, and especially with regards to content that discusses gender and race.

But why should anyone care? After all,  an 80-20 split with regards to gender reflects the gender gap of articles in top IR journals, while the lack of diversity content just means that there is ongoing research that needs to be done, and shouldn’t we have the ‘best’ quality material on our syllabi? Aside from the obvious circular logic surrounding what constitutes as ‘best’; the fact that the 80-20 split does not reflect the near 50-50 split in terms IR/Political Science PhD graduates; and there is no shortage of quality research that speaks to diversity content – we offer three arguments in favour of a more diverse IR curriculum:

1. The International We Purport to Study: The IR curriculum should be reflective of the object of our scholarly attention: the international (or the global if you prefer). We cannot be a truly international (or global) discipline if our scholarship sidelines and silences the diverse nature of the object of our study. Indeed, many of us found our disciplinary home here because of the breathtaking scope of IR’s empirical ambitions. Why should we deny this to our students?

This argument targets the very history of the social sciences and of IR as a discipline. The social sciences developed from a historical need to rationalise the world around us, to characterise and to categorise the natural world, human behaviour, and politics – taking with it the presumption that those with the notebook were far superior to those sitting around the fire. Indeed, this is reflected in the emergence of IR as a discipline in the study and specialisation of colonial administration, which can be crudely described as the legitimate and scientific study of pacification. There is something to be said about tradition, hegemony, and the production of particular forms of knowledge reflected in the course syllabi. In other words, it is time for academics to begin thinking about the kind of hegemony that is being recast through the syllabi. While the importance of this disciplinary history should be emphasised in the classroom through critical engagement, it is also necessary to allow diverse voices a podium to speak.

2. Students in a Global Classroom: In 2015, students at the LSE made a video asking: why is my curriculum white? It turns out they weren’t alone and demands to decolonize the curriculum have spread across the UK. Beyond the debate of which scholarly texts should remain in the classroom or on campus, members of faculty have a responsibility to understand that students do not walk into the classroom as tabula rasa but rather as political subjects. Indeed, they are already implicated in a network of power relations that frame their lived experiences—experiences that are not necessarily captured by the orthodoxy of the traditional IR syllabi and the great thinkers that comprise of the accepted canon.

That is not to say that the orthodoxy of the traditional IR canon and the great thinkers should be removed, they do have a place on the reading list and represent a tradition that speaks to the international. Rather, it asks what other traditions there are that can be mainstreamed into the canon, from historic female thinkers to prominent philosophers in the global south.

As educators, we have a duty to ensure that the curriculum truly reflects the international, and not simply the international which exists from the positionality of Western academia. Ultimately, this should encompass the reality of the lives of our students – to look at issues of class, race, and gender – and speak to their concerns as current and future political actors.

3. The World We Hope to Create: Almost all IR academics (at least anyone who has ever tried to publish an article) acknowledge that framing matters—how we introduce a subject has path-dependent effects that shape subsequent questions asked and intellectual directions taken. The same is true in the classroom; how topics are introduced and framed have lasting effects, not only for future academics in graduate PhD courses, but for future practitioners of international relations that sit in our introductory undergraduate and master’s courses. The connection between the classroom and the political is far from direct, linear or predictable, but are undeniably real (one, two, and three of many examples). Drawing from cognitive development and social psychology, these studies suggest that confronting different experiences and voices in (and outside) the classroom, particularly racial and cultural diversity, contributes to the development of more complex and critical modes of thinking and assists in identity construction. Some studies have demonstrated the link between diversity and critical thinking in university students through both self-reported assessments and data from U.S. Department of Education National Study of Student Learning longitudinal database. The ability to critically assess the world is now more important than ever given the fractious political climate and its anti-intellectual brand of populism. While these studies are not focused on the IR curriculum, given the diversity inherent in the discipline (see point 1), the IR classroom should be an ideal place for students to confront diversity.

In addition, a prevalent argument regarding gender and diversity points to how students who are not able to see themselves, their experiences, their voices, and indeed, their gender, reflected in the curricula are less likely to see the worth of the field that they are studying. Many students who study IR go on to become professionally involved in international politics and policy — and if only students who see themselves reflected in the curricula go on to do so, then the international policy world would be less diverse in worldview, less rich in ideas, and less innovative.

We need to be able to reclaim the classroom as a space, not for disseminating knowledge that students soak up like a sponge, but to provide tools to students to analyze and understand, and to move beyond the accepted knowledges and practices already established. This is an arduous task, with few beneficial returns, but the reality is that few of us have entered the profession for money or fame, and it may be time to roll up our sleeves and get to work in order to create an IR curriculum that reflects the diversity of the international as we currently see it and what we can only hope it will become.

It’s Time for a Change.

The most straightforward way to diversify the syllabi is for departments to implement benchmarking policies, or for departments to hire gender, postcolonial, or race specialists who can offer courses on their expertise. These are laudable first steps, but by setting benchmarks and hiring experts for the sole purpose of being more diverse, we risk of reinforcing the notion that gender and diversity are peripheral concerns to the core concerns of the discipline.

Attempts to create benchmarks or hire additional experts to satisfy a diversity quota reinforce the idea that a desirable ratio can be achieved. However, there is no magic ratio for gender or diversity in IR syllabi — just as there are no perfect syllabi for any subject. And abandoning the goal of improving the curriculum and the discipline’s pedagogical practices because a perfect ratio cannot be achieved is simply not a good argument. Rather, the crafting of more perfect syllabi has always been an evolving process, a trajectory reflective of the times and the intellectual and normative commitments of the scholars who teach them. It is therefore not about achieving the perfect ratio, but about including voices that are often forgotten or ignored in the traditional IR reading list.

In attempting to achieve a more perfect syllabus, we encourage academics to consider reaching out to colleagues who may have alternative perspectives and readings that could be included. This community practice would help start a conversation on the subject that exposes the variety of positions, voices, and experiences in any given area of IR. This would also mean that the syllabus is no longer an individuals’ reflection or intellectual possession but a collective project to increase our engagement with the diversity of scholarship that form our discipline and the multiplicity of voices that shape our world.

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