Feminist labour at the ISA: White manels, the politics of citation and mundane productions of disciplinary sexism and racism

This piece is co-authored by a Feminist IR collective (Linda Åhäll, Sam Cook, Roberta Guerrina, Toni Haastrup, Cristina Masters, Laura Mills, Saara Särmä and Katharine A. M. Wright).


At the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in San Francisco this April there were, as usual, many all-male panels. However, while they remain prevalent, the number appears to be decreasing at ISA at least. At the same time as ‘manels’ have been challenged both within the discipline and more broadly, attention has been given to the gender citation gap, whereby men benefit from ‘a significant and positive gender citation effect compared to their female colleagues’. International Relations is no exception here, women tend to cite themselves less than men, and men (already overrepresented in the discipline) are more likely to cite other men over women.

We were surprised then to find that a panel titled ‘Citation Is What We Make of It! Towards a Theory of Citation and the Implications of Citation Practice for IR Knowledge and Production’ at ISA featured not only no women on the panel, but, as it later transpired, no discussion of the gendered or racialized geographies of citations. Moreover, one of the panelists has published in International Organization on this very issue. As a result, the politics of citation practice was mysteriously absent. Laura Mills’ tweet questioning whether this was ‘some subversive performance art beyond [her] ken’ received significant attention. We attended the panel, some due to our interest in citations and others out of curiosity about subversiveness at ISA. Our presence as feminist scholars was noticeable, since we far outnumbered the four other audience members. From our perspective, the interactions around this panel were illustrative of the ways in which even those who on the surface appear to address such issues, can fall into a trap of talking past them. They can in fact reify a pernicious politics, which characterises IR as just the sum of its citations.

A Limited Vision of International Relations

The vision of IR the panel presented was both particular and exclusionary. It focused both on a narrow understanding of what IR is and of who is seen to ‘do’ IR. As Jess Gifkins has pointed out, IR more broadly is “‘cannibalistic’ (of other disciplines) and ‘slow’ (amongst other things)”. It creates ‘new turns’ without acknowledging that this knowledge has already been produced in cognate disciplines. These traits were exemplified in this space not only through the composition of the panel, but just as pertinently through the myth of IR they spoke to. An elitist IR where citation practices are the measure of contribution, and one whose contributions are siloed away from other relevant knowledge which might challenge them. Yet, the panel title and the questions posed in the call for papers for the panel suggested this could have provided an important space to address these issues.

The panel title – ‘Citation is what we make of it!’ – prompts consideration of what was being ‘made’ on a panel on citation practice and its implications for knowledge production in IR. How ironic that the panel not only failed to consider the politics of their own citation practices in the papers presented, but also failed to consider the very idea of IR produced as an effect of such utterances! Arguably an IR premised on exclusion, silencing and erasure when no mention of race or gender appeared in any of the presentations. Outside of our prompting during the Q&A, there was little to no reflection of why they began and ended their reflections on citation in IR where they did, why these might be the ‘most pertinent’ conversations, and what ‘vision’ of IR was being produced as an effect. Surely a panel title invoking critical reflection on citation would also prompt some kind of self-reflection. Therefore, the title also prompts consideration of what the implications of these practices are for what ‘counts’ as ‘legitimate’ ‘knowledge’. It points to the incessant gatekeeping of particular kinds of scholarship as ‘knowledge’. For who is this ‘we’ that has the privilege to ‘make’ of citation what it will?

All-male, all-white panels cannot be separated from the broader structural inequalities of our discipline which manifest themselves in particular and pernicious ways at ISA. Why? Because when women and people of colour are absent from the stage, their contributions are also made invisible. Manels reinforce the notion that white men are ‘experts’, marginalizing the authority and experience of others. The racism, sexism, and ableism embedded within IR as a discipline become all the more visible at this conference. This particular and exclusionary vision of what (and who) IR is communicated by the panel support, rather than challenge, these wider inequalities. As Marysia Zalewski writes in reference to all-male panels at the ISA in 2015: “Why is it that resistances to curtailing sexism, misogyny and racism remain so strong? Few in a field of study such as IR would simply say “no” to the call to curtail these violences. But many choose not to notice and not to think. Or to choose to be unthinking, even offended when such violences are pointed out. And in effect to not see the violence at all or acknowledge its viscous place in our power-drenched institutional structures.”

Indeed, the very use of the language of violence to describe manels could be met with further resistance. It would be all too easy to respond that to speak of violence as enacted in and through the ‘mundane’ site of the conference panel is to descend to hyperbole. But such sites – alongside those other everyday citational institutions (journals, curricula, peer review, conference panels and events) – are the spaces by which ‘legitimate’ ‘knowledge’ is determined. And also, actively policed. Riven with asymmetries and exclusions, such sites actively reproduce inequalities within the discipline. Their very everydayness makes their effects all the more insidious. An examination of manels therefore necessitates the language of violence. White manels enact an ongoing form of epistemic violence when who and what counts as IR doesn’t include women or people of colour. These obscure and reproduce their various embodied and real experiences of exclusion, erasure and marginalization in the discipline. With the panel theme recognizing and attempting to address citation in the context of meaning making in the discipline, this ISA manel therefore does particular violence.

One paper, for example, analysed articles with more than 100 citations and declared that this spoke to the empirical drive of the discipline as a whole. This statement was made without consideration for the particular kind of politics underpinning the normalisation of (particular) citations in framing what International Relations is, and what the discipline does. There was no consideration of the wider gender and racialized biases which underpin what is regarded as expertise and who can be considered an expert. ‘Women with their feminisms’, as the panellist put it, were given a passing mention in an attempt to address the ‘diversity of IR’.

The consequences of such exclusions are not benign, nor are they neutral. They have insidious effects that produce, reproduce and perpetuate particular power structures, privileging certain kinds of scholarship and certain kinds of scholars. One panellist touched upon the American-centrism in respect to the TRIP survey but this is about so much more. Other wider questions were left untouched. What about Western-centrism? What about race? What about gender? What about class? What about institutional privileging? What about journal privileging? What about the very notion that this is what is continually said ‘to be IR’ through curricula? This is not navel gazing, as the discussant on the panel may offer as a provocation. Such practices have real repercussions. The silencing, the erasure, the marginalization is violent because it reproduces and sustains masculinized privilege and domination, what bell hooks calls “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” And we are complicit in that violence if we do not address it.

All of this ‘data’ – citation network analysis, H-indexes, figures, numbers and metrics – poses the question we always pose to our students conducting research: so what? The panelists may have felt they were establishing how citations constitute IR, but this ‘data’ and its realities are highly political. This ‘data’ constructs particular realities while foreclosing others. The panelists set out to consider the implications of citation practice for IR knowledge production, but by failing to consider the politics of this, they failed on their own ontological, epistemological and methodological terms.

‘Not to make excuses but..’

Sam Cook has created bingo cards to capture some of the comments panelists on this manel and others have made in their defence.

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 13.14.29

These comments are another example of the double-burden of feminist scholarship: to engage not only in extra intellectual labour but also intense emotional labour. To have to defend your presence in the audience of a panel is draining. To have to defend your own disciplinary contributions and justify your existence as an IR scholar makes this deeply personal. It was accorded as ‘our’ responsibility to point out this manel, to show up, to call them out, the panelist stated. We should not expect or even demand them to do better – to do so made us the ones making an imposition – not them and their all-male, all-white ISA panel (as they self-identified in a subsequent tweet, copied below). They clearly forgot that it’s our conference too.

According to their logic, it was our responsibility as feminist scholars to find ‘solutions to manels’. Sara Ahmed’s words that ‘when you expose a problem you pose a problem’ rang true in our ears. As Ahmed elaborates more specifically, we can then see how ‘citations [can be understood] as academic bricks through which we create houses. When citational practices become habits, bricks form walls. I think as feminists we can hope to create a crisis around citation, even just a hesitation, a wondering, that might help us not to follow the well-trodden citational paths. If you aim to create a crisis in citation, you tend to become the cause of a crisis’. For some on the panel, we were the problem here, not their manel.

‘We had one woman’ was one response to our interventions by one of the panelists. He went on – ‘It was not our fault. She dropped out. ISA replaced her with a man. What could we do? And if we had her here, would it have made any difference?’ He was correct; tokenism is not a substitute for a representative panel. A token woman is never enough. She cannot be expected to challenge embedded gender dynamics of a predominately male panel on her own. We know, for example, that women spend on average about 20% less time talking on panels than their male counterparts. And the problem of all-male panels goes beyond just representation. Research has demonstrated that in conference sessions dominated by men as presenters, the atmosphere is likely ‘to be more aggressive with more arguments and interruptions’. In contrast, on panels which reached a gender-balance, questions are likely to be ‘more constructive and often complimentary’. Gender balanced panels are not just the right thing to do; they’re the smart thing to do.

Moreover, a token woman included in a panel proposal does not ensure women’s representation in the final panel. We know that the structural barriers to women’s participation at conferences mean that they are more likely to drop out of such commitments. Women disproportionately carry caring responsibilities making their conference participation more precarious. They are also overrepresented in precarious positions in the academy, making participation dependent on funding often more difficult. So no, one woman is not enough. A gender-balanced panel is the minimum.

In addition to the important question of representation, there are also questions concerning awareness of and sensitivity to the ‘makeup’ of our disciplinary spaces. When asked if they had even thought of the gender/racial makeup of the panel, the answer from all the panelists was ‘no’. And it is this – the willful ignorance – that is ever  indicative of the privilege occupying the room. Ask a woman, a person of colour, a queer person if they are ever blissfully ‘unaware’ of the gendered, raced, sexed anatomies of a conference panel (or any space for that matter) and the answer will likely be quite the opposite.

But it didn’t end there; a panelist said he wanted to ‘turn it back on you [the feminists], asking if it wasn’t a manel, would you have bothered to show up?’ The implicit assumption was that feminist IR scholars don’t care about citations. It is also worth noting at this point that one of the things that alerted some of our group to this panel was their own positions as editors for leading IR journals who are acutely aware of the implications of gendered and racialized citational practices. Indeed, a number of such journals have policies to address citation issues, for example, International Studies Quarterly asks authors to consider proactively whom they have and have not cited.

Cries that ‘It’s not our fault’ presume that the men participating in a manel have no agency. At any stage they could have refused to participate. There is a ‘manel pledge’ they could have signed. When it was called out on Twitter, they could have rethought in creative ways the ways in which they were situating knowledge. They could have scrapped the format, centred their discussion on gender, race and citational practices and actually engaged in the ‘self-reflexive’ mode they claimed to be speaking to in their papers.

The assumption that it is up to ‘us’ feminist scholars to show up, to call them out, to do this labour, implies we had nowhere better to be. It further devalues feminist scholarship. We all had other panels to be at, to listen to, and we had to give that intellectual engagement up to call them out. There were more than enough Feminist Theory and Gender Studies panels, and that excludes the other feminist papers and gender scholarship presented on ‘mainstream panels’. We had places to be. And for those of us who were interested in citation practices, the lack of reflection on the politics of citations meant a panel was wasted. Showing up came at a cost to us in terms of our wider conference engagement.

How Not to Have an All-Male Panel

In response to the Twitter furor and to his credit, Ryan Powers, one of the panel members, did reflect on the reasons why this manel had taken shape. As he states, it is ‘a manifestation of what you get when white men organize a panel by drawing on their white male professional networks.’

So if we know this, why is IR as a discipline not doing better? Why are all-male panels still a significant (if decreasing) feature of ISA? Why, if the panel knew this, did another panelist tell us we would not have come if it was not an all-male panel? This comment reinforces a notion that we were out of place at a conference we were contributing to and in a panel discussing the very notion of ‘what’ is, and how we ‘do’, IR. We are IR scholars too. Why shouldn’t we be part of this?

As all-male panels become unpalatable more widely, feminist scholars are increasingly asked for advice on how to ‘prevent them’. The first tip seems self-evident and is to invite women, but Foreign Policy has a great list of tips on how to ensure you don’t end up with a manel. We would recommend checking it out. You can also check out the Women Also Know Stuff and People of Color Also Know Stuff to identify women scholars with expertise in the area you need. For further reading, the International Feminist Journal of Politics has also dedicated a Conversations section to manels, you can check out the papers (here, here and here). The British International Studies Association (BISA) have clearly been taking note. To their credit (and according to our highly unscientific calculations) the 2018 BISA annual conference featured no manels. Both BISA and the BISA programme chair, Kyle Grayson, deserve credit for taking their role seriously to ensure gender representation and to push back against a discipline that all too easily becomes an exclusionary one.

An inclusive vision of IR can also help address the concern of one of the manel participants who commented that ‘IR was boring’. The conception of IR they presented certainly is boring, albeit far from benign. An easy solution would be for them to engage with feminist IR. In fact, we would welcome them to attend any one of ‘our’ panels at next year’s ISA. Yet the reality is many simply disengage when feminism, gender, race, sexuality, inclusion are raised. Critical feminist and post/decolonial IR scholarship engaging in this work remains siloed, as merely, to recall, ‘women with their feminisms’.

We showed up. We engaged. We explained. We were met with hostility by some panelists. We clarified. We walked out. And we reflected. This is about more than the optics of a white, male panel, it is about the politics of it. It is actually about more than all-male panels. It is part of a broader conversation on decolonizing the curriculum. It is about addressing the hostile environment academia represents for many of us, highlighted in the stories told at the inaugural ISA pressing politics panel on #metoo. It is about reclaiming our discipline. When will ISA catch-up?

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