Lamenting the marginalization of an increasingly cloistered academic elite has once again become de rigueur among the chattering classes. Under the tagline “Smart Minds, Small Impact” Nicholas Kristof recently fired off yet another salvo in the charged debate over the role of the professoriate, lamenting that “my onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.” John Maynard Keynes likewise dismissed them as “mad scribblers,” but American scholars of political science and international relations—more so than their counterparts in other countries—are in a comparatively advantageous position to have their ideas fed into the public discourse.
A far more pertinent issue raised by Kristof’s piece is buried in his subsequent blog post: “When I was a kid, the Kennedy Administration had its “brain trust” of Harvard faculty members, and university professors were often vital public intellectuals who served off and on in government.” It bespeaks a nostalgic, if unwitting, yearning for the halcyon days when a coterie of sagacious men brought their talents to bear on considerable foreign policy problems. This “Wise Men” syndrome perpetuates outdated notions of what it means to be a “great thinker” in this field. The real problem with political science academe today isn’t that the professoriate’s leading lights and prominent graduates are incapable of disseminating impactful ideas. The pages of Foreign Affairs are littered with pontifications by top-notch scholars such as Robert Jervis, John Ruggie, and Vali Nasr, who moonlight as governmental consultants, as well as by respected academics such as Stephen Krasner, Francis Fukuyama, and Joseph Nye, who have all experienced stints in public service. The problem, rather, is that still so few of them are women.
A glance across the contemporary marketplace of foreign policy ideas, from peer-reviewed articles to monographs, from graduate school syllabi to the glossy pages of Foreign Policy, reveals a field in which women remain few and far between. Even fewer of these women, if any at all, have been admitted to the pantheon of “great thinkers”—that class of writer whose work is the focus of worldwide attention and debate. Greatness, then, requires not just the articulation of thought-provoking ideas in an original fashion, but also the visibility to make them broadly known. George Kennan, after all, may never have been canonized as the patron saint of containment had Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the longtime editor of Foreign Affairs, not encouraged him to publish his anonymous article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
Upon the death of the political scientist Kenneth Waltz last year, the New York Times described him as “one of five giants who shaped the study of international relations as a discrete discipline, the others being Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski.” This all-male cadre may not be terribly surprising given the field’s post-war origins. However, fast-forward to 2011, when a Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) survey revealed an absence of females among the top-five peer-ranked candidates possessing “influence in the field of international relations” and “influence on U.S. foreign policy.” Of Foreign Policy’s recently released Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013, approximately forty percent are female. Such results appear promising if you include categories like artists and healers, but if one limits the focus to the “top 100 public intellectuals” women have comprised only 8–12 percent of the total in two previous such polls over the past decade. Only one woman, Samantha Power, has ever won the Council on Foreign Relation’s Gold Medal Book Prize as a solo female author. Female thinkers, in other words, remain far less likely to be considered influential game-changers by their mostly male peers.
According to the American Political Science Association (APSA), in 2010 just 19 percent of women held full professorships in political science, with the UK lagging even further behind at a dismal 15 percent. These numbers were even lower in the sub-field of international relations. With Anne-Marie Slaughter at the helm of the New America Foundation, only two women—Condoleezza Rice and Susan Shirk—remain out of the twenty-plus “star professors” listed in Foreign Policy’s 2012 top-ranked U.S. Ph.D. programs in political science. Even when adjusting for women’s minority status, a 2007 study of the “Political Science 400” (the top thinkers in the field by cumulative citation counts) revealed that women’s share in the top rankings measured against their total representation peaked in the early 1970s and has trended downward ever since.
Newer research findings over the past year suggest that these barricades are unlikely to tumble any time soon. Barbara Walter and colleagues at the College of William and Mary investigated the yawning stardom gap and this past summer published a study on citation rates in international relations. Citation counts are considered a key measure of the impact of any given piece of research and a kind of academic accounting by which individuals are recognized as exemplars of their field. Walter found that women were not just generally cited less often than their male colleagues, but also that the seminal researchers in the field were citing them less often.
This gulf existed even after controlling for a host of variables including men’s greater propensity to self-cite, differing research areas, methods and rates of tenure between the sexes, and women’s greater tendency to co-author—the last of which was found to have a significant and positive effect on citation counts, but only if the co-author was male. Critics have pointed out that women’s relatively higher co-authorship rates dispel the notion of an “all-boys club” in international relations. However, if women’s solo work isn’t valued to the same degree as men’s, the drive for co-authorship might instead be symptomatic of a persistent, if subtle, bias rather than a welcome sign of its obsolescence. Take the example of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. As a top 25-ranked scholar in political science, he and his male colleague published a game-theoretic paper on military capabilities and escalation in a prestigious political science journal that was cited more than 100 times. When Christina Molinari found an error in their equilibrium that disproved their hypothesis, her paper received three citations. As a result of these residual biases, Walter and colleagues concluded that the citation gap was unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.
The obvious response is to encourage more women to fill out the scholarly ranks and thereby get themselves into a position to cite one another (and to self-cite more frequently to boot). And yet the most popular reasons supplied by academic conclaves and punditry alike as to why more women aren’t at the top of the field suggest these traditional barriers only exacerbate what Walter discovered to be an already-persistent problem. Family obligations, for example, typically prevent women from being as productive as men. Article publishing remains the coin of the realm with respect to securing tenure at most Ph.D.-granting institutions in the social sciences. This publish-or-perish imperative coincides with the life period in which childcare obligations are at their most taxing. Small wonder that a 2013 APSA study found that up to a quarter of female academics admitted to delaying childbirth until they had secured tenure-track jobs, or that they did their best to hide their pregnancies from their interviewers while they were in the job market.
These findings coincide with the research of Mary Ann Mason, Dean of the Graduate Faculty at Berkeley. She and her team found that women continue to pay a significant “baby penalty” over the course of their academic careers—a penalty that, unsurprisingly, impinges upon their productivity. A 2011 study on faculty research productivity in political science found that men published articles at roughly double the rate of their female counterparts, even when controlling for age and faculty rank. It’s worth asking whether the discrepancy in prolificacy between men and women partially accounts for men’s greater visibility within their own networks and, by extension, their tendency to cite one another. If so, this would conform to what psychologists call the “availability bias”: a tendency of individuals to equate as important something that can easily be recalled or referenced.
Although the “Walter Gap” existed even after controlling for subject matter, women are marginal thinkers in the realm of international security and foreign policy; these domains par excellence in international relations scholarship remain the province of men. When the eminent British historian Linda Colley reflected on why she was one of the few women who made a list of top 100 British public intellectuals, Colley speculated that it was because she ventured into male intellectual terrain, namely, war, empire, and nationalism. A 2006 academic survey confirmed that the subject matter of women’s scholarship in international relations is indeed different from that of men’s, often placing women outside the mainstream of research: “Women are more likely to study transnational actors, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations, while men are more likely to study U.S. foreign policy and international security.” Men, according to conventional lines of reasoning, are predisposed to take a greater interest in competitive or aggressive state behavior, the study of which commands greater esteem in a mostly male academic environment. However, biologically determined (as opposed to social or cultural) arguments such as these sound like piffle in an era in which women are on their way to achieving equal status in the armed forces. Nor can they explain why contemporary female scholars specializing in international conflict, nuclear deterrence and “new wars,” such as Janice Gross Stein at the University of Toronto, Mary Kaldor at the London School of Economics and Joanne Gowa at Princeton University, remain relative unknowns, even to an educated public. Harvard professor Joseph Nye, after all, achieved international fame for the development of his concept of “soft power.”
This brings us to another oft-cited reason: women supposedly aren’t as confident when it comes to packaging and promoting their ideas. In what became known as the “bullshit factor” study, a group of researchers in 1997 tracked University of Oxford undergraduate students in their final year of schooling. They found it puzzling that men obtained a higher proportion of top grades than women across multiple departments, despite no measurable difference in intelligence between the two sexes. The authors concluded that “men may benefit from the bullshit factor, or a more confident style which produces answers which are deemed worthier…than the slightly more tentative, balanced answers produced by many women.” Such a study of schoolhouse scribbling might be easily dismissed. But Washington policymakers and the public alike are frequently compelled by concepts that convey breadth with stunning parsimony, such as the “rise of the rest,” the “balance of power,” or a “clash of civilizations.”
The findings of the Op-Ed Project, a social venture designed to track the ideas and individuals considered most influential in the world, echo the Oxford study. In the latest year for which the Op-Ed Project has been tracking data, the authors found a significant disparity between men and women in terms of who was considered an expert: “Beginning at the age of 19 men were at least 11% more likely to act as experts and the gender gap increased with age….In the 65+ age group, a woman is less likely to be cited as an expert in the media as a boy in the 13 to 18 age group.” Men might be natural bloviators, but the data confirm that women are far less likely to position themselves as intellectual leaders. The supposedly democratizing effects of new social media may actually be hindering rather than helping women in this regard. As Jill Lepore observes in “The New Economy of Letters,” an online culture that promotes strong opinions and even stronger personalities has “silenced the modest, the untenured, and the politically moderate.”
How we facilitate the intellectual contributions of women, and how we decide whom to canonize as a discipline’s intellectual leaders, matter more than a debate confined to some quota for women in academia. Studies like Barbara Walter’s offer some hope that the gendered practices of citation that work against women today might operate in their favor as more women climb the rungs of the academy. But other data—on the chronically leaky pipeline, the persistent if unintentional undervaluing of women’s contributions, and women’s own reticence—belie the notion that change is simply a matter of time. Outliers, as Malcolm Gladwell reminds us, are not actually outliers. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Unless we begin to self-consciously examine the processes by which we consecrate our public intellectuals, the question for young women today will not be whether they can or can’t have it all; rather, it will be whether society would value their contributions equally even if they could.