Making Waves or Drowned Out? The impact of women in/on political science.

Making Waves or Drowned Out? The impact of women in/on political science.

Fiona Mackay

While there has been a steady and long-term increase in numbers, political science in the UK remains a relatively inhospitable discipline for female academics. Unlike more ‘feminised’ disciplines, such as sociology, women comprise only around a third of political scientists. Only 14% of female political science academics are full professors, compared with 24% of male academics (Bates 2019, forthcoming).  Only three BAME female political scientists are full professors (Runnymede Trust 2017). Gendered stereotypes about the scope and subject of political enquiry have been challenged, but surveys of the profession suggest that feminist approaches continue to be marginalised in research and teaching (Evans and Amery 2016).  So, are women in political science making waves – or being drowned out?  I reflect upon the distance travelled by women (including feminists) in the discipline, the strategies employed, and their impact on the field, sometimes against the odds. My argument is that female political scientists, including feminists have made inroads into the profession and the discipline but that change has been slow, the context difficult, and gains unlikely to stick without constant vigilance.

Female presence: trends over time
Numbers aren’t everything but counting matters, and what is counted matters. Numbers of female and male political scientists are not routinely gathered, and our knowledge of longitudinal trends relies on the work of individual academics.  Intersectional data are patchy, which arguably tells us something about the importance ascribed to it, but what evidence we do have suggests that women and men from non-traditional backgrounds, women and men of colour, and particularly women of colour face very challenging barriers. Stephen Bates latest study (2018 forthcoming) charts the slow progress of female academics in political science as a proportion of the profession from 10% in 1978; to around 19% (when I got my first temporary position in 1996); rising to about 36 per cent in 2018.  Some 60% of female academics are concentrated in un-promoted lectureships and (temporary) teaching and research fellowships, compared with 48% of male academics. The data also show that, as elsewhere,  women take on service roles, including substantial leadership positions such as head of department or curriculum lead when they are more junior than their male counterparts. Men are much more likely to have been promoted to Full-professor before assuming such responsibilities. There are also well-documented gender gaps and gender biases across multiple dimensions of academic practice, including citations, recognition of co-authors, journal acceptance rates, promotion, and student teaching assessments  (Aitchison 2018).

Why is Political Science inhospitable to Women?
Politics is an inhospitable profession, and political science is an inhospitable discipline. In large part this is because, as traditionally defined, politics is bounded by the classic Western public/private divide, with women relegated to the private sphere and ‘low politics’, whilst men are associated with the public sphere and ‘high politics’, and the latter is still the central focus of political science inquiry. Male dominance was assumed without critical examination, as was the acceptance of masculinity as ideal political behaviour . For example, when pioneers like Joni Lovenduski and Anne Phillips began their academic careers – the idea that the chronic minority status of women in formal politics was a serious problem for democracy – or an issue worthy of academic investigation — met with indifference at best, incredulity and hostility at worst.  

Although women are a minority presence in political science, from this relatively weak position they have challenged both the dominance of men in the profession, and the masculinist, heteronormative and ethnocentric assumptions underpinning the discipline. Feminist academics have insisted that gender is central to political processes and institutions, posing a fundamental challenge to conventional understandings of political life, and linking public and private and formal and informal spheres. In so doing they have broadened and deepened what politics is, who does politics, and who studies politics. They’ve exposed the gender biases in orthodox accounts of politics and have demonstrated how using a gender lens makes for better political science (Kenny and Mackay 2018). At the same time, gender politics scholarship faces criticisms from a feminist perspective – that it is not ‘bold’ enough, and that it has not pursued ‘the feminist analysis of politics – and the politics of gender- to its most radical conclusions’ (Randall 2010: 133). Indeed, feminist political science has ‘never abandoned its interest in either the political’, as conventionally defined, or in orthodox methods. And, despite some exemplary examples such as Norris and Lovenduski’s  [1] now-classic study of gender, race and class in the House of Commons, intersectional politicaI science has barely emerged.

The pioneers and the generations afterwards
I want to pay tribute to pioneers like Joni Lovenduski, Judith Evans, Vicky Randall, Elizabeth Meehan and Pippa Norris who took on the academy in the 70s and 80s with a dual strategy to engender the curriculum and build feminist institutional spaces within the discipline. An apt example is the Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics group, which has for thirty years operated to develop politics and gender as a sub-field and to act as a caucus for women in the profession, calling out everyday sexism and institutionalised discrimination. These women also took leadership roles in the discipline – on the executive committee, and in exercises that benchmarked the profession. Many also took on leadership roles in their institutions.  They mentored, encouraged, supported, sponsored and wrote endless references for the generations that came after.

I’m part of the next generation and sometimes wonder what this first generation thinks of us – our job was to institutionalise the advances made, but at a time of palpable intensification of work, and the quickening pace of neoliberalising reforms around audit, performance management, marketisation and so on.  These trends have offered both opportunities and pitfalls. There have been opportunities, for example, to instrumentalise equality and diversity as efficiency, and to make market-based arguments for specialist gender appointments and the expansion of the curriculum. But with such strategies comes the risk of co-option and dilution, of becoming what Nancy Fraser  has called  ‘handmaidens of neoliberalism’ (Fraser 2013).The dilemma then for feminists in the academy is whether or not to participate in this era of leaderism and managerialism, of marketization, consumerism and audit. Should feminists aspire to take on positions of authority and risk becoming governance feminists? Indeed much feminist literature on the academy focuses on everyday academic life and presumes an outsider status/positioning. Prescriptions for action tend to be individualized as micro resistances. I think the question is an important one and the potential pitfalls serious, but it needs to be considered along with its corollary: Is it better then to leave it to non-feminists to steer, shape and exert power in the Academy? Is it enough to rely only on strategies of resistance or critique from the margins. My argument is that multiple strategies are required, including insider strategies – whilst being mindful of the potential for co-option. The entry of women and the growth of feminist scholarship ARE related (not all women do feminism , not all feminism is done by women) but  academic feminism provides symbolic and substantive resources – indeed a study by Deem and Ozga  (now 20 years old) of women managers, showed the importance of the presence of academic feminism as a resource, enabling critical readings of both traditional and neo liberal versions of knowledge claims around academic excellence, success,  and so on in the ‘neo-liberal’ Academy (Deem and Ozga 2000).

The ‘long march through the institutions’ continues: female academics, and feminist academics in particular, have worked through professional organisations such as Political Studies Association and British International Studies Association, and through their own institutions and networks. Externally, they have challenged discriminatory structures and practices in the discipline and staked a claim for equal status. Within their own institutions, they have pressed to make recruitment and promotions processes fairer and more transparent, and to diversify the curriculum, challenge prevailing models of academic excellence in the traditional and the neo-liberal academy. Being a female political scientist, particularly if you are a white woman, is much easier now than it was for the first generation of pioneering women. Women in political science are ‘making waves’ AND are in ever-present danger of being ‘drowned out’. To be sure, advances have been made but there is a need for continued vigilance, sustained presence, and for the use of multiple strategies.

Atchison, Amy L. (2018) Towards the Good Profession: Improving the Status of Women in Political Science. European Journal of Politics and Gender 1(1): 279–98.
Bates, Stephen (forthcoming) ‘Women in the Profession: An Update on the Gendered Composition of the Discipline and Political Science Departments in the UK’, Special Issue on Women in Political Science, Political Studies Review .
Kenny, Meryl and Fiona Mackay (2018) ‘Feminism and Gendered Approaches’, in Vivien Lowndes et al (eds) Theory and Methods in Political Science. Palgrave.
Fraser, Nancy ( 2013) Fortunes of Feminism:From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis.  New York: Verso Books.

[1] P.Norris and J. Lovenduski (1995) Political Recruitment: Gender, Race and Class.  Cambridge University Press


Fiona Mackay is Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh and director of genderED. She was recently Dean and Head of the School of Social and Political Science (one of the largest in the UK). Her research interests focus on the intersection between gender and politics, and constitutional and institutional change.  She founded and co-directs the Feminism and Institutionalism International Network (FIIN). Fiona is the author/editor of five books, three special issues/symposia, and more than 50 articles and chapters. Her research has been funded by bodies including UK Economic and Social Research Council, Leverhulme, UKIERI, and British Academy. In 2019, she is recipient of the European Conference on Politics and Gender Career Achievement Award.