Addressing the Syllabus Gap

Changing up your syllabus to impact citations of women in political science.

October 17, 2013


I did not attend the meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) this year, but even from my home, I found it impossible to ignore the current debate about women in the profession of political science.


These discussions have particular resonance for me, not just because I am a woman in the profession entering my first full-time academic position, but also because I am a woman teaching political science at a women’s college. This fall, I am teaching international relations to 50 young women, many of whom are learning political science for the first time. In the wake of new research showing that women’s work is less cited and pieces addressing the disadvantages women face in networking, what do I tell these aspiring political scientists about their place in the profession?


After a summary of new citation-gap research appeared in Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, I saw a lot of hostile commentary from readers. Many decried the idea of having to meet citation quotas or sarcastically proffered the suggestion of citing women more or less at random, with no regard for cite-worthiness. For me, these comments border on reductio ad absurdum. Closer to a solution, I think, is a suggestion touched upon by Dan Nexon and Kelly Kadera in their recent works. At the root of the citation gap, I believe there is a syllabus gap.


For example, it struck me a few weeks ago that the syllabus for my undergraduate course Introduction to International Politics included remarkably few women writers, especially for a course at a women’s college. The textbook previously in use—Henry Nau’s Perspectives on International Relations—does introduce feminism and discusses gender issues and our reader—International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, edited by Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis—includes several pieces by women, but none of those readings were currently in use in the course. Do I believe this was a malicious omission? Certainly not, but I do believe that we as academics tend to assign what we know. Reflecting on my own education, I was surprised to realize how many of the female political scientists whose work that I know I read in my spare time or in preparing for my own research, and not off of a syllabus. The works of J. Ann Tickner never appeared on any syllabus I had—graduate or undergraduate—nor did the works of Linda Camp Keith, Carol Cohn, Antonia Handler Chayes, Cynthia Enloe, Christine Sylvester, or a host of other names now familiar to me. Other recent works by female political scientists like Meredith Reid Sarkees, Mia Bloom, and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell appeared only on syllabi in courses that were taught by women.


I decided to revisit the reader from my undergraduate political theory course, which included not one single female author—no Mary Wollstonecraft, no Hannah Arendt. On works about women, John Stuart Mill was included, but excerpts from “The Subjection of Women” were not. As an undergraduate using this text, it’s a wonder I didn’t come away thinking that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the only political theorists who had ever even discussed women. And, if I had to seek out so many of these works for myself or rely on female mentors to bring them to my attention, I wonder how many students of political science never read these works and, in turn, never cite them in their own research.


I believe the solution is to break the cycle by changing the syllabus. In fact, the inclusion of “cite-worthy” women authors on a syllabus should be easy, especially in those areas of political science where women publish more: human rights, international law, environmental politics, and in work with a constructivist or feminist focus. The challenge is motivating current political science instructors to go beyond assigning what they already know. In my case, because I had read so many works of female political scientists on my own or at the encouragement of female mentors, it was easy to change up the syllabi I inherited. Perhaps the readings I added will become permanent additions, but for other instructors, it may involve some work. Coercing instructors to add women to the syllabus is neither possible nor practical, just as it would be impossible or impractical to make authors meet citation quotas. However, if our undergraduate and graduate students (male and female) fail to complete their education with a knowledge of current or even the most influential works by female political scientists, we cannot claim our job as teachers of political science is done.

Sweet Briar, Virginia in the U.S.

Alexis Leanna Henshaw is Visiting Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, VA. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and a graduate certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Arizona.


1.On the citation gap, see Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers, and Barbara F. Walter, “The Gender Citation Gap in International Relations,” International Organization (Fall 2013, Forthcoming). http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0020818313000209; Kelly M. Kadera, “The Social Underpinnings of Women’s Worth in the Study of World Politics: Culture, Leader Emergence, and Co-Authorship,” International Studies Perspectives (2013, Forthcoming). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/insp.12028/full; Daniel Nexon, “The Citation Gap: Results of a Self-Experiment,” The Duck of Minerva (Aug. 16, 2013). http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2013/08/the-citation-gap-results-of-a-self-experiment.html. On networking see, e.g., Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, “Part II: The Glass Half Empty: Gendered Problems in Academic Networking,” The Duck of Minerva (Aug. 27, 2013). http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2013/08/part-ii-the-glass-half-full-gendered-progress-in-academic-networking.html (Part II) and http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2013/08/the-glass-half-empty-gendered-problems-in-academic-networking.html (Part I); Erik Voeten, “Sex and Networking at Academic Conferences,” The Monkey Cage (Aug. 16, 2013). http://themonkeycage.org/2013/08/16/sex-and-networking-at-academic-conferences/; Laura Sjoberg, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” The Duck of Minerva (Aug. 15, 2013). http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2013/08/lets-talk-about-sex.html.

2.Scott Jaschik, “If Men Do It…” Inside Higher Ed. (Aug. 30, 2013). https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/30/political-scientists-debate-whether-women-field-should-mimic-or-change-men; Beth McMurtrie, “Political Science Is Rife With Gender Bias, Scholars Find,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug. 30, 2013). http://chronicle.com/article/Political-Science-Is-Rife-With/141319/

3.Kadera (2013); Nexon (2013).

4.Kadera (2013).



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