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Diversity in Political Science

August 29, 2014

WASHINGTON – Imagine there’s one political science faculty slot to fill, and two equally qualified candidates emerge from the pack. One applicant is a woman, and there are few women serving in the department. Her area of expertise, however -- Europe -- is already well-represented among current professors, and they’re hoping to “fill out the map.” The other candidate is a white male – a demographic well-represented in the department -- but his area of expertise, Africa, is something the department is hungry for.

What does the search committee do?

“The answer is that you go to your dean and ask for two slots,” said Jennifer Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government at Harvard University and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard -- acknowledging that the response in most cases will be “No.”

Beyond that, she said, there are no easy answers: Hochschild walked the room here through a variety of what she called “problematic” solutions to the faculty question; hiring the woman in the hope that she’ll mentor female undergraduates, or represent “family” concerns at faculty meetings, puts unfair expectations on her. But not hiring her could be worse -- even if the department ends up with a more global orientation.

Hochshild posed her not-so-hypothetical dilemma (she said her department has faced such choices) to a group of political scientists here Thursday during a session on “Equality in the Academy,” at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. While speakers in the discussion all agreed that the discipline needs to become more diverse, they noted challenges -- such as the one in Hothschild’s dilemma -- to getting there.

Another challenge the discipline faces is a dearth of accurate internal data as to just how bad its diversity problem is, said Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, also at Harvard. Mansbridge, an association past president, is embarking on a project in which the association will gather its own data on women and underrepresented minorities in the discipline, such as how they fare in the academic “pipeline" -- earning political science bachelor’s degrees, doctorates, placement at Ph.D.-granting institutions and tenure (for those who become professors). The association also wants to know about authorship and citations in journals, and other data, about these groups, in part to establish a baseline to measure progress.

But gathering that data is difficult, starting with how to ask for it; a significant portion of the meeting was dedicated to discussion of how to define underrepresented groups, and which universities to ask for data. Mansbridge is beginning her project for the association with elite institutions, but many in the audience said a “broader” take is needed to get clearer picture of  diversity in the profession.

Other speakers pointed out other challenges. Several association presidents, past and present, agreed that diversity was a key issue, but said that terms of just one year leading the association didn’t allow time to develop diversity initiatives; other said the recent Congressional action to exclude political science from National Science Foundation funding impacted funding for its Ralph Bunche Institute for diverse young scholars. Dianne M. Pinderhughes, President's Distinguished Professor and professor of Africana studies and political science at the University of Notre Dame, and a past president of the association – its first black female president – said one of her challenges was prioritizing and enacting the nonbinding recommendations made in a 2011 association report on diversity in the discipline.

That report, called "Political Science in the 21st Century," said that the discipline lacks scholars “with backgrounds from the full range of positionalities, including race, class, gender and sexual orientation that are most often marginalized in societies.” It also said that issues related to race, gender and inequality were underrepresented in flagship discipline journals.

Among other recommendations, the paper said that departments should expand graduate training to include more emphasis on race and ethnicity, be more inclusive in terms of the kinds of journals they value in personnel decisions, and push graduate students to pursue a fuller range of interests.

Pinderhughes that even when the association takes a lead on diversity issues, it’s hard to get autonomous departments to act on their recommendations. She said social media posed new possibilities for outreach and diversity promotion.

Rodney E. Hero, incoming president of the association and professor political science and Haas Chair in Diversity and Democracy at the University of California at Berkeley, acknowledged those challenges but said there’s still lots of room for internal reform. For example, he said, past winners of association honors and even current members of the association’s “sections” for specific interest areas are overwhelmingly white men.

“These outcomes – fairly or not – do not look like the society we live in,” Hero said, noting that while there’s a broad “appreciation” for diversity, that sentiment may not be reflected in the kinds of “zero-sum” decisions that are needed to advance it. (He noted that there’s a funny phenomenon about “two” when it comes to diversity quotas, in that it implicitly becomes “enough” as applied to underrepresented groups. “Oftentimes the minimum is considered to be the maximum,” he said. )

Echoing the findings of the 2011 report, Hero said that some political scientists ignore the racial and gender issues inherent in their work, and said that class issues also should be included in discussions of diversity.

Matthew Holden, Wepner Distinguished Professor in Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and past president of the association, applauded Hero’s comments -- with one major caveat. Holden said he did not believe “on the whole there is a broad acceptance of the concept of equality.” He continued: “I don’t believe it’s true, or ever will be true.”

As evidence, Holden said that time and again, when he looks up a fellow political scientist on a department web page, that person is a white man. Departments haven’t begun to reflect society at large, he said, showing that, “Things happen if somebody of some consequence at the moment wants to do something little about it.”

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