Syllabus Gender Gap

Study of courses for Ph.D. students in international relations finds that female professors are more likely to include female authors.

August 31, 2015

Are women more likely than men to include works by women on a syllabus? A new study of international relations courses for Ph.D. students finds that they are.

Jeff Colgan, the Richard Holbrooke Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University, analyzed 73 syllabi of international relations courses for doctoral students at American universities. Women taught 35 of the courses, and the syllabus selections of men and women together reached 4,148 required readings (which could be an article, a book or a book excerpt).

International relations is a field that has long been dominated by male professors, and readings by male authors (either individually or in teams of men) make up a majority of the readings, regardless of who prepares the syllabus. But there is a statistically significant difference in those prepared by men and women.

In courses taught by men, 79.1 percent of readings were by men, either individually or as part of a group of men. The rest were by women, groups of women, or groups of men and women. In courses taught by women, only 71.5 percent of readings were by all-male authors.

Framing the comparison, Colgan writes that “female instructors assign 36 percent more readings by women (including coed teams) than male instructors do, or about 5 readings per course.”

Colgan described his findings in a post on the political science blog The Duck of Minerva. A full analysis is forthcoming in the journal International Studies Quarterly.

The gender gap in readings would have been larger but for another finding: men are more likely than women to assign readings of which they are the authors.

Female faculty members in the study assigned an average of 1.68 readings of which they were authors or co-authors. Male faculty members assigned roughly twice that number, or an average of 3.18 readings of which they were the author or co-author. (This finding may be consistent with research presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association indicating that, across disciplines, male scholars are more likely than female scholars to cite their own work in papers.)

In his description of his findings, Colgan acknowledges that “correlation is not causation” and that there may be factors beyond gender at play. For example, female faculty members may be, on average, younger than male faculty members, and their choices could be related in part to their generational perspective.

But he also cites American Political Science Association data that women are 42 percent of graduate students in the discipline, and only 24 percent of full-time professors.

In this environment, he writes, faculty members who want to see the field diversify should think about it if they plan a syllabus with relatively few female authors.

“Is this type of analysis a case of political correctness gone mad? Some would argue that instructors should just assign the best readings,” Colgan writes. “I agree with that. But ‘best’ is partly subjective, and gender affects such judgments. My own experience is that revising my syllabus with gender in mind was not only feasible, it made it better.”

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