Northern Ireland and gendered rights: a place apart

The General Election has thrown the spotlight upon Northern Irish politics and, in particular, policies around abortion and the LGBT community which differ substantially from the rest of the UK. Here, Jennifer Thomson explores the situation in Northern Ireland and the implications for the rest of the UK. 

After several days of confusion, speculation, and negotiation, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party appear set to act as kingmakers and support Westminster’s Conservative minority government. The ramifications for what this will mean for the peace process (and the currently stalled government) in Northern Ireland are unclear and, as John Major has argued, potentially troubling. The turbulent period in British politics that begun in the wake of the Brexit vote last June, looks set to continue.

Although the potential importance of the DUP was pointed out in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, when a hung parliament did not materialise despite having been very much expected, no such scenario was anticipated this time around. Since the surprise result, much media attention has focused on the DUP’s policy lines on social issues, with the party being strongly socially conservative, promoting a type of rhetoric around gendered rights in particular which is in stark contrast to the liberal, compassionate Conservatism that former PM David Cameron championed.

As others have pointed out, the DUP are far more likely to use their new position of importance at Westminster to argue for increased financial support for Northern Ireland and its public sector, and will probably be less interested in pushing their social agenda on the rest of the UK. Yet their sudden elevation to the centre of British politics has temporarily focused the media’s attention on the disparities between gendered rights in mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Same sex marriage remains illegal in Northern Ireland, largely due to the DUP’s continual use of a veto mechanism at Stormont to prevent the required legislation. A lifetime ban on gay men donating blood was lifted in England, Scotland, and Wales in 2011, but only in 2016 in Northern Ireland – the delay was largely due to former DUP Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots’s executive decision that the ban should stay. Poots was also key in attempts to continue to keep in place laws exempting same-sex couples from adopting in the province. Like the ruling on blood donation, this was also eventually overturned by courts in Northern Ireland, in opposition to DUP policy and actions.

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In light of the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that abortion is also strictly controlled in the province. Northern Ireland was never included in the 1967 Abortion Act and attempts to extend it have as yet been unsuccessful. As a result, abortion is all but illegal, and women cannot access terminations even in cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormalities. This legal situation means that around 1000 women travel to England from Northern Ireland every year for terminations, paying privately for a procedure that can cost anywhere between £200-2,000. Although other political parties have played a role in maintaining this status quo, the strength of the DUP’s numbers at Stormont and the very vocal beliefs of several of its members have been important factors.

The DUP’s increased importance in national politics is unlikely to change laws on abortion or LGBT rights, in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. Abortion rights in Northern Ireland have caused controversy between the DUP and national government before – in 2008, when Gordon Brown’s government needed extra votes for its proposed 42-day detention limit for terror suspects, it was widely reported that the DUP had agreed to support the move on the basis that a proposed extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland be dropped. Indeed, following the 2017 election, it is notable that whilst Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has vocally acknowledged the DUP’s stance on LGBT rights and received ‘categoric assurance’from Theresa May that such rights are protected and not be up for debate in national parliament, politicians have been less vocal in speaking up for abortion rights. Will anyone at Westminster advocate extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland, and, indeed, lead a rallying cry to guarantee them across the UK as a whole?

With the Conservative party now reliant on the DUP to pass key legislation – not least of all as the government moves into tricky Brexit negotiations – the DUP are unlikely to be challenged on these issues. Yet, hopefully the renewed media attention around these differences between mainland UK and Northern Ireland will not go away, and will encourage public discussion over this unjust territorialisation of gendered rights. Women in England, Scotland, and Wales have now been able to access legal abortion for 50 years; same-sex couples have enjoyed equal marriage rights since 2014. Neither abortion nor same-sex marriage have been incredibly politicised in recent years, but rather largely accepted by the public and political mainstream as part of the make-up of modern, liberal Britain.

After the general election of 2017, mainland UK has woken up to a newfound appreciation of the tone and content of party politics in Northern Ireland. We can no longer be ignorant of the very different and incredibly restrictive legal situation which exists in the province for the LGBT community and women seeking terminations. In Northern Ireland today, a raped woman cannot get a termination, and a gay man cannot marry his partner. For those of us in England, Scotland, and Wales, we would do well to remember not to take our laws in these areas for granted, as, for those in one of the four regions of the UK, equal rights remain a distant possibility.

Jennifer Thomson is an Early Career Academic Fellow in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University and co-convenor of the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group. She is currently writing a book on Northern Ireland and abortion politics. You can see more about here work here. She tweets @jencthomson. This post originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.

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On Corbyn, Book-Eating and the Future of UK Political Science

Jonathan Dean, University of Leeds, reflects on the state of the discipline of political science in the wake of the surprising results of the 2017 General Election.

The story is one we have heard before. An election is looming. Pundits, commentators and academics offer their predictions and hot-takes, only to be left with egg-ridden faces when the election result defies their predictions. Curtice is, literally, the last man standing. Meanwhile, tweets are unpinned, post-hoc rationalisations are offered, and debates about data collection and polling techniques ensue.

After this most recent election, however, the situation feels a little different. Following a result unanticipated by most (except YouGov: credit where it is due), the mea culpas from commentators and British politics scholars have been coming thick and fast, reaching their improbable apotheosis when one of our number saw fit to “eat” his most recent book live on TV, a display of almost Old Testament-style contrition reconfigured for the social media age.

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In an earlier blogpost, I suggested that the UK political science community has a Corbyn problem. I stand by that view. However, the problem we face is, I would suggest, more fundamental than that a few of us (myself included) made some dodgy predictions underestimating how Corbyn’s Labour Party would fare at the ballot box. More significant, I would suggest, is the fact that few in our profession were even interested in Corbynism. Corbynism was, for many, so self-evidently misguided that it barely merited any scholarly attention or analysis. A similar fate befell other recent upswings of grassroots politicisation, such as the 2010 student movement or the movements surrounding the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. This, I argue, is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our discipline which we urgently need to tackle if we are to avoid further reputational damage.

There are a number of complex issues at play here, but I want to highlight three in particular. The first concerns the scope of UK political science. Numerous people have pointed out that UK political science in general – and British politics scholarship in particular – remains dominated by the “Westminster model”, with its attendant assumptions about power, parties, voting behaviour etc. This in turn has implications for the composition of the discipline in terms of diversity of people and perspectives: our discipline plays host to much the same forms of white male dominance that one finds in the corridors of Westminster, while gender and race are all too often seen as outside the scope of proper political research.

But had we moved our gaze beyond Westminster-centred electoral politics to encompass, for instance, work by cultural studies scholars on the connections between youth culture and ideology, black feminists on race, gender and political solidarity, or literature on social movements and activism, we might have been better able to properly make sense of Corbynism (as well as other recent instances of grassroots politics). Our aversion to scholarly pluralism and interdisciplinarity is, I would suggest, not serving us well.

This in turn feeds into the perennial question of how and why political scientists undertake public engagement. The key problem here, much commented on and beautifully spoofed by the anonymous @ProfBritPol twitter account, is the emergence of short term punditry as a benchmark of one’s status within the profession. It seems as if a Paul the Octopus style capacity for short-term prediction is increasingly replacing deep, thoughtful scholarship as the key indicator of scholarly esteem. This only serves to sustain the incipient “laddishness” of our discipline: not only are almost all the high profile pundits men, but political science public engagement risks degenerating into a spectacle worthy of football pundits’ trying to outdo each other with their pre-match predictions.

But this turn to punditry should, perhaps, not surprise us: as sociologist Mark Carrigan has pointed out, the neoliberalisation of academia – in conjunction with the impact agenda – generates an “accelerated” culture of short-termism, in which the continuous production of short, fleeting, superficial interventions [yes, dear reader, arguably including this blogpost] takes precedence over deep, reflective and, above all, slow academic analysis.

Finally, there is the problem of objectivity. We are, I would suggest, still driven by the fantasy of the objective political scientist, unencumbered by ideological partisanship. A cursory engagement with, say, feminist or Foucault-inspired work on the complex dynamics of power, selfhood and agency should disabuse the expectant political scientist of this fantasy.

But the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.

But, as someone once asked, what is to be done? My first, admittedly only half serious suggestion, is that we collectively agree to just stop. The neoliberal imperative to be constantly “on call” with our tweets, hot takes, analyses and predictions, is not good for us. Perhaps we should agree to a one-month post-election cooling off period where we reflect, take stock, catch up on sleep, and just slow down a little.

My second suggestion is more serious. We need to broaden our horizons. We spend too much time citing work by people in our ever-narrowing subfields (who also often happen to be our drinking buddies). At a minimum, let’s all agree to read something a little outside our usual comfort zone over the summer (and, no, Ken Clarke’s new memoir doesn’t count). We also need to talk. Political science is in urgent need of a broader conversation about the nature, scope and purpose of scholarly analyses of politics. So let’s collectively try to be a bit more open with one another online, in offices, in corridors and in conferences about what we think the purpose of our “vocation” is, and how we can negotiate the difficult terrain of academic public engagement.

I know these claims are sweeping, some might say disingenuous. But after June 8th, we’ve got some serious ground to make up. If we don’t, shreds of paper in our digestive tracts are going to be the least of our problems.

Jonathan Dean is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. He tweets @Jonathan_M_Dean.

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Let’s Put the Champagne on Ice: The Commons’ Missing Women

With a record high number of women elected to Parliament, was the 2017 general election something to celebrate? Sarah Childs, Meryl Kenny and Jessica Smith re-assess the recent result and consider what it means for women’s political representation.

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs.

But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. Relative to their presence in the population, the numbers of BME MPs needed to have doubled in 2017. It rose from 41 to 52 (8% of the House). Five disabled MPs have been elected (an increase of three from 2015), but this amounts to less than 1% of the House’s membership – compared to 1 in 5 of the population that self-identify as disabled.

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In terms of women’s representation, we saw a small increase of 12 more female MPs. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women in the House of Commons was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). But these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

No doubt we’ll be accused of being ‘feminist killjoys’ but there are very real risks in not contesting the plethora of upbeat media accounts. It, wrongly, suggests that: (1) the job is done: the ‘problem’ of women’s representation has been solved; or (2) gender equality is on its way (#justbepatientladies).

If only we could be that optimistic.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  • Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in forecasting the ‘number of years’ it will take to achieve equality projections.
  • Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  • Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from all of the parties, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying the 2017 GE as ‘record-breaking’ for women is lazy journalism that belies the reality, and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (Check out The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, it is time for legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. Without them, the search party will not be called off anytime soon.

Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol. She tweets @profsarahchilds. Meryl Kenny is Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets @merylkenny. Jessica Smith is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. She tweets @Jess_Smith1534.

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PSA ECN Annual Conference 2017

ECN Annual Conference, 22nd June 2017, Liverpool Central Library

Critical Junctures at Home and Abroad: 12 Months Since Brexit

The PSA Early Career Network invite you to their annual one-day conference, on the theme of Critical Junctures at Home and Abroad: 12 Months Since Brexit, on Thursday 22 June 2017 in the stunning Liverpool Central Library.

The ECN conference is an opportunity for early career researchers to showcase and develop innovative ongoing research, to gain feedback from established academics as well as a supportive peer group, and to engage in networking with colleagues at varying stages of their career.

Submit an abstract by 10th May 2017 by emailing ecn@psa.ac.uk

Registration opens 21st May 2017 – just £5 for ECN members, and £15 for non-members.

More information is available here or on the ECN website – www.psa.ac.uk/psa-communities/early-career-network.

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PSA Annual Conference 2017

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For those coming to the PSA Annual Conference in Glasgow next week, there are a number of PSA Women and Politics panels and other sessions on women, gender and politics that you may be interested in attending.

We also hope that you can make it to our Specialist Group Business Meeting at the Conference, which will take place Tuesday 11 April, 12.30-13.30 in Executive Room A and to the PSA’s Equality & Diversity Meeting, which will take place Monday 10 April, 13.30 – 14.15 in Graham Hills 512.

List of Panels/Sessions (please get in touch with Meryl or Fran if you would like to add something to this lineup):

  • Monday 10 April, 11.15-12.15: Opening Conference Plenary – Gender and Politics: Recruitment and Parliament (Professor Sarah Childs, Dr. Meryl Kenny and Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP)
  • Monday 10 April, 13.30 – 14.15: PSA Equality & Diversity Meeting (Graham Hills 512)
  • Monday 10 April, 14.15 – 15.45: A Conversation with Harriet Harman (Main Auditorium A)
  • Monday 10 April, 14.15 – 15.45: Panel – Gender and Elites in Contemporary Turkey (Graham Hills 509)
  • Monday 10 April, 16.15 – 17.45: Panel – Gender, Leadership & Public Policy (Executive Room A) (PSA WomenPol Sponsored)
  • Tuesday 11 April, 9.30 – 11.00: Panel – Gender and Civil Society (Executive Room A) (PSA WomenPol Sponsored)
  • Tuesday 11 April, 12.30 – 13.30: Women and Politics Specialist Group Meeting (Executive Room A)
  • Tuesday 11 April, 13.30 – 15.30: Panel – Women in Politics (Executive Room A)
  • Tuesday 11 April, 15.30 – 17.00: Panel – Feminist Theory (Executive Room A)

See you in Glasgow!

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Women: Mostly Missing from Introductory Political Science Texts

In a guest post for the PSA Women and Politics Blog, Amy Atchison (Valparaiso University) asks the crucial question of ‘where are the women’ in political science textbooks. Her research finds that gendered content in introductory political science texts is scarce and the quality of that content varies considerably, thus continuing to signal to students that women and gender are not part of the ‘mainstream’ of political science.

Despite compelling arguments for gender mainstreaming in political science education, evidence indicates that very little mainstreaming is taking place. This is likely related to a knowledge gap regarding politics and gender. As Ernest Boyer noted: “[A]s a scholarly enterprise, teaching begins with what the teacher knows.” Nevertheless, professors would be hard-pressed to know everything there is to know about their discipline. Plus, we do not typically have the time and resources to create class materials from scratch. Instead, we often rely on textbooks to help shape course content, and the textbooks we choose often provide students’ first exposure to a discipline. I argue that the central challenge to effective gender mainstreaming in the political science classroom lies with the lack of substantive gendered content in existing textbooks.

Why do Textbooks Matter?

Textbooks are an integral part of the academic enterprise. Indeed, textbooks teach particular paradigms that shape students’ disciplinary worldview. Textbooks reproduce scientific knowledge for the student audience and shape not just what students think about a subject but how they think about it. The information in the book demonstrates to students what practitioners consider “legitimate” knowledge in the field, which means it is important to note that what is left out of textbooks is just as important as what is put in them. What is left out sends a very clear message to students about who (white male elites) and what (institutions) are important in political science.

The research on gender content in political science indicates that gender-related content is limited in government texts. The research has primarily focused on American government texts, so it is no surprise that gendered content is most often found in chapters that address civil rights. If textbooks tend to drive our curriculum and curriculum is “constituted as a normalizing text,” then the evidence indicates that gender is not being normalized in introductory American government classes. The question is whether or not there is a similar lacuna in other introductory areas of political science education. I am particularly concerned about introductory political science texts because an introductory class typically exposes students to political theory/ideologies, regime types, institutions, and political participation. This matters because in an increasingly globalized society, how gender-related information is presented to students sets the tone for how they view women’s issues both domestically and globally.

Do introductory political science texts contain basic information about gender and politics?

The 10 textbooks (Table 1, below) included in my study* contain relatively little content related to women and politics. I determined this by examining each textbook’s use of 9 search terms:

  • Women/Women;
  • Female/Females;
  • Feminism/Feminist;
  • Girl/Girls;
  • Gender

I classified mentions as either substantive or non-substantive. Non-substantive references include terms such as men and/or women, men or women, women and minorities, male and/or female, etc., without any analytic import. The results demonstrate that almost 82% of the total mentions of the search terms are substantive. “Women” is the most commonly used term, and it is largely used substantively; this is consistent with American government texts. In contrast, although researchers have found that “feminism” is not a widely used term in American government texts, I find that feminism is the second-most used of the search terms in introductory political science texts, with 91% of the mentions being substantive.

Textbooks

Where in the textbook is that information located?

Unlike American government texts, introductory political science texts don’t typically have civil rights chapters—but they do usually have chapters on political theory and/or ideologies. As one might expect, there are large concentrations of gender-related content in these theory/ideology chapters —33% of all mentions and 36% of substantive mentions of the search terms. Moreover, the prevalence of the search terms in chapters on theory or ideology is common to all 10 texts in the study. This provides very strong evidence that segments on feminism drive a considerable amount of the gendered content in Introduction to Political Science texts.

Unexpectedly, there are also relatively large concentrations of gendered terminology in chapters dealing with political participation—this includes chapters related to parties, groups, movements, and/or elections; these content areas account for nearly 22% of the total mentions of the search terms and nearly 23% of the substantive mentions. In total, just the two categories discussed here (theory/ideology and political participation) account for about 54% of all mentions of the search terms and almost 59% of all substantive mentions. Importantly, the same 54% of all mentions of the search terms are found on just 182 pages out of the 4896 pages examined in this study. The fact that 54% of mentions are found on just 3.7% of pages indicates an extraordinary level of concentration of the terms. If gender were truly mainstreamed in these texts, the substantive references would be more plentiful and spread across more locations in each text.

How is gendered content presented in the texts?

Treatments of the search terms vary wildly amongst the texts. This is quite evident in the very different treatments of feminism in the textbooks included in this study. Grigsby, for example, has included a thorough and nuanced portrait of the feminist spectrum. In contrast, Magstadt has just one substantive mention of feminism in the entirety of the textbook, and Van Belle’s treatment of feminism is so lacking that the word “feminism” does not actually appear in the text (“feminist” does).

The variation in the treatment of women’s political participation is similar. With reference to parties and elections, most of these texts address the gender gap in policy preferences, voting, and representation. They typically include the reversal in ideological preference (from right-leaning to left-leaning) among Western women, as well as the fact that women now tend to vote in larger numbers than their male counterparts. In terms of representation, most authors mention that women are underrepresented in elected office but offer very little in the way of explanation for this, and only two (Parsons and Etheridge & Handelman) offer a substantive discussion of gender quotas. While this lacuna is unfortunate, I prefer the authors’ benign neglect of gender and representation over Heywood’s overt hostility to the topic.

The entirety of the descriptive representation section of the Heywood text was so patently incorrect and hostile that I felt compelled to protest. Heywood characterizes descriptive representation as dangerous to democracy and restrictive of individual freedom. He presents his claims as objective fact, yet presents no evidentiary basis for his assertions. With the backing of the PSA’s Women and Politics Specialist Group, as well as the APSA Committee on the Status of Women, the ECPR Gender and Politics Standing Group, and the ISA Gender Politics and Policy Group, I wrote Palgrave to ask that they ensure that the next edition of the textbook contain an accurate depiction of both the concept of descriptive representation and the related research. To their credit, the publisher and author agreed to change the text and asked me to review the next edition (due this year).

No matter how well (or poorly) the authors incorporate gender as an analytic construct, the fact remains that—in these texts—the substantive information about women is largely relegated to chapters related to theory and ideologies, as well as parties, groups, movements, and elections. This serves to marginalize information about women and politics and demonstrates to students that gender and politics are a separate or unique issue that has no place in the mainstream. That said, it is important to think about what a good gender-mainstreamed textbook would look like. This raises dozens of questions, ranging from the complete reimagining of introductory textbooks to how best to demonstrate the compounding effects of race, class, and gender. All of these issues boil down to one main question: How do we create textbooks that accurately and fairly depict the diversity of social forces at play in modern political systems?

*If you do not have access to the Journal of Political Science Education, the post-acceptance/pre-publication version of my article is posted here.

Photo by Jon L. Hendricks

 

Amy Atchison is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Valparaiso University.

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Diversity in academia: It takes raindrops to make a river

PSA ECNJessica Smith (Birkbeck), Communications Officer for the PSA Early Career Network, reflects on the ECN’s recent workshop on ‘Demystifying and Navigating Early Career Academia’, held at the University of Manchester on 3 February 2017. 

In February, the Political Studies Association’s Early Career Network hosted a day of workshops and panels at the University of Manchester aimed at demystifying early academia and discussing how we can increase diversity in our ranks, co-sponsored by the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group. The most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that just 24 per cent of UK professors are women, we know that it is lower in political science (around 20%) and that numbers for BME representation are even worse. The day offered training sessions for early career academics within which there was recognition of the varying experiences different identities and backgrounds can create. The day finished with a panel on increasing diversity in early academia; our guest speaker Dr Rachel Thwaites spoke about her new book ‘Being an Early Career Feminist Academic’; and the new Chair-Elect for the PSA Professor Angelia Wilson gave the keynote. All the sessions were insightful and our contributors displayed an expert range and depth of knowledge on topics from REF and TEF to writing a cover letter. The day lent itself to a range of discussion, on the academic pipeline, unique issues facing early career academics, and how we can all aspire to be the ‘good’ academic citizen, but I thought I would share with you three of the best pieces of advice that came out of the day.

It takes raindrops to make a river.

Dr Louise Owusu-Kwarteng shared this family saying with us during the panel on increasing diversity in academia. It reflects well the common feeling that progress can be slow but every little bit counts. Dr Owusu-Kwarteng and Dr Akile Ahmet presented their research on the experiences of BME students in higher education. One of the oft cited issues for BME students was a lack of culturally relevant support and role models. Perhaps not surprising given the under-representation of BME groups in academia; Dr Ahmet showed how the numbers of BME academics as you move up the pipeline made dire reading. At the LSE, a central London university, only 16 out of 214 professors are BME men or women. Research from Shardia Briscoe-Palmer and Dr Kate Mattocks has found that PhD students from minority groups were less likely to consider staying on in academia, more likely to cite caring responsibilities as an issue and more likely to say they’ve faced exclusion and isolation. Institutions need to review their support measures and ensure that we push for change from the bottom-up ensuring diversity in the retention of under-grads and post-grads to create those raindrops. Not only this, but we mustn’t let the rain stop, we cannot forget that progress can go backwards as well as forward which reiterates the importance of gathering and monitoring data on diversity.

Apply to an institution because you think they deserve you – even if they don’t know it yet!

Our discussion on the academic job search focused on the fact that academics face a global market. Early career academics need to be able to sell themselves – be a second-hand car salesman as Professor Sarah Childs said. And we do mean salesman, we know ‘selling yourself’ can be more challenging for women; studies have shown that women find it hard to promote their own achievements and talents. Dr Ahmet gave our participants some sage advice – tell the institution why they deserve you, not why you deserve the job. We know that the academic job market is getting harder and harder for those coming out of their PhDs and the ECN wants to work with our members to see how we can help; for instance, we are holding a ‘speed mentoring’ event at the PSA Conference in Glasgow this year. Joining a PSA specialist group (such as the Women in Politics Group) can also be a vital source of support in hearing about jobs and having those all-important contacts (outside of your own institution) when you are first starting out.

Build ladders, not potholes.

On the same day as being announced as the PSA’s new Chair-Elect, Professor Angelia Wilson gave our attendees an inspiring talk on her experience in academia and the importance of perseverance (even if, like her, you get told to go back to the farm). She reiterated the need for good role models – “choose someone at the top and think ‘I want to be like them’, and then tell them!”. The talk sparked off a discussion of how we can all endeavour to be the ‘good’ academic citizen, helping those around us. As Professor Wilson said – if it has come easy to you, look around and ask yourself why, own your privilege, and then turn around and help someone who may not be having it so easy. For instance, we know women take on disproportionate amounts of care and admin tasks which are less valued in academia. If you have a secure position why not take on some of these roles and share the burden. Or support women running for the ‘high value’ jobs. Another suggestion was male colleagues could refuse to be on ‘manels’ – all male panels. We know that we need action and support from everyone to build the ladders for all.

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