The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is work by women systematically devalued?

On the final day of the Monkey Cage  gender gap symposium (see herehereherehereherehere, and here for earlier posts) we offer broader reflections from three distinguished scholars. Later today, you will see posts by  David Lake and  Beth Simmons. First up is Brett Ashley Leeds, a professor at Rice University who has published widely on issues of international security, especially alliances. She was the recipient of the Karl Deutsch award, which is awarded to the scholar under the age of 40 who is adjudged to have made the most significant contribution to the study of international relations.


The finding that international relations articles written by women receive fewer citations than those written by men is surprising and disturbing to many in political science.  Unfortunately, however, this evidence is consistent with a broader body of studies that reveal a tendency for both women and men to value work by men more than work by women.  Both men and women hold subconscious biases that affect their impressions and may influence their subsequent behavior.  While it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of ingrained subconscious biases, we can become more self-aware and take steps to limit the influence of these biases on our behavior.

Two recent studies provide experimental evidence commensurate with this phenomenon.  In one study, scientists were asked to rate resumes and suggest starting salaries for students applying for a lab job.  The researchers found that job candidates with traditionally female names were rated less qualified and offered a lower average salary, despite the fact that all other information was identical.  In another study, communications graduate students were asked to rate conference abstracts for scientific quality.  The same abstracts with traditionally female author names were rated less well, especially in subject areas considered traditionally male, including politics.  In both studies, male and female evaluators were equally likely to devalue the work of women.

Why would this be?  Perhaps some people believe that women inherently produce less valuable scholarship than men, but I don’t think most of us subscribe to that belief.  Most of us assert that similarly qualified men and women should be paid the same and that research should be equally valued regardless of the authors’ gender.  And yet, experiments reveal that our behavior does not conform to those beliefs.

Societal messages inundate us with information that create subconscious biases favoring the intellectual contributions of men.  This was brought home to me recently by my four year old son.  On the way to school, my son asked me the meaning of the street names in our neighborhood—Swift, Dryden, then Shakespeare.  My explanation prompted my son to ask, “Are any famous authors girls?”  I had never noticed that the streets in my neighborhood honor the work of many men and no women.  These street names provide information to my son (and my daughter) that works worthy of commemoration are produced by men.  Even if my husband and I and many others in their lives tell and show them repeatedly that women produce works just as valuable as those produced by men, from the photos that adorn the hallways of their institutions to the honorary names of streets and awards, they will receive messages that are likely to produce a subconscious bias.

Current political scientists came of age in eras that were more likely to inculcate biases valuing work by men than my children will.  Even the most aware and vigilant among us will find it very difficult to rid ourselves of such biases, and changing the culture will take a very long time and significant active effort.  So what do we do in the meantime?

The key is to recognize our biases and to take responsibility for checking our behavior.  We must review our syllabi, our manuscripts, our conference panel proposals, our job candidate short lists, and our other gatekeeping activities with attention to the inclusion of women.  We must ask ourselves why an article by a man is more important for our graduate students to read than an article on the same topic by a woman, and why an article by a man is a more germane citation for a particular point than an article on the same topic by a woman.  Sometimes we will conclude that the male-authored article best matches our goals.  Sometimes, however, we may not be able to provide a logical explanation favoring the male-authored article.  Other times, we might find that a female-authored article we hadn’t paid attention to before is actually more appropriate.  In the latter two cases, some of us will consider making a change.

This process requires active effort to learn about works we may have previously ignored, perhaps with little conscious thought.  We need to slow down to minimize the impact of our subconscious biases on our actions.  Here are some concrete tips:  Think explicitly about the criteria you are trying to satisfy with a citation or syllabus entry and “defend” your choice based on those criteria in your mind.  Search costs are lower than they have ever been.  Use Google Scholar or other search engines to jog your memory or to introduce yourself to possible, potentially better alternatives to the first citation that comes to mind.  Once you have identified the criteria you wish to fulfill, searching becomes easier.  Take the time, as some of our colleagues have, to examine your own past behavior.  Look at work you have published and syllabi for courses you have taught.  Are you comfortable with the gender balance of your past practices?  What might you have done differently?  Reflecting on bias in one’s own past behavior is helpful in overcoming it in the future.

I want to be very clear that my recommendations apply to both men and women.  Women, too, have been raised in a culture that systematically devalues contributions by women and thus suffer from the same subconscious biases.  I recently took an implicit association test and learned that I have a stronger association of males with career and with science than I do females.  Good intentions alone are not a sufficient solution for dealing with the subconscious.  We can’t change our history, and we shouldn’t blame ourselves for cultural structures we can’t fully control.  What we can do is be very aware of our biases and their effects, collect data individually on our own behavior and collectively in the discipline on the aggregate effects of that behavior, and change our actions where appropriate.