It is 2012, but the field of International Relations (IR) is still dominated by men. Recently, several researchers in the field have addressed this issue on their blogs. For instance, marking this year’s International Women’s Day, Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relation asked “Where are the women in foreign policy?” One of the researchers he asked, Diana Wueger, followed up on her own blog, Gunpowder and Lead. Topping it off in his usual direct style, Dan Drezner then asked on his blog at Foreign Policy, “Should women get a Ph.D. in IR?”
Well Dan, glad you asked! Last year, I interviewed three prominent female Scandinavians in the field of IR on this very topic. The interviews were conducted in Norwegian and published in the Scandinavian IR journal Internasjonal Politikk (Vol. 69, No. 4, 2011). In my conversations with Lene Hansen (Professor at the University of Copenhagen), Inger Skjelsbæk (Deputy Director and Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO), and Ann Towns (Senior Lecturer at University West, Sweden) I discovered that despite their varying experience with being a woman in IR, they all agreed on one thing: the importance of having a mentor. This is interesting, because despite structural differences in welfare state accommodations offered to working women in Scandinavia and the United States, it seems to conform to what Americans are saying as well. Diana Wueger, for instance, argued for the importance of mentorship and sponsorship, and in the responses Micah Zenko got from academics and practitioners, high on the list among the several factors preventing women from achieving senior foreign policy positions was lack of mentorship.
So, what experiences have the three Scandinavian women in IR I interviewed gathered? Did gender issues affect their graduate and job market experiences? Professor Hansen says no. A prominent researcher in the field of securitization theory, Hansen’s initial interest in political science was piqued by her engaging professor at the University of Copenhagen, Ole Wæver. It was Wæver who would become her mentor and introduce her to other important researchers in the field, such as Barry Buzan. Wæver gave Hansen her first job – research assistant at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute – where Hansen was the only woman. She does not think that the gender dimension mattered as much as the age dimension, however. The fact that she was young and inexperienced was in her eyes a bigger obstacle to overcome than her being a woman. In fact, she says, once you publish and give people a chance to evaluate you on your merits, other irrelevant variables – such as your gender – will fade away.
Skjelsbæk and Towns, on the other hand, disagree. They are both adamant about the unique challenges facing women who are likely to start a family right when their career is about to take off. My conversations with them remind me of something one of my professors at the University of Virginia once said: that starting a family had meant a clear professional sacrifice in that she was unable to write and publish those articles that are necessary to climb up the professional ladder early in one’s career.
Whereas Skjelsbæk – studying in Norway and benefitting from comparatively generous welfare state arrangements as a graduate student and young professional – was faced with no such stark choice, Towns in fact moved from a self-described great job at the University of Delaware back to Sweden once she had children. In exhibiting what she herself describes as “stereotypical female behavior” she admits this move was based not on professional considerations, but family considerations. This despite the University of Delaware being flexible and helpful when she had children, she says.
But despite the predictable challenges of family, what is it like to be a female scholar in IR? Here, it might be instructive to distinguish between female IR scholars who study non-gender-related topics, and those who study gender issues in IR. Towns, who does the latter (and recently published Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society) argues that being a “gender person” automatically earns you less respect from the male dominated IR mainstream. Skjelsbæk, who studies female identities in conflict situations (and who just published The Political Psychology of War Rape: Studies from Bosnia and Herzegovina) says she is noticing an improvement, however, in that she is observing a growing portion of male attendance at International Studies Association (ISA) panels that concern gender issues. Hansen, who can perhaps be categorized as a more “mainstream” IR person, despite her writings on gender issues (such as the famous article “The Little Mermaid’s Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School” in Millennium) does not think being a woman in IR has contributed to a different career path. Nor has she had any negative personal experiences.
That cannot be said for Skjelsbæk, who once had a professor pinch her cheek and tell her how cute she looked. She is still annoyed that she failed to come up with an appropriate comeback. She is more satisfied with her experience with a prominent American professor who once visited PRIO, however. On maternity leave, Skjelsbæk took her baby with her to PRIO to meet with the professor, presenting her dissertation topic. The professor brusquely rejected her, telling Skjelsbæk she would never get published on this topic. Skjelsbæk was happy to inform him – while holding her baby – that she had already done so in the European Journal of International Relations.
Finally, I asked the three researchers what advice they would give female graduate students?
Here, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the tree women agree on the importance of mentorship. Hansen is crystal clear in her recommendations: Grab all opportunities, participate in professional activities such as conferences, build a network and work hard. Hansen refers to a study done in Denmark where the two main factors found to be the culprit behind graduate school drop outs were poor mentoring/advising, and not feeling part of a professional environment or group. She again credits Wæver with functioning as her door opener and mentor.
Likewise, Skjelsbæk cites her mentor and advisor, Hjørdis Kaul at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, as the person who taught her the “art” of being an academic. Towns agrees and mentions – among others - Kathryn Sikkink at the University of Minnesota as important in her career development. According to Towns, the three most important factors in determining success in a graduate program are access to a professional network, knowledge of the implicit norms in the profession, and self-esteem. Not surprisingly, female graduate students are less likely to possess these three things, argues Towns, which is why finding a mentor is so important. We all need a professor who can introduce us to the unspoken rules of the profession, not to mention introduce us to important people at conferences, and eventually write our recommendation letters when we are on the job market.
Finally, in addition to a mentor, it is also important to actually write your dissertation on a topic that you care about, insists Skjelsbæk. Choosing a “hot” topic might seem like a good idea as a graduate student, but if you are not really interested in it, choose something else. It’s going to be a long haul.
And above all, female readers: do not play nice. Stop worrying about whether people like you, and start worrying about whether they respect you.