Political Studies Review (PSR) provides a unique intellectual space for rigorous high-quality peer-reviewed original research across political science and the study of politics in related fields that aims at stimulating wide-ranging debate and cutting edge discussion of current disputes and issues in the discipline within the UK and internationally.
In this article, we wanted to explore how people build academic careers in political science, with a particular focus on those at the start of their careers, early-career academics. Because we also know that women are underrepresented in the discipline at all levels of seniority (Pflaeger-Young et al., 2021), we were particularly interested to see whether we would find any gender differences in experiences of career development.
As part of our research, we carried out a survey, which was sent to the Political Studies Association’s Early Career Network. We also did eight interviews with individuals who indicated they would be interested in speaking further on the topic. We asked respondents their thoughts on the job market, training, support for career development at their universities, mentoring, and networking – all activities important in building and strengthening skills, as well as reputation and membership in an academic community. We also asked more generally about experiences of isolation and discrimination, as our previous research has shown that these are some reasons people struggle to progress in an academic career (Mattocks and Briscoe-Palmer, 2016).
With regards to the job market, the top three concerns looked similar for men and women: lack of job opportunities, a competitive job market, and financial challenges (this ranking was 1/3/2 for women). But a greater percentage of women were concerned about those factors than man. There were also other differences: combining a career with family life was identified as a worry by 63% of women and 42% of men, for example.
In general, we found that men were both more likely to have a mentor (60% of women and 71% of men) and to report positive experiences of mentoring relationships. One finding that emerged is many women would prefer a mentor who is also a woman. With regards to networking, 51% of women and 50% of men said that they participated in networking. However, gender disparities became evident when we asked about why people did not participate in networking: 74% of women and 46% of men reported that a lack of confidence was a reason that they did not participate in networking events. So, overall, we find that while men and women ECAs participate in networking at the same rate, men reported greater confidence in doing so.
Women reported more instances of discrimination from students, colleagues, and institutions. Nearly one-fifth of women (20%) and 4% of men reported discrimination from students. Interestingly, these men were from outside of the UK, meaning no British men reported discrimination from their students. Women were much more likely to report difficulties based on ethnicity and geographical origin (for example, not being a native English speaker).
Ultimately our findings showed a gendered effect of some aspects of professional development, in particular a disparity between concerns about academic careers, as well as experiences of mentoring, networking, and teaching (specifically discrimination from students). We found no gendered differences in experiences of training offered by universities and in the rate of networking.
Women reported more instances of discrimination from students, colleagues, and institutions. Nearly one-fifth of women and 4% of men reported discrimination from students.
These findings are not an explanation for the underrepresentation of women in the profession, but they do add to the evidence base of challenges that women can face. On their own, each experience we describe might seem trivial. Taken together, they paint a picture of a system in which some people have more
access than others. We argue that we need to continue to study and highlight structural inequalities and wider cultures of sexism, racism and other types of discrimination in academia. More work is necessary on this topic to understand representation in the discipline in more detail (Emejulu, 2019). Most urgently, we need to have a deeper understanding of career development and progression from an intersectional perspective, and also take into account other gender identities, disability, and socio-economic factors.
This is even more important given that Covid-19 has made existing inequalities even stronger (Bhala et al. 2020). Women have borne the brunt of caring responsibilities (Andrew et al., 2020). The pandemic has had a drastic impact on recruitment in political science, and job prospects are bleak (McKay, 2020), meaning less stability and more competition, and an even more challenging future for early career academics.
Bhala N, Curry G, Martineau AR (2020) Sharpening the global focus on ethnicity and race in the time of COVID-19.The Lancet 395 (10238):1673-1676.
Emejulu A (2019) Can Political Science Decolonise? A Response to Neema Begum and Rima Saini. Political Studies Review 17(2): 202–206.
Mattocks K and Briscoe-Palmer S (2016) Challenges Facing Minority Politics PhD Students in the United Kingdom: Women, People of Black and Ethnic Minority Origin, and Disabled Persons. European Political Science 15(4): 476–492.
Pflaeger Young Z, Amery F, Holden Bates S, et al. (2021) Women in the Profession: An Update on the Gendered Composition of the Discipline and Political Science Departments in the UK. Political Studies Review 19(1): 12-36.
Shardia Briscoe-Palmer is an Early Career Academic at De Montfort University. She researches gender, race and social (in)justice. Shardia is also a doctoral researcher in Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Kate Mattocksis a Lecturer in Politics at the University of East Anglia. She researches cultural policy, particularly as it relates to issues of cultural identity and cultural diversity, and academic labour.
Has Political Science as a discipline, as well as Political Science departments in the UK made significant progress in terms of gender equality? “Given the higher profile of gender issues and the increase in measures and initiatives aimed at addressing gender inequalities, we might expect to see considerable progress in the presence and status of women, especially among those universities that have put active policies in place” – says Dr Zoe Pflaeger Young. “However, our survey conducted in 2018 shows that there has only been incremental rather than transformative change” – she adds.
The article is a part of a special issue: Gender in the Profession-wide analysis of #gendered composition of the Political Science departments in the UK.
Zoe Pflaeger Youngis a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at De Montfort University. Her current research concentrates on the crisis of social reproduction and family policy in the context of austerity, with a particular interest in shared parental leave and childcare.