Gender parity and the study of Congress

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By Colleen J. Shogan

As Women's History Month comes to a close, a fruitful discussion about women in the workplace and gender equity continues. American politics has long been an academic discipline dominated by men, although many trailblazing women have made sizable intellectual contributions.

It’s time to start thinking critically about the study of Congress and why it still attracts more male than female scholars. Impressionistically, it seems as though more women are specializing in the subfield than a decade ago. But there’s still a long way to go if gender parity or near-parity is the goal. Currently, men outnumber women three to one; 75% of members of the American Political Science Association (APSA) Legislative Studies organized section are men while 24% are women.

Brainstorming about the problem requires understanding what structural factors are causing the imbalance. The following potential explanations are hypotheses; there may be additional causal links not mentioned here.

1)    Lack of mentorship: With fewer senior women specializing in the study of Congress, fewer female graduate students might be attracted to studying it. Consequently, there might be less overt encouragement within graduate programs to recruit women to write Congress-focused dissertations. This does not mean that explicit, overt, or widespread discrimination exists. Even subtle or unintentional cues can affect the choices graduate students make when deciding on a dissertation topic or thesis advisor. The lack of mentorship for women in science has been well-documented as a reason for why fewer women pursue certain STEM subfields.

2)    Congress is a male-dominated institution: In 2018, 105 women serve in the United States Congress, comprising 19.6% of the 535 voting Members. The proportion of female representation in Congress has grown over time. Nonetheless, there are still many more men than women on Capitol Hill. Congressional staff distribution is more equitable, but senior positions are dominated by men. Research shows that masculine environments deter women from participation and interest, particularly when related to scholarly pursuits.

3)    Related skills: The contemporary study of Congress is a subfield dominated by quantitative analysis. A high level of statistics and advanced methodology is preferred. Even the most empowered women suffer more from math anxiety than men. While there is an achievement gap between boys and girls in math, the differences in confidence and anxiety levels are much greater than a gap in skill level. There’s enough women interested in American politics who can do the math required to specialize in the study of Congress. But diminished self-confidence about quantitative analysis might discourage women from pursuing it. Psychologists call this effect “stereotype threat.”

The current reality of gender imbalance in the Congress subfield should be addressed by both senior male and female scholars. Conference organizers need to pay careful attention to it. Because there are fewer women than men studying Congress, it does require additional effort to achieve equitable results. As the organizer of the Congress & History conference last year at the Library of Congress, I made it one of the goals of the conference to attract more female participants. I achieved my stated goal and was especially proud to host the first panel in the history of the conference with an all-female roster. The construction of panels needs to take gender into account, and some argue that men should refuse to serve on all-male panels (called “manels.”)

There is currently an awareness among male and female congressional scholars about gender parity and a desire to achieve it. But female congressional scholars will not be able to turn this ship alone. We need the support of men and women to address this problem so that future generations of scholars will base their educational pursuits on professional considerations without the specter of gender clouding such critical decisions.

Colleen J. Shogan (@cshogan276) is a political scientist at the Library of Congress. She writes both fiction and non-fiction books about American politics and teaches a graduate seminar on American Political Development at Georgetown. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Library of Congress.