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political science colleges and universities PhD gendered not for women coding

Today’s Political Science Isn’t Built for Women

Here's how it could be better.

Words: Leah Matchett
Pictures: Christin Hume

Coming up on the deadline for an assignment I could feel steam coming out my ears. Run. Error. Run. Error. Finally, I let out my frustration in a huff: “I don’t understand why this for-loop isn’t running.” My colleague came over and I pressed sideways to make room in the tiny cubicle. Before she could offer advice, a male coworker two desks up looked over and laughed: “You still use for-loops?” My face went hot and my palms went slick with sweat, shame, and anger. Smiling, he turned back around, entirely oblivious to my discomfort.

I had entered the PhD program with little math or statistical experience, and no computer science background. In the first weeks, it was made clear to us what modern Political Science was. It would require all of us to develop strong statistical and coding skills, and it was clear that both the questions we asked and how we answered them had to fall within the boundaries set by those methods, or else they would not be considered rigorous. Some topics were “real” national security, and other topics merely interesting side projects.

The department, the field, our colleagues all acted to reinforce this view. It was only gradually that I began to see that that it had gendered implications: that the people who had a head start, who did the most “rigorous” work, who picked the right topics, were, by and large, men. That the value system we created, which judged some work as worthwhile and other as frivolous, too often fell along gendered lines.

These implicit value systems stand in the way of achieving more female representation, as they raise silent barriers to women’s participation. But more importantly, these value systems prevent the national security community from achieving not just representation goals, but also our substantive goals in improving gendered research and innovative female-oriented policy.

We need diversity in our workforce. We need women and people of color and low-income people because national security affects us all. But more than that, we desperately need to make room for diverse perspectives — room and license to challenge existing paradigms. If we seek diversity without allowing diverse perspectives we force the voices of women and people of color to conform to the existing orthodoxy and miss out on the full range of their potential contributions. Failing to take these ideas more seriously, national security will continue to be largely untouched by the women, peace, and security agenda.

The current situation stems from two structural problems in international security that contribute to a systematic exclusion of women and minorities: a narrow definition of what constitutes real security, and an equally narrow definition of what constitutes real research.


The exclusion of women in national security comes not just from the harassment and everyday sexism women face in the office, but the “straitjacket” of national security orthodoxy. Women can be welcomed in the national security space, conditionally, occasionally — and only if they conform to existing modes of thought.

While I stayed up late trying to teach myself how to code, many of my male counterparts had time to pursue research of their own, or contribute to projects with professors, who immediately snapped them up for their statistical knowledge.

In nuclear policy, we hold Tom Schelling as a paragon of research — and indeed he was a formidable scholar who changed the way we think about deterrence. Unfortunately, his work set the boundaries for the acceptable: to be a “serious” researcher today, you have to focus on strategy, deterrence. Work by incredible scholars like Carol Cohn, who turned the nuclear order on its head years before the “my-button-is-bigger-than-yours” moment of 2017, is considered interesting, but niche.

The push for the inclusion of things like the environment, climate change, poverty, and epidemic disease in security under the banner of ‘human security’ in the post-cold war period was tolerated but failed to gain a threshold in the journals and academic institutions that define what ‘international security’ is.

Ossification around ‘traditional’ security is bad for the field. Nuclear policy, for example, operates largely on the same series of assumptions that have since the 1960s, and it shows. We find ourselves having policy debates over issues, like limited yield nuclear weapons and space-based missile defense, that could be word for word from the 1980s.

When I ask the students in my classes what are the biggest challenges to US national security, their answers are quick: climate change, inequality, racism. As a worldwide pandemic has shut down most of the country, torpedoing the US GDP, we in the national security community might ask ourselves whether we would be better off if we had not spent the last 10 years brushing off human security as an interesting sideshow.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is not interesting and creative work going on in the nuclear field: scholars are rethinking the relationship between the public and deterrence, or how escalation works in a networked world. But this work is not common enough. If we want to move scholarship forward we need to truly make room for diverse perspectives — not just diverse faces.


In addition to challenging our ideas of what does and doesn’t constitute “real” security studies, we need to challenge our ideas of what constitutes valuable research. In a recent study, Shauna Shames and Tess Wise conclude that the methodological dominance of advanced quantitative methods in political science is one of the reasons behind the persistent gender imbalance.

As modern political science becomes ever-more enamored with advanced statistics and computer science, those without background in these fields (disproportionately women) find themselves excluded. The NSF estimates that in 2014 women received only about 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science and engineering.

Women are far less likely than their male counterparts to receive advanced training in statistics or computer science. Without these “hard” skills women disproportionately pursue case study or interview-based research. At the same time, many top journals in political science do not publish research based on interviews or case studies, because it is not considered “rigorous” or even valuable. A study published this year by Cassandra Emmons and Andrew Moravcsik found that 40 percent of top political science PhD programs (including my own) no longer offer any qualitative methods training.

When qualitative research is published, its authors have to go to great pains to justify why their contributions are valuable. In the words of one female scholar “Although some have characterized the qualitative-quantitative debate as a dialogue it might be more accurate to describe it as a struggle on the part of qualitative researchers for legitimacy and place.”

In general, the methodological training in PhD programs in political science does little to offer women a leg up (despite the hard work of many professors). In the first year of my PhD I was regularly expected to draw on coding (in two languages), a deep understanding of statistical distributions, Bayesian statistics, linear algebra, and multivariate calculus — none of which I had previous training in. While I stayed up late trying to teach myself how to code, many of my male counterparts had time to pursue research of their own, or contribute to projects with professors, who immediately snapped them up for their statistical knowledge.

This is obviously not a universal experience. I know many women who can match anyone in their methodological knowledge, and I know men whose undergrad was not saturated with stats classes. But so long as national security and political science value only one form of research, and the skills to do that research are not equally available, the type of research we value will have gendered implications.


Although fixing this problem will not happen overnight, there are clear steps that we can take as individuals and institutions to address both the content and methodological barriers to women in national security.

Increasing the diversity of perspectives in conflict studies starts with changing reward structures. So long as success is measured by journals and citations that focus on a narrow definition of security, we can hardly expect an increase in the diversity of voices. Improving the diversity of perspectives in journals will require editorial boards to solicit a broader range of articles and open-mindedness among reviewers. Initiatives like “Pitch Fit Fridays,” where Morgan Kaplan, editor of the journal International Security invites people to get feedback on their article before submitting, can help authors make a case for innovative work.

We should institute awards from key professional institutions on the most innovative scholarship on conflict studies. Prominent platforms like War on the Rocks or the Monkey Cage should commit to hosting a “new ideas” blogs series, to highlight work that is challenging traditional assumptions.

In the think tank space, we have to give researchers room to breathe. Finding ways that enable research staff to balance deliverables with longer-term projects is essential to allow them to take risks in research. If researchers are expected to simultaneously manage their Twitter presence, work on reports, react to the news and write weekly blogs, there is little time left for creative thought, much less challenging the disciplinary idea of what conflict studies should be.

The solution to the impact of methodological training on women in national security is two-fold: we have to provide on-ramps for women to master advanced statistical methods and reorient support for research based on its merits, rather than its methodology. Providing on-ramps involves training aimed at getting graduate students without quantitative backgrounds the skills they need and encouraging younger students to take a brace of math and science courses. For example, Stanford has recently developed a coding course specifically aimed at helping students develop the computer science and data analytics skills they need to be successful in political science. Such work must begin in the undergraduate years, where required courses can ensure that students graduate with the skills that they need to pursue post-graduate research positions.

In addition, the national security community needs to reinvigorate our interest in reading and writing high-quality qualitative research. Top political science and conflict studies journals should commit to publishing at least one qualitative article every issue.

The success of the women peace and security agenda depends on the success of women’s voices and research on topics that fall outside of a narrow envelope of traditional security studies. Without a broader content and methodological acceptance in the discipline, we cannot hope to change current understandings of what is conflict studies — an understanding that largely leaves women out.

Leah Matchett is a third-year PhD student at Stanford University, where she is also a member of the first cohort of Knight-Hennessy Scholars.

Leah Matchett

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