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Women in Political Science: Entering a Career that Enabled Some of the Most Hated Men in the World

When I tell people I’m majoring in political science, I usually get certain archetypal reactions: the, “oh, I’m not really into politics,” the, “are you a Republican or Democrat?” or the immediate demand for judgment on whatever current event is ruling headlines on social media and in the news. 

Usually, I respond as quickly as possible that I don’t actually want to become a politician, but rather a human rights lawyer, and people immediately seem to relax. I don’t blame them: both politicians and poli sci majors have the reputation of being ruthless while removing the humanitarian aspect of political issues for their own gain. They’re not wrong. All it takes is skimming a news website to read about some politician ignoring their constituents for some reason or another while exploiting the thousands of citizens below them who rely on their legislation to improve their livelihood.

I’ve accepted this. I can’t change everyone’s mind about political science majors, and I don’t think I really should. In my second year as a political science major, I’ve always noticed something…off about my classes. Something was wrong with the way I was learning about civil liberties, republicanism, and human rights, and it still is. 

A depiction of Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor being interrupted by Supreme Court Justice Alito portrays an all too well-known scenario in which a professional woman in government is spoken over (via More Perfect Podcast)

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it (although I had a sneaking suspicion the issue had to do with the men in my classes who talked over me and more than anyone else) until I read a series of articles from The Washington Post about gender discrimination in the political science field. The articles exposed that women are less published in political science journals and, to my surprise, that political science professors assign much fewer readings written by women than by men. After some follow-up research, it was confirmed that yes, women are consistently underrepresented in assigned readings in political science classes. 

At first glance, this sucks, yes, but there’s actually so much more to unpack under that initial reaction of disappointment. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got about the attitude around political sciences as a whole: from students, professors, onlookers, scholars, everyone and anyone who had any idea about what political science is. This field, whether academic or professional, has so much power. Political science researchers have the ability to expose inequalities, flaws in our political system, voting behaviors, and more. Politicians are the final building block in the wall of societal progress — they are who decide what scientific innovations are funded and what medical bills are passed. They hold the fate of our social structure in their hands, and yet the education that got them into this powerful status was shaped by the readings and opinions of mostly white men. And we wonder why our country is run by some of the brash, chauvinistic men on Capitol Hill right now.

While we’ve had some iconic women on Capitol Hill, everyone can agree that their presence is incredibly rare compared to the men dominating every party.

Any political science major can tell you about popular sovereignty, or the idea that the government is created by and subject to the will of the people. But how are politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, anyone with a political science bachelor’s degree supposed to represent the will of the people when almost all of the literature they were exposed to in their education represented the will of… the men who wrote political science studies and were taught by older, male-dominated political studies, which were influenced by older studies…? The loop goes on. 

Yes, there is so much wrong with our current political system that it can’t all be blamed on the literature political actors are exposed to in their education. That would be naïve, and I’ve learned in my own education that anything pertaining to the way our government works cannot be that simple. But I think it’s a bigger part of the problem than people realize. 

Let’s focus on my own experience in political science so far. Anyone who knew me, or even had a class with me in high school can attest that I tend to love debating, especially about political issues I’m passionate about. It can get quite obnoxious. But even I, as someone who loves talking about this stuff, am constantly “out-obnoxioused” by some of the boys I’ve encountered in classes. Not once, even once, despite my success in this major, have I had a whole semester go by without my participation in a class being stunted by a male student who has never been told he isn’t smart enough to talk over everyone else in the class. What I realized when entering this world is that some men, especially white men, have never been brought down a notch in terms of unearned confidence on a subject they know as little about as the rest of their peers, but they love to bring other people down. There is always at least one boy in each class that talks constantly, brings in non-sequiturs with fancy words to boost their ego, and never ever gives anyone else’s input the time of day. If they do decide to acknowledge someone else’s opinion, it’s to shoot it down or poke fun at it (of course this cannot apply to all men in political science, but it’s a significant enough amount of them to acknowledge). 

Courtesy of Punch Cartoons

As if that didn’t frustrate me enough, it’s also clear that a lot of these male students don’t care about women, people of color, and especially women of color just by looking at class rosters. My “Women and Gender Studies in the Middle East” class took a deep delve into sex, gender, and feminism in the Middle East, and Islam specifically. It was incredibly eye-opening for me, as a white woman who has lived in the West her entire life, and it was probably eye-opening for everyone else in the class — meaning, around two men and 30 women. Conversely, the war studies class I signed up for this semester has 40 men clustered in it. I’m not saying that either class should be a requirement for the major, but it’s discouraging to see how few men are in classes like Women and Gender studies— not a major, but a single class to learn about something that doesn’t revolve around you for once. 

I could be understanding and chalk this behavior up to adolescence. “Maybe they’ll learn to keep their mouth shut when they’re older,” I think, or more often, “I wish I could be there the day they’re finally told their opinion isn’t the only important one in the world.” But after reading those Washington Post articles, it dawned on me. They’ll never learn to keep their mouth shut, and they’ll likely never even be told that they truly aren’t all that. One look at the current Congress can confirm that. 

This article may just seem like a tired poli sci student rant. Which, yes, it kind of is, but the lack of women—especially women of color —representation in political science education feels to me like the tip of the iceberg of something we can try to change to finally tip the balance of power in our political system. Maybe, just maybe, if professors were urged to incorporate opinions of women and minorities into our nightly readings (which, I assure you, there is plenty of reading material that could be altered), some men might just look at the world a little bit differently before filling out their ballot or running for a political position. Maybe more women would be less intimidated to join this field. Maybe we’ll be less scared, even if we know what we have to say is significant, to participate in class. Maybe that participation will impact the poli sci men to start respecting opinions other than their own more. 

To me, that sounds disgustingly optimistic, something I’ve learned not to be when reading political news and uncovering the rotting pieces of our great “American experiment”. I don’t know if changing political science reading curriculums could ever have that great of an impact, but I do know this: every reading, every study, every op-ed a political science major reads has some ounce of opinion in it. And when entering a career totally, unequivocally meant to represent the needs of all citizens of the United States, it makes zero sense to surround future policymakers with only one perspective of readings with analogous backgrounds. Luckily, unlike so many issues burdening headlines today, that’s something pretty simple to change. 

Genevieve Andersen

CU Boulder '24

Genevieve is a CU student studying Political Science and French. She loves reading, dogs, and all things outdoors, and in her free time you'll find her on a hiking or ski trail!
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