Thursday, December 6, 2012

Leaky Pipeline

Posted by Professor Sara Mitchell

I want to discuss an important issue in the fields of international relations and political science: the leaky pipeline.  In both academic and government positions related to the field of international relations, we observe a pattern whereby women constitute a smaller percentage of the workforce as we move up the seniority career ladder.  If you take classes from older faculty at the University of Iowa, you will notice that they are much more likely to be men. Yet if we look at the gender distribution in the IR and political science classrooms, we see close to a 50-50 percentage breakdown of male and female students.

A 2009 survey[1] of Political Science PhDs shows the following leaky pipeline patterns for men and women in academic positions (listed from lowest to highest rank).  Among female respondents (N = 342), 3 percent are lecturers, 42 percent are assistant professors, 26 percent are associate professors, and 29 percent are full professors.  This compares to 2 percent lecturers, 26 percent assistant professors, 28 percent associate professors, and 44 percent full professors among male respondents (N = 963). This leaky pipeline is observed in academia even if we control for other factors such as years of experience, research productivity, and race (Toutkoushian 1999; Perna 2001). We see similar patterns in government and business sector jobs where women are underrepresented in foreign policy and executive branch bureaucratic positions (Dolan 2000), especially in the upper management positions. Women also comprise a small percentage (4%) of the CEOs of the largest companies in the world.[2]

Why does this leaky pipeline exist? First, the years in which women can have children often overlap with the years of their career trajectories.[3]  The APSA survey shows that women who obtain PhDs in political science have significantly fewer children than men with PhDs.  Second, male dominated fields like international relations may be less appealing to female scholars due to both a lack of descriptive representation (you don’t seem someone like yourself in the classroom or office) and a negative reaction to male dominated perspectives on the topic (e.g. realism). Third, women may face other barriers to success such as having their work cited by others less frequently than men (Ferber and Brun 2011), being burdened with a much higher service load than their male peers (Mitchell and Hesli, forthcoming), or feeling like their institutional workplace is less supportive of women in their career. Finally, many couples work in the same field and women might find themselves more often on the side making sacrifices for the team.

What can be done to address this important issue? First, it is important for senior women to mentor undergraduate students, graduate students, and young women in their professions.  Many students show positive effects of mentoring on female success rates (Bennion 2004).  Second, we need to expand the ontological scope of international relations to make our topic more appealing to women. Some IR topics have more female scholars working on them (e.g. international law, human rights, non-governmental organizations), thus we would be wise to expand these areas of international relations both in terms of the content and offering of our courses and in the pages of IR journals and books. Third, universities and businesses need to do a better job promoting family friendly policies.[4]  Finally, institutions like the University of Iowa can play a significant role in improving upon the leaky pipeline by recruiting women to all positions and developing policies that will help women employees balance career and family issues more effectively.

Bennion, Elizabeth A. 2004. “The Importance of Peer Mentoring for Facilitating Professional
and Personal Development.” PS: Political Science and Politics 37(1): 111-113.
Dolan, Julie. 2000. “The Senior Executive Service: Gender, Attitudes, and Representative
Bureaucracy.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 10(3): 513-530.
Ferber, Marianne A. and Michael Brun. 2011. “The Gender Gap in Citations: Does it Persist?”
Feminist Economics 17(1): 151-158.
Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin and Vicki L. Hesli. “Women Don’t Ask? Women Don’t Say No?
Bargaining and Service in the Political Science Profession.” Forthcoming, PS: Political
Science & Politics.
Perna, Laura W. 2001. “Sex and Race Differences in Faculty Tenure and Promotion.” Research
in Higher Education 42(5): 541-567.
Toutkoushian, Robert K. 1999. “The Status of Academic Women in the 1990s: No Longer
Outsiders, but not yet Equals.” Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance 39(5): 679-

[1] This survey was funded by the American Political Science Association and designed by Professor Vicki Hesli, Michael Brintnall, and other members of the APSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession.
[3] See Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent discussion of these trade-offs at
[4] To see variation in family friendly policies in the top fifty political science programs, see data that I compiled at

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