A top US political science journal ignored race and gender—until 12 women took over

Members of the new APSR editorship hold a meeting.
Members of the new APSR editorship hold a meeting.
Image: Santa Fe Institute/Libby Wood
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the age of #MeToo, the rise of white nationalism, and family separations at the US-Mexico border, it’s hard to deny that gender and race play a huge role in shaping American politics. Yet the nation’s top political journal, the American Political Science Review (APSR), has long eschewed articles that address issues of identity. “By one count, only about 2% of articles in the flagship [APSR] between 2000 and 2015 focused on gender or sexuality, and only about 4% on ethnicity or race,” notes the Santa Fe Institute, an independent research center.

The journal’s record on publishing articles by women and people of color is also noticeably imbalanced. One review, published in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics, found that women authored or co-authored just 23% of the articles APSR published between 2000 and 2015. As for racial representation? Sharon Wright Austin, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, estimates that the number of African-Americans who’ve published with the journal hasn’t even hit double digits.

Austin is one of 12 political science professors who will be heading up the ASPR editorial team in 2020, with the goal of making the esteemed publication, which serves a gatekeeping function in their academic field, more inclusive when it comes to both subject matter and authors. The journal’s commitment to correcting past patterns is reflected in the makeup of the new team: All 12 professors are women.

“I would say the fact that we’re all women, the fact that we’re diverse in terms of our race, ethnicity, sexuality, it sends a really strong signal that ASPR is going to be receptive to diverse research and authors,” says Clarissa Rile Hayward, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis and another member of the incoming editorial team. “It’s not just who we are but what we plan to do. We really want to try to change the pool of authors who submit to APSR.”

The professors didn’t set out to form a team made entirely of women, and Austin notes that both men and women will review submissions. But the tale of the all-women editorial crew offers a striking lesson about what it may take to move the needle on diversity, in academia and elsewhere.

Identity matters

Austin says that when she was beginning her academic career, she was frequently steered away from doing research on race because top journals like the APSR were known to reject such subject matter. “It’s not really valued in the same way as other topics,” she says, observing that many of the most prestigious academic journals have a “narrow definition of what is good research.”

There’s a strong correlation to be drawn between the undervaluing of research on race and gender and the corresponding lack of women and people of color in the journal’s archives, according to Hayward. “If your lived experience is one where, for example, racial injustice is a big part of what you encounter everyday, well, it’s unsurprising that when you enter your PhD program, some of the questions that interest you about politics are going to focus on racial injustice,” Hayward says.

The fact that women and people of color are particularly drawn to research on gender and race helps explain why the lack of diversity in APSR’s published authors has persisted despite the journal’s blind peer-review process. Another factor: Women perceive the ASPR as less hospitable to their research than men do, according to a recent survey of 2,000 members of the American Political Science Association. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which women submit papers to the journal less often because they think they are more likely to get rejected.

On the flip side, since editorial leadership at APSR was traditionally dominated by white men, the journal, established in 1906, evolved to favor the methodologies (quantitative analysis, as opposed to qualitative research) and subject areas (voting and elections) that tended to appeal to white men in the field. This is representative of a broader sociological phenomenon known as the “Matthew effect” (pdf), in which people who are perceived as higher status accumulate more advantages. Identity, in other words, factors into what the APSR has typically included as well as what it has left out.

One paper, published in a July 2017 issue of the journal PS, offers an anecdote that encapsulates prevailing biases in political science. The authors write: “At a recent major political science conference, Tamara (not her real name) presented an in-depth qualitative study several years in the making, only to have the panelist speaking after her begin his remarks by saying, ‘And now back to the hard-core data.’ By this, he meant quantitative, large-n data, which his work utilized.” The male panelist in question may well not have realized how dismissive his comments sounded—precisely because he operates in a field that has long held that whatever men study is “hard core,” and what women and people of color study is not.

The problem with maintaining a narrow focus

In academia’s famous publish-or-perish culture, the fact that women and people of color are less likely to be published in the top journals for their fields has potentially large repercussions for their individual careers as well as the educations that students receive at American universities. “The fact that so many women and scholars haven’t been publishing [in APSR] makes it more difficult for them to achieve tenure and get promotions,” Austin observes.

That helps keep women and people of color out of the classroom, which in turn affects which topics political-science students learn to give the full weight of their attention, and which topics they are taught to overlook. It also leaves political scientists from marginalized backgrounds with fewer platforms through which to disseminate their research, whether in lectures, books, or media interviews. Indeed, the media was far more likely to call upon male rather than female academics to offer their political expertise during the 2016 US presidential elections, as professors Emily Beaulieu and Kathleen Searles have observed.

Ultimately, the dearth of articles about race and gender makes the APSR look bad, too. If the most prestigious journal in the field is ignoring forces that are informing everything from US Supreme Court confirmation hearings to the results of presidential elections, as Austin says, “you have to question whether you’re really and truly educating people about important political issues.”

Change you can see

One of the benefits of APSR’s new all-women team is that the striking visual of its new makeup should help address the perception problem that discourages underrepresented scholars from submitting, according to Hayward. The team’s explicit focus on increasing the diversity of its submissions, authors, reviewers, and citations, as outlined in a new vision statement, may help shift submission patterns, too.

Hayward emphasizes that the plan to broaden the range of research topics and methodologies featured in the journal doesn’t mean that the team plans to shut out more traditional research. The APSR is highly selective—in 2017, it accepted about 5% of roughly 1,400 submissions, according to the journal’s most recent editor, Thomas Koenig. But a typical issue fills only two-thirds of the pages allotted to it.

“We feel like there is space and room for white male scholars who are studying elections and scholars of color and women who are studying racial and structural injustice,” Hayward says. “We don’t believe that including more people means excluding people.”

Another potential benefit of the all-women editorship? Having made the bold statement of appointing so many women to leadership roles, it will now be harder for the journal to regress to the same old majority-white, majority-male status quo with future leaders.

“Throughout not just academia but the business world and the legal world, lots of boards have been all-white and all-male, and there’s generally been very little discussion or concern or even people noticing it,” says Hayward. “I think the difference that all-female boards or all-POC boards make,” she adds, “is that it really makes it very, very difficult for people to not to notice anymore [or] to go back to this era where some people’s voices are just not part of the conversation.”

A lot of institutions pay lip service to the idea of bringing about greater diversity in their ranks, but the efforts generally are being led by incumbent boards and C-suites made up largely of white men, with results that are less than impressive. It may be that unwinding a long history of bias established under the guise of esteemed tradition may require more drastic action.

If the work of the new APSR team matches the vision, it will suggest that if an institution is really serious about representation, the composition of its leadership may need to change first.