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Don’t Hit The Snooze Button: Gender Equity in The Public Administration and Political Science

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Grant Rissler
November 5, 2019

Recent research provides striking snapshots of gender equity gaps among faculty in the disciplines of public administration and political science. Assuming that greater equity on this important outcome is only a matter of time ignores harder-to-count equity gaps in access, process and quality of support.

I’ll start off by acknowledging that this column is offered in the hopes of highlighting others expertise and not my own.

In recently reading two online articles (Kulicka and Inayatulla and Robinson) from the forthcoming Administrative Theory & Praxis special issue on Gender Identity, I came across a reference to the 2019 article by Knepper et al., “Why gender and research productivity matter in academia,” in the Journal of Public Administration Education. The article provides an important window into the scope and some of the particular gender equity challenges that remain part of our academic field of study.

Knepper et al. used full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty at NASPAA-accredited schools as a sampling frame. Though their findings focus on analysis of a subset of respondents to their survey (more on that in a bit), their reported breakdown of the sampling frame provides a snapshot of the gender and rank breakdown of 1,846 NASPAA-accredited MPA program faculty in 2017.

They note that while 50% of PhD degrees in public administration are held by women, women made up only 36% of the faculty overall and men represented 64%, suggesting that the field has a way to go in reaching gender equity. (In the realm of faint praise, this breakdown is closer to parity than the 28% women—72% men breakdown reported by Kim and Grofman’s (2019) for PhD-granting Political Science departments).

Looking a little deeper at public administration faculty, Figure 1 provides a breakdown of academic rank by gender. This shows that the disparity between genders is greatest at the full professor level (where there are 3.5 men for every one woman.) The discipline comes closest to reaching parity (a ratio of 1.1 to 1) at the assistant professor level.

There is a potentially hopeful reading of the data; If retiring and predominantly male full professors are being replaced by a near balance of men and women, one might expect equity to arrive with the course of time. But like a tired student hitting the snooze button on an alarm and showing up late for the final exam, ignoring the alarm in the current ratios should not be how we approach the issue of gender equity in our profession. To understand why, it’s important to highlight a few other insights from the writings of Knepper and colleagues.

First, the central findings of Knepper et al. are that research productivity among female faculty in their survey was significantly lower than among men. Using 5-year standardized time periods and looking at standard peer-reviewed articles, women published at 67% of the rate of men overall. As they point out, this difference in productivity can have significant implications for later promotion and compensation decisions.

These findings summarize important equity outcomes—the ratio of women to men in PA academic positions and the lower rate of peer-reviewed articles for women—and clearly show that the discipline has work to do in reaching gender equity. But reading the article with the other three core dimensions of social equity articulated by Susan Gooden (equity of access, procedure and quality) and summarized in the visual below produce some additional insights.

  • Procedural Equity – Research on tenure granting in the field of economics suggests that women who co-author papers with men often see little impact on their chances for tenure, suggesting that tenure and promotion committees assume that such papers reflect the work of the male co-author, rather than the woman. Likewise, existing research shows that women in academia often engage in more service and other emotional labor than do male colleagues, possibly at the cost of their own research. If these contributions are considered less valuable during tenure and promotion decisions, this may contribute to women receiving tenure at lower rates.

  • (in)Equity of access – Knepper et al. note that women are also underrepresented within the ranks of journal editors and reviewers. This may contribute to less noticed bias and resulting barriers in publishing research.

  • Quality of services that support outcomes – Publications are a product of a variety resources (e.g. graduate students and grant money) as well as opportunities to gather feedback (e.g. conference presentations). Knepper et al. note previous findings by Sabharwal (2011) that women make fewer conference presentations than men, which would not only reduce personal visibility, opportunities to collaborate with potential or existing co-authors, but also the opportunity for feedback on research in progress.


Research such as that conducted by Knepper et al. on public administration and Kim and Grofman on Political Science provide striking and somewhat alarming snapshots of where the academic fields of public administration and political science stand in seeking gender equity. It may be tempting to hit the snooze button (perhaps especially as men who have benefitted from past and present institutional imbalances) and assume that equity will arrive as younger and more balanced cohorts work their way upward. But doing so would ignore the many ways that procedural, access and quality inequities can defer and delay the equity of outcomes we all affirm in principle.

Author: Grant Rissler is a full-time parent and an affiliate faculty member in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He edits the Governance Matters section of State and Local Government Review and is the current secretary of the ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice (SDSJ). His broad research focus is social equity and peacebuilding with particular interest in local government responsiveness to immigrants. Grant can be reached at [email protected].


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