“Women Also Know History”: Dismantling Gender Bias in the Academy

Historians/History
tags: womens history



Keisha N. Blain is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and current president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Karin Wulf is Professor of History at the College of William & Mary and the director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Along with Emily A. Prifogle (Princeton University), Blain and Wulf are co-founders of Women Also Know History. 

Image from the website, Women Also Know History

Related Links

●  News About Women (HNN's constantly updated index of tweets and retweets)

Female Historians Try to End the I-Didn’t-Know-Any-Women Excuse for Men-Only Panels (Chronicle of Higher Ed)

History is a key source of public information and debate. With public figures making regular historical claims and engaging in debates over the meaning of historical sites, more historians are beginning to enter the public fray. Yet historical expertise is still largely perceived—or at least represented—as male.

This is clearly connected to longstanding patterns in the media and academy. Despite efforts to diversify the field of journalism, for example, women are still underrepresented in mainstream media. It is not uncommon to tune into a nightly news program and see an all-male panel of experts discussing some important news topic. Similarly, a quick browse of national newspapers often reveals a troubling pattern: the writers are overwhelmingly white men

As a recent article reveals, women are underrepresented on college campuses—even despite the highly visible group of female presidents at some of the nation’s leading universities. And in history, like other fields such as sociology and political science, women are underrepresented in course syllabi, public reading lists, and conference panels. Even though women are increasingly entering the field, comprise nearly half of graduate degrees awarded in history, and have held leadership positions in significant professional organizations, the persistent problem of gender bias in the academy is one that scholars must continually work to dismantle.

Gender bias runs deep and, not surprisingly, impacts scholarly publishing practices. Scientists have long been attuned to this bias and have documented the problem in studies, revealing that women—as well as minorities—are disadvantaged in hiring and promotion decisions, do not play a large role in peer review, are less likely to be awarded grants and fellowships than their male counterparts, and are less likely to have their published work cited.

Over the last few decades, scholars have employed a range of strategies to address gender bias and inequity in the academy. The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) at Duke University compiled an annotated bibliography of studies as a resource for documenting the “often unconscious and unintentional biases against women.”Recognizing the problems in publishing that will have an impact on researchers’ careers, several professionals in the Society of Scholarly Publishing have been holding “Mind the Gender Gap” sessions at the group’s annual meetings. Organizers Alice Meadows, Director of Community Engagement & Support for ORCID and Lauren Kane, Director of Publisher Relations at BioOne, joined several scholars in an effort to shed light on the gender disparity. They pointed out that despite attracting more women than men, scholarly publishing as an industry still remains dominated by men who hold the industry’s most senior positions

Organizations like the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have supported efforts to close the gender gap in publishing—and in other sectors of the academy and beyond. Their efforts have been supported by public initiatives such as the OpEd Project, which works closely with colleges and universities to “scout and train under-represented experts to take thought leadership positions in their fields.”

In the field of history, several organizations have played critical roles in addressing gender bias, including the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the Association of Black Women Historians, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, and the American Historical Association’s Committee on Women Historians. The latter was first established in 1969 to “advocate for and monitor women's and gender equity in the discipline.” Over the years, the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians have worked to promote women’s and gender history and have offered various recommendations for how history departments can better diversity along the lines of gender.

A new generation of scholars is turning to social media as a vehicle for organizing around this important issue. In 2015, for example, Adeline Koh, Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Stockton University and Sara B. Pritchard, Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, launched the #ilooklikeaprofessor hashtag on Twitter to shed light on the homogeneous and inaccurate representations of professors in mainstream media. As Koh and Richard acknowledged, the typical representation of “professor” is almost always (white) male—a point underscored by a Google search of the word, “professor.” 

Another hashtag, #followwomenwednesday, aims to remediate gender disparities in social media practices. Confirming the work of Bonnie Stewart on social media gendered networks, the hashtag’s founderMegan Kate Nelson noted that despite a self-conscious inclination to support women scholars, even her own social media activity was sharply skewed to promoting male writers. Using Twee-Q, a now defunct analytical tool, she documented that 72% of her retweets were for male-authored work.  

Yet despite heightened awareness and these initiatives, progress has been slow. As historians, we are working with colleagues to shed more light on this issue in our field through a new initiative called “Women Also Know History,” a media and curriculum tool for promoting women historians. 

Drawing inspiration from “Women Also Know Stuff,” an initiative launched by a group of women political scientists, we have collaborated with a diverse group of women historians across the country to make this new media and curriculum tool available for academics and members of the general public. Since their debut in early 2016, the reception within political science has been positive, with featured articles on the websites of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) and various recognitions, including an award for service to the community from the APSA's Women's Caucus for Political Science. 

To date, their website includes over 1200 women scholars, with scholar-provided bios, affiliations, and areas of expertise, and has been used as a resource for journalists from national and international press outlets. Their social media presence is also strong, with over 10,000 followers on Twitter. Members of the editorial board have penned articles, op-eds, and blog posts to publicize the initiative in outlets ranging from the journal PS: Political Science & Politics to the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog. A variety of groups have launched similar initiatives, such as @POCalsoknow for scholars of color in political science.

According to editorial board member Christina Wolbrecht, “WomenAlsoKnowStuff supports efforts to combat implicit bias in every discipline and every country.” “While our limited resources—the volunteer labor of a small group of women in political science—limit our scope to women in our own discipline,” she explained, “we enthusiastically encourage efforts to build similar initiatives for other groups of underrepresented scholars and within other disciplines."

Building on this model, “Women Also Know History” aims to promote the work of women historians. Through social media and a searchable website, we are helping to connect academics and journalists with women historians. Listing women by subject areas and publications, the site also includes resources for women seeking to become more active in public historical dialogue. These efforts will go a long way in amplifying the work of women historians of diverse backgrounds, at various stages of their careers, and in various subfields. This includes women historians who hold positions in and outside of academia.

To be sure, this new initiative will not eliminate the problem of history’s gender bias. Dismantling gender bias requires a wide array of responses and strategies, including changes in hiring and promotion on college campuses.However, by providing a tool that helps to bring more visibility to the work of women historians, “Women Also Know History” is one important step forward in the nationwide effort to close the persistent gender gap in the academy—and change the public face of historical expertise.


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