How Department Chairs Can Promote Gender Equity

Melissa Michelson • Menlo College

Patricia Stapleton • RAND Corporation

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The discipline of political science and academia more generally continue to evade fully realizing gender equity. Women are disproportionately burdened with service commitments, experience systematic bias in their student evaluations of teaching (SETs), and face institutional barriers to effective performance in their professional responsibilities. Department chairs can play an active role in mitigating these challenges and supporting the women in their departments. We outline the actions that department chairs should take.

First, chairs can maintain service-tracking systems to promote equity in service burdens carried by faculty, as outlined by “The Faculty Workload and Rewards Project” (O’Meara 2018). A tracking system provides all faculty with information about how much service their colleagues are doing, including advising loads, class sizes, committee work, and administrative roles. Transparency about service commitments helps promote gender equity in service loads by making clear when women are asked to do more than others (and when men need to step up to do more). If possible, department chairs should reward faculty who take on higher service loads with course releases, pay raises, research support, or other forms of compensation (Pyke 2011).

Second, chairs can host discussions or otherwise share information with students, faculty, and administrators about how SETs are biased against women and people of color. This perspective can inform how tenure and promotion committees interpret SET data, or even spark conversations about how to move away from reliance on SETs as the sole (or primary) means of evaluating teaching effectiveness. Informing students of these biases before administering SETs can mitigate the bias (Peterson et al. 2019).

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Third, chairs should consider making public information about faculty salaries and other benefits (e.g., merit raises, research funds, and course releases)—aggregated in ways that protect individual privacy but that make clear any differences by gender and rank. Chairs can also encourage individual faculty (especially men) to volunteer to share their own personal levels of support, so that women can see how well their own packages compare and whether they might be justified in asking for changes. Pay transparency helps to close the gender pay gap (Bennedsen et al. 2020). Department chairs should also set clear expectations regarding negotiation norms when hiring, and take proactive action to advocate for equity adjustments when there are discrepancies (Cheng et al. 2018).

Finally, chairs should take a leadership role in communicating zero tolerance policies for sexism, including benevolent sexism. Male faculty may need training to understand more subtle variations of sexism and to empower them to speak up (Drury and Kaiser 2014). Chairs should clearly communicate what men should do when they witness something inappropriate—whether they should challenge the inappropriate behavior or make a formal complaint. Sexism (and other biases) continue to present challenges to the individual and institutional success of political scientists and political science departments. Taking these steps to mitigate gender bias in departments not only supports individual women, but also generates a culture of inclusion and equity that benefits all faculty, staff, and students.

Chairs are not the only actors able to realize advances in gender equity in political science; all political scientists and administrators can play a role (see Stapleton and Michelson 2021). But chairs have substantial power to remake the culture and climate of their departments. Taking one or more of the steps outlined here, based in robust social science, are ways to exert that power effectively.


Bennedsen, Morten, Elena Simintzi, Margarita Tsoutsoura, and Daniel Wolfenzon. 2020. “Do Firms Respond to Gender Pay Gap Transparency?” Washington, DC: National Bureau of Economic Research, April.

Cheng, Shannon, Linnea Ng, Rachel C. E. Trump-Steele, Abby Corrington, and Mikki Hebl. 2018. “Calling on Male Allies to Promote Gender Equity in I-O Psychology.” Industrial and Organizational Psychology 11 (3): 389–98.

Drury, Benjamin J., and Cheryl R. Kaiser. 2014. “Allies against Sexism.” Journal of Social Issues 70 (4): 637–52.

O’Meara, Kerry Ann. 2018. “Undoing the Can of Worms” Inside Higher Ed, June 27.

Peterson, David A. M., Lori A. Biderman, David Andersen, Tessa M. Ditonto, and Kevin Roe. 2019. “Mitigating Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching.” PLOS ONE 15 (5): e0216241.

Pyke, Karen. 2011. “Service and Gender Inequity among Faculty.” PS: Political Science & Politics 44 (1): 85–87.

Stapleton, Patricia A., and Melissa R. Michelson. 2021. “Disbanding the Old Boys’ Club: Strategies for Departmental Gender Equity.” PS: Political Science & Politics 54, 2: 20–22.

Dr. Melissa Michelson is Dean of Arts & Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Menlo College. Her academic work is solidly based in activist scholarship. Whether the focus is on members of the Latino, LGBTQ, or other marginalized groups, she uses her research to motivate greater equality and justice for all. Dr. Michelson went to graduate school to become a teacher and delights in leading classroom discussions, but also to write books that might make a difference, inspired by her undergraduate professor at Columbia University, Dr. Charles V. Hamilton. She has since written six books and dozens of journal articles and book chapters and is a nationally recognized expert in Latinx voter mobilization and LGBTQ politics.

Patricia Stapleton (she/her) is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Her research interests include science and technology policy, risk perception and regulation of emerging technologies, risk assessment and communication, and the development and evaluation of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. In particular, Stapleton’s academic work has focused on the adoption and regulation of emerging technologies in food production and assisted reproductive technologies—with recent attention to CRISPR and human germline editing. She also investigates topics in food security, particularly in the context of climate change. Dr. Stapleton uses qualitative methods and an historical institutionalist approach to examine the factors impacting the development of risk regulation (i.e., timing, political and institutional contexts, and public opinion). She holds a PhD and MPhil in political science from the CUNY Graduate Center, as well as an MA in French literature from Rutgers University.


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