In the first month of my education at Princeton, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students at Princeton (ODUS) was selling tickets to a panel at the She Roars conference featuring Princeton alumna and Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. I sat in class during the second week of my freshman seminar and watched as the little red letters signaled to me that the tickets were sold out for the event. 

Coming to Princeton, I was so excited to follow in the footsteps of the Michelle Obamas and Sonia Sotomayors of the world and to get this education that would empower me to continue to lead the way for more female students to pursue higher education in the future. As a high schooler actively involved in all things political, who helped plan our school walkout on the day of March for Our Lives, I idolized women like Sotomayor and Kagan who took their passion and translated it into a career where they had the power to effect real change. I felt some modicum of kinship with these women whom I had never met before simply because they were the physical manifestation of my academic ambition. Thus, when the tickets for an event to simply hear them speak weren’t available, there was some small (actually very large) part of me that ached to go and was crushed knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to do so.

Still, there was that other part of me that felt so validated in my choice to be here, at this great university, where strong, intelligent women went on to be nationally revered for their accomplishments and work in the service of humanity. It is something I still think of today as I write this piece to keep me from becoming too cynical about where I’ve spent the last two years. Because of that, I was able to swallow my disappointment in not attending the panel and get back to discussing how Freud conceptualized the male fear of castration.

Now, I look fondly back to my beginning days in college when I was still relatively doe-eyed and excited to learn that I was only worried about how I could keep up with what seemed like endless theoretical readings and fast-paced lectures. In those first months of school, I was so overwhelmed that I never stopped to think more critically about who I was learning this information from. To me, it was, like, so cool to go back home on break and humblebrag to my friends about Rousseau or Locke or those other guys we’d learned about in AP European History way back when but never actually read.

It wasn’t really until this year, when I confronted a lot of what this university stood for and the institutions it preserved, that it really did matter who we read in class far beyond an author’s notability with respect to College Board courses. The books assigned as required readings or supplemental materials mattered because those reading lists told me whose voices in history and in modern academia were being prioritized. I began to ask questions: who shapes my academic journey through this institution? Am I being taught by contemporary experts in my field with years of research and diverse understanding of concepts? Or is it actually the same 15 men from hundreds of years before, their words twisted and turned and wrung out every which way? The same men whose musings on the world are taken as gospel, deconstructed and reconstructed over and over with some facsimile of nuance?

My answer now may be a bit cynical, but I feel like I’m entitled to a bit of cynicism once in a while, especially because when the first time I saw a reading list that had an even 50-50 distribution of male and female authors, I was shocked. It wasn’t a sudden thing and even looking back at this class I took, I realized that I’d had the impression that there was an overwhelming majority of female authors on our syllabus. In fact, it was more equitable as 7 out of the 13 authors we read identified as female. But this made me confront a different question: why was my perception of this distribution so skewed in hindsight? Was it really that astonishing that approximately half of our core readings were authored by women?

My gut reaction, with absolutely no evidence to prove it, was that I must feel this way because most of my other reading-heavy courses did not assign or encourage the reading of enough academic work written by women. I knew that going into politics and public policy would mean entering a male-dominated field, but I was sure that that didn’t mean female academics simply didn’t exist as my male professors seemed to pretend.

Perhaps that claim isn’t quite as nuanced as it should be; I can’t say that certain unnamed professors of certain unnamed classes pretended women in history and academia didn’t and don’t exist because these professors didn’t do that. Not entirely. But I can claim that as an academic institution Princeton is not doing its best to promote diversity in thought, especially when we stratify by gender.

To prove this, I dug through my old syllabi and reading lists to gather some data. I’m sure there are students on this campus who’ve had other, more equitable experiences, but I’m operating through my own limited—though actively expanding—perspective. That said, in collecting data from three semesters’ worth of reading material (14 courses), I found that of 387 texts, only 69 were authored by women. When we stratify by departmental listing, the most equitable were a History course mentioned above, with 7/13 texts written by women, and my freshman writing seminar, with 8/15 texts written by women. Of the least equitable subjects, there are my Politics classes with 13/132 texts written by women and Urban Studies with 34/124 texts written by women. Proportionally, things are looking pretty bad for the latter two subjects, but in the interest of looking into this with a critical eye, I also ran a few statistical tests to test the probability that a single class would have either extreme (a majority female distribution or an extremely male-heavy distribution.

Similar tests were done in a study conducted by the four scholars Heidi Hardt, Hannah June Kim, Amy Erica Smith, and Philippe Meister. In their write-up, they identify women as being underrepresented in reading lists for International Relations (IR) courses and American politics courses, and I wanted to use the same kind of testing to see how my own experience held up against their research, if my education was truly and objectively lacking in female representation.

To evaluate their findings, Hardt et. al did not assume that there was a 50-50 distribution of female to male contributors, and it wouldn’t make sense to do so given that female academic work is a relatively nascent field. Instead, they list a series of benchmarks that could potentially demonstrate the proportion of women academics contributing written work in their given field:

  1. The share of female PHDs granted in the year 2016 (38%)
  2. The female share of the American Political Science Association members (31%)
  3. The female share of tenure-track faculty at the top 20 largest PHD-granting departments; what they call a proxy for research-active scholars (27%)
  4. The share of publications with female first authors in top 10 publications from between 2000 and 2015 (26.7%).

For my purposes, I’ve decided to use the third percentage as the others, firstly, do not guarantee contribution to scholarly work post-graduation, secondly, again do not guarantee the pursuit of academic work just professional success, and, fourthly, only evaluate a small portion of academic work when female authors might publish outside of those journals analyzed.

I decided to look at each class individually and began with my politics classes. For my freshman fall International Relations class, we read a total of 98 texts. Of those assigned 98, only 10 were authored by women. The statistical probability of only reading 10 female authors when the distribution should be 27-73 was 5.739* e^(-5). For my other politics class from freshman spring, I read 3 female authors out of 34 texts, and the statistical probability of that was 0.01853. It’s also important to mention that of those three texts by female authors, two of them were only introduced in the week we specifically talked about gender inequality issues. Of course, I won’t criticize my professor’s choosing to prioritize female voices at that moment, as that’s what I believe should be done on issues such as that anyway, but what was the logic in not looking for female academic work on other subjects?

From there, I went to look into my Urban Studies class from freshman fall, which assigned 34 female authors of a total of 124 texts. The statistical probability of such a distribution was actually very high at 0.9195, although I’m probably not quite so surprised given that my professor was a woman, unlike the cases where it was statistically improbable to have such a low readership of female academic work.

At this point, I find myself thinking again of my history class. If the distribution of female academics in these fields was 27-73, then how likely was it that that class had a 7-13 distribution of female authors? The answer: not very likely. In doing one final test, I found the probability of such a distribution was 0.05322. Was it really so unlikely that we should be almost completely equitable to men and women authors? Nevertheless, I’m still so grateful to my professor for showing me that as academics, we can carve out spaces to support women and their work, even when they might not exist now.

As an impatient person, I see the merit in immediately cultivating courses that prioritize the voices of women in academia even if it might not be representative of the distribution of scholarly authorship in that field. I don’t know if I could personally wait another 50 years to see the next 25% share of intellectual property be transferred to women. And I know that there are professors at the University who feel the same way. The trouble is keeping them here at an institution that to me seems to favor tradition over a well-rounded education. Perhaps that places the responsibility to promote female authorship on us, the students, even when our professors might not see how it is necessary because we cannot perpetuate the myth that female voices aren’t essential to our education. Heidi Hardt calls the progress that women have made in academia a “leaky pipe.” And it is. Progress we’ve made over the years is slow-going as there are forces, both knowingly and unknowingly, acting against it. We have entered into the scholarly fields, we’ve published our own work, but we’re still waiting for these ancient institutions to catch up and actually teach what brilliant women have written.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.