Advice for Women and for their Colleagues and Mentors: An Interview with Frances E. Lee

Advice for Women and for their Colleagues and Mentors: An Interview with Frances E. Lee

By SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor, University of Maryland and Frances E. Lee, Princeton University

SoRelle Gaynor (SG): When you first started graduate school or as a new professor, were you aware of a gender disparity in the field of legislative studies?

Frances Lee (FL): I wasn’t. And, in fact, when I first started out, there were particular women scholars who were very visible in the legislative politics field. Obviously, there was Barbara Sinclair. There was Linda Fowler and Diana Evans as well. When I started my first job—a one-year research fellowship at Brookings right after grad school—Sarah Binder was on staff there and Wendy Schiller was a visiting scholar. I was well aware of work by all of these scholars as I studied for comps and worked on my dissertation. So, there seemed to be quite a few women in the field. It was only later, over time, that I began to see that women are a distinct minority in legislative studies. It’s not unusual today to go to panels where most—if not all—of the panelists are men and most everyone in the audience is a man, too. But I wasn’t cognizant of this at the start. That impression evolved over time.

SG: Do you see any reason for this gender imbalance? And what approach could legislative scholars take in addressing this gap?

FL: It seems to be true of the study of American institutions overall. The presidency subfield also is very male dominated, just like legislative studies. I can’t say I have a good explanation of why this would be the case. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the object of one’s study in these fields is mostly men. There’s clearly some kind of self-selection dynamic in which female graduate students interested in American politics tend to gravitate toward other subjects rather than legislative studies.

Being cognizant of this imbalance can help legislative scholars be mindful of their choices so that they ensure that any woman who wants to study in this field feels welcome. They should ask themselves if they are equally approachable to male and female students. Certainly, they’d want to consider the syllabi they put together: Are they appropriately representative of good work by female scholars? Being self-aware about those imbalances can be helpful. But I think the cause of the gender disparity in the field owes more to patterns in graduate-student interest and self-selection rather than unfriendliness toward women.

SG: You mentioned prominent legislative scholars when you started out. What impact did this have on you, and what advice do you have for young scholars looking for mentors?

FL: As a young scholar, I certainly looked up to the trailblazing women who preceded me in the field. I especially admired Barbara Sinclair. When she spoke on panels, she always had great insights and was very clear—and she had such a fun, dynamic personality too. At an early conference when I was still a graduate student and didn’t know anybody there, Linda Fowler came up to me in the exhibit hall and introduced herself. She’d heard about me from Bruce Oppenheimer, who was my mentor at Vanderbilt, and just made the contact. I never forgot that she was welcoming to me. Just the friendly hello from a scholar I looked up to meant a lot to me at that juncture. The presence of female role models does make a difference for younger people coming into a field, and they were present for me. Even though it was a field in which women were a minority, role models were not absent.

As younger scholars seek mentors for themselves, I think it’s unfair to put all the burden on them to know what they need to look for. People just starting out in graduate school typically don’t know what they don’t know–and aren’t yet even in a position to know what to ask. Faculty in the field have to take responsibility for students in their program because they are in a better position to know what’s needed than the students themselves, at least initially. But the key things for young scholars to ask as they look for mentors: Is the faculty member responsive? Will they read your work and give you timely feedback? Are they available to meet or have a conversation? There are great scholars who don’t take much interest in graduate students’ work. In some cases, it might still pay off to be a student of such a person because of their fame, but if you want mentorship, then you need to take stock of whether a scholar will engage with students in that way.

For those in a mentorship role, it’s great to talk to female graduate students about the challenges that they face. To have frank conversations about practical things, like what to wear on job interviews, what sort of subjects are appropriate to bring up, and how early in the interview process to initiate conversations about various subjects. Being willing to have those conversations is an important kind of mentorship.

For those in a mentorship role, it’s great to talk to female graduate students about the challenges that they face. To have frank conversations about practical things, like what to wear on job interviews, what sort of subjects are appropriate to bring up, and how early in the interview process to initiate conversations about various subjects. Being willing to have those conversations is an important kind of mentorship.

SG: Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? And, if so, how do you get past it and what would you encourage other women to do?

FL: Yes, I have experienced it. It was a big part of my life, especially early on in my career. In graduate school, I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to earn a PhD, but I often did question whether I was going to succeed. It takes years to develop the amount of expertise that you think you need to have the title Professor. It takes a long time, even after successfully defending a dissertation, to feel ready to uphold others’—and your own—expectations about what it means to be an expert in a field. It’s an ongoing challenge to live up to what you think you should be. And overcoming the imposter syndrome—which is always a work in a progress for many of us—is a matter of lots of preparation. Preparation helps you develop confidence, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

SG: What are some disadvantages you see women facing in legislative studies? Advantages?

FL: One disadvantage, I think, is that coauthoring relationships are a little harder to develop for women. Oftentimes, male scholars are friends with one another, and then coauthoring projects grow out of a friendship. That kind of bonding is just easier among people of the same sex. Obviously, working together with others is helpful, especially for people early in their career. Given the gender imbalance in the field, I think it’s a little harder for women to get to develop those collaborative relationships. Not to say it’s impossible, but it’s just harder.

I do think that as departments try to diversify, female candidates often get a closer look. Most departments don’t want to have an overwhelmingly male-tilted faculty distribution, and so being female can get you some scrutiny on the job market. This can open up opportunities, given that there are so few women who study legislative politics. Female scholars in the legislative field also often get extra opportunities to serve on panels or to participate in conferences as organizers try to ensure some gender balance.

One piece of advice to scholars working on these fraught issues around gender balance and representation: it can be a bit demoralizing to women scholars to feel that they have only been selected to fill a quota. When you ask a woman scholar to participate in a panel or conference or some other effort and they decline, it’s a little off-putting to then ask them, “Can you name some other women?” That’s not great for the self-esteem of your female colleagues.

SG: On a larger scale, how do you see the current political climate and movements like MeToo potentially shaping the field?

FL: MeToo presents some really thorny problems for the academy. This is not a legislative studies problem; this is just a problem of how universities are organized. Many wonderful features of universities flow from the tenure system and the independence faculty have. The system allows faculty to work on what they’re interested in, not to be subject to the fads that administrators can be very eager to embrace, to develop an expertise because they care about it and believe that it’s important, and to keep at it even if maybe not everybody sees the value at any given time—these are great features of the system. The whole decentralized structure of universities, all of that grows out of the tenure system.

If you do away with that, then you introduce new accountability relationships that would have some good features in the form of being able to better police problem behavior. But it would have many downsides for academic freedom and university organization. This is a particularly troubling set of tradeoffs for the MeToo era. Bad faculty behavior is not something universities are great at policing, but growing recognition of this problem highlights that bad faculty behavior is an issue for universities as well as for the victims of inappropriate behavior.

SG: What about citations? Do you cite someone with multiple, credible allegations? Obviously, there’s not a right answer to any of this.

FL: That’s an interesting question I’d never considered before. My thinking would be that you cite work that influenced you or that was foundational for your work, regardless of the source. If a piece of work was important to the development of your project or your paper, then you cite where citation is due. Personnel decisions are another matter. If you’re trying to hire somebody for a job, then you’d absolutely want to take into account whether that person has a record of mistreating students or colleagues. But with regard to citation, that ought to be just on the basis of the academic merits of the matter.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*