‘There are so many women
’, a colleague whispered at last year’s induction. It must be noted that this particular colleague had just arrived from Sandhurst, where there are rather a lot of men. But he’s right. Development Studies
is awash with female students. Why? And – if there really is something significant driving this gender bias at M.Sc. level – what implications does this have for the wider politics of development?
This is a conversation I’ve now had many times. The anecdotal evidence is clear. At LSE, I have ten academic advisees. This year, they’re all women. Last year, nine of them were. It’s not that unusual to teach a seminar where a lone male (depending on temperament, either terrified or elated) sits surrounded by fourteen female students. On the M.Sc. course I taught in Oxford, two or three years previously there had been only three male students had passed into legend. This fact had passed into legend, so that the current slightly less-skewed gender ratio was presented as almost balanced.
Official statistics back up personal observation. At LSE between 2009 and 2012, 72% of Development Studies and 78% of Development Management students were female. The department’s new degree, International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies, had 62% female students in its first year (2011). This year it’s 72%. (Most of these statistics are here – though you’ll need an LSE log-in).
In other words, it’s disproportionately women who are studying development. But why? It’s pure speculation, but I’m going to hazard a guess that it might reflect a very different interest in understanding conflict and power. While this is clearly a crude distinction, Conflict and Security studies often dissect war in technical and political terms from above. And traditionally, the battlefield is a very gendered space indeed. In contract, Development considers the human cost of poverty and crisis from below. When I’m in the mood to provoke, I’ve been known to suggest that International Relations is for those people who want to understand and share power: International Development appeals to people who want to change the way power is distributed. Could experiences of gender play into these choices?
This is not to suggest that there’s something innate about women in Development studies. Oh no. Leave your “nurturing” and “caring” adjectives to one side. The women I teach and work alongside are bright, articulate, determined. Often radical. And I feel incredibly lucky to work in a professional field where strong women are the norm not the exception. I’d have no problem naming half-a-dozen female mentors with remarkable careers who have not played by the patriarchy’s rules. It’s that, I think, which means the number of women choosing Development Studiesis remarkable. And I’d argue it deserves recognition beyond shared anecdotes over lunch, or occasional worries about the “gender gap” or the “missing men”.
Why? Because the men aren’t missing, even if the male students are off studying war and inter-state relations. I’ve been called an “honorary middle-aged male” on at least one previous occasion because I’m not listening to the lectures: I’m giving them. Structures of power, social expectations and the facts of biology combine to mean that far fewer than should of these bright women are likely to climb the career ladder to the top in Development. A waste of talent? Yes. But more than that. If I’m right, and the number of women choosing to study development reflects at some level a more fundamental interest in prioritizing problems differently, in placing people rather than institutions at the centre of our gaze, what’s being lost is a much wider chance to rethink social and political order.
So the end of men (in Development) and the rise of women? Not quite yet (and nor should the second be premised on the first). But I do think it’s time to more openly acknowledge the gender dynamics of Development Studies, and to see this in positive terms. This could start a discussion which goes beyond superficial labels that just reinforce gendered stereotypes, and instead considers how the supporting number of women choosing to work in this field could help to shape human development for the better.