“Educating global leaders” is the motto of our university, the Diplomatische Akademie Wien (DA). While this motto is, to a certain extent, reflected by the diversity of our student body, the academic staff, reading lists, and topics are predominantly white, men, and from a US or European background. Hence, referring to the feminist scholar of color Sara Ahmed, some colleagues experience academia, or the Academy in our case, as something that is neither shaped by nor for them.
However, this is not an isolated case. The DA contributes to the dominant practice of teaching international affairs, which follows the same rules. This issue has been addressed by (student) initiatives such as Why is My Curriculum White? (UCL), Decolonising the Academy or #WomenAlsoKnowStuff. In the book White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations, Robert Vitalis shows how the teaching of International Relations (IR) was canonized by ignoring IR’s colonial origins and elaborates on why syllabi tend to look the same among different institutions. However, this phenomenon cannot only be observed in IR scholarship but also in many other courses taught at the DA. In this vein of thought, we are addressing the need for more diversity in our education.
Nowhere is this lack of diversity more apparent than in our reading lists. Readings lists are central to how students interact with the discipline. For instance, some scholars argue that a syllabus is “one of the most important (…) aspects of conducting a course” and serves as a “lasting statement to which students can refer again and again.” Thus, in case a syllabus does not reflect the diversity of opinions and writers in the field, it can contribute to solidifying discriminatory patterns. Indeed, syllabi that are mostly based on readings written by men offer a certain take on the discipline that is androcentric and enhances gender-based power asymmetries.
To ensure comparability, we scanned the lists of the mandatory core courses for each of the two currently running Master programs (ETIA and MAIS) of the study year 2022/2023. These courses are at the heart of each curriculum and therefore have a fundamental role in shaping the students’ education and academic experience at the DA.
To quantitatively analyze the authors of the articles and ensure comparability, the reading lists were analyzed with the help of the Gender Balance Assessment Tool (GBAT) created by Jane L. Sumner. This tool evaluates the probabilistic gender of each given first name and the probabilistic race of the author based on their surname. Regarding gender, this tool only allows for a binary categorization and does not account for people not associating themselves within a binary gender order. It is also worth noting that there is a limitation on how race is determined, since the algorithm in the tool utilizes US-based data. Consequently, surnames not as common in the USA are listed as “unknown,“ which is why results must be handled carefully. However, we believe that since the DA curriculum is internationally oriented and similar to US curricula, the results are arguably valid.
The numbers above are quite indicative of a narrow-minded curriculum, which is not consistent with the DA’s motto of “educating global leaders.” But the DA is not the only one: some scholars analysed the curricula of London School of Economics, and found a significant gender bias. Indeed, only 20% of assigned readings include at least one woman author, whereas 80% are written exclusively by men. At the DA, the numbers are even more skewed. In the syllabi of the MAIS core courses, we found that around 84% of the assigned readings were written by men and only 8% by women (with 8% Unknown). The numbers are similar for the ETIA core courses, with 84% of the assigned readings written by men, 7% by women (and 10% Unknown). This can be explained by a general problem in the field of IR. Indeed, the existing literature points to a general problem of gender inclusivity in IR which we can extend to the other disciplines of the DA, namely economics, law, and history. Although this bias does not indicate that the syllabi are qualitatively “good” or “bad”, it nevertheless builds a certain vision of the various fields and an outlook on the world that (subtly) reinforces and normalizes the underrepresentation of women in academics. The idea behind this is that, as feminist theory reminds us, knowledge is not neutral, and neither should be a curriculum. Both reflect and enhance societal and institutional trends.
First, using readings only by men enhances their dominance in various fields of academia.. Some academics point out that women authors are more rarely cited by men authors or mix-gendered teams. Students thus mostly interact with papers written by men, which actively contributes to the underrepresentation of women in the various fields. These scholars moreover affirm that this reveals patterns of both inclusion and exclusion and thus cannot be just solved by including more women, and “’diverse’ authors and perspectives” in syllabi. The idea is that lectures should not just include women and “diverse” authors in the syllabi for the sake of introducing gender variety, but rather to show a plurality of opinions in the field and how several theories or interpretations interact.
In terms of race, our study has revealed that 63% of the authors in the syllabi of MAIS’ core courses were white and 53% in the ETIA curriculum. Although those numbers seem almost satisfactory, it is worth recalling that the race of 32% and 39% of the authors in the readings assigned is “Unknown” for MAIS and ETIA, respectively, leaving a high margin for error. The importance of including non-white authors in the curriculum is not just to fulfill a quota or diversity requirement. It is rather to expand the breadth of perspectives and practices that the DA can offer its students. By studying only white authors, students only learn about limited perspectives borne out of similar social, cultural and epistemological structures. Consequently, students “assume a universal ontology and epistemology” for each of the fields studied and are less aware of the changes in the fields. For instance, one academic points out that, in IR, commonly used theories, such as Realism or Neoliberalism, are criticized because they only represent the Western view of the world. This idea is strengthened by other academics who point out that the theories studied at US universities, which are the classical IR theories,do not appropriately explain the state of politics in the Global South. This can be furthermore broadened to the other disciplines of the DA, i.e. economics, history, and law. Overall, including more readings from non-white authors can help students have a better and broader understanding of the fields taught at the DA.
Finally, the core courses are predominantly taught by the university’s residential staff and, thus, directly reflect the central discourse. Regarding academic staff, women teach one out of 17 courses. For MAIS, there are no women who teach any of the eight core courses, which limits the perspectives.
To reinforce these arguments, one can cite Matos-Alo who asserts that including a diversity of voices from different contexts can prevent a narrow-minded curriculum. She furthermore argues that diversity develops students’ critical-thinking skills needed to meaningfully engage and contribute to current debates, such as on the issue of decolonisation, something a strictly Western-bound curriculum does not prepare students for. Finally, this article aims not at invalidating or sidelining Western theories and white men authors, but rather as a critical call for our institution to broaden our syllabi in order to be more gender- and racially-inclusive. An institution that shapes the minds of tomorrow’s global leaders should itself champion an education that is holistic, diverse, and truly global–like the students who walk its halls.
Written by Henri Gasquet and Matthias Mersich; Edited by Jason Kancylarz
Photo credit to: Julia Drössler