Female Historians Try to End the I-Didn’t-Know-Any-Women Excuse for Men-Only Panels

News from Jun 13, 2018

Female Historians Try to End the I-Didn’t-Know-Any-Women Excuse for Men-Only Panels

 https://www.chronicle.com/article/Female-Historians-Try-to-End/243626

By Nell Gluckman June 08, 2018 

 

Courtesy of Women Also Know History 

The site Women Also Know History is meant to make it abundantly easy to find female historians to invite to speak at conferences, quote in articles, or add to a syllabus. 

It got a little bit harder this week to include only white men on syllabi, panels, or in articles.

Following in the footsteps of other disciplines, a group of female historians unveiled a searchable online database on Tuesday listing their peers’ areas of expertise and contact information. The site — called Women Also Know History — is meant to make it abundantly easy to find female historians to invite to speak at conferences, quote in articles, or add to a syllabus. 

“This comes up time and time again,” said Keisha N. Blain, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the site’s creators. She said she often attends conferences where the panelists are all or mostly men. Sometimes she’s asked the organizers, Could you really not find a woman to talk about this? 

“The answer is always, ‘I didn’t know who to invite,’ or, ‘I didn't know any women,’ or, ‘I invited one or two but they weren’t available,’ so here we are with six men talking on the panel,” Blain said. “When one person says no, you have to ask another.” 

The question of who gets called on to be an expert has been in the news recently. Several reporters have analyzed their articles and found that only about a quarter of the people they quoted were women, even though they knew about representation issues. In March, the issue boiled over when an invitation-only history conference hosted by Niall Ferguson,a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was publicized on social media. The conference included 30 panelists, all of whom were white and male — a stark example of what’s become known as a manel.  

That conference got a lot of people angry, but the database of female historians was not a direct response, said Karin Wulf, a history professor at the College of William & Mary and another of the database’s organizers. She and the other founders started working on the concept more than a year ago and have been using social media to push for more representation of female historians since then. 

Wulf sees the database as a tool to address a widespread issue of the representation of women in history and other disciplines. She said she’s been aware of the issue since she was a child and could see that her mother, Anita K. Jones, a computer scientist who became a professor in the 1970s, was often the only woman in the room. 

“This notion of professional women being alone and lonely was something that was clear to me,” she said. “It was ambient.”

The idea for Women Also Know History came from the initiative Women Also Know Stuff,which includes a database of 1,650 female-identifying political scientists. There’s also, Diverse Sources, a database of underrepresented people who can talk to reporters about science, health, and the environment, as well as online lists of female neuroscientists,astronomers, and physicists. The website and Twitter account People of Color Also Know Stuff was created to promote the work of political-science scholars of color. 

How to Sign Up

Historians who want to be included in the new database should fill out a form online. They can indicate their area of expertise and whether they’re open to media interviews. The site can be searched by the topic, time period, or geographic area of study. Blain said organizers are working hard to encourage women of color to sign up. 

Within 24 hours of making the site public, 500 people had filled out the form. By Friday morning the number was close to 1,000. A graduate student at William & Mary, Maddison Rhoa, is checking the site to make sure the profiles are real. 

Wulf spoke with the organizers of Women Also Know Stuff about issues they’d had to address so she knew some questions to consider. For example, the site for political scientists includes only scholars who have or are working towards Ph.D.s. Wulf said the historians’ database will list any historian working professionally, which could include archivists, National Park Service historians, or others who might not have a Ph.D. 

Some issues are still being worked out. For example, the online form included a question asking what state the historian is from, which Wulf said made some people think the database was just for historians in the United States, although it’s intended to be global.

The organizers of Women Also Know Stuff plan to study the impact of their work. By last summer, the site had been viewed more than 80,000 times by 15,000 people, and a survey of journalists showed that those who knew about it were using it. 

But Yanna Krupnikov, an associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University and a member of the Women Also Know Stuff advisory board, said the organization really wants to know what impact the site has had on the field. She applied for a grant from the American Political Science Association to study whether the problem is that women are not applying to present at conferences or that their proposals are not being selected. She also wants to look into whether the organization’s work is influencing who gets to speak at invitation-only seminars.  

A big part of the effort is just making sure people are thinking about the composition of their panels and syllabi, Wulf said. Emily Prifogle, a history Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University who also helped launch Women Also Know History, said that even before the database went public, scholars were asking one another for suggestions of female historians to invite to panels. 

“I’ve seen personal stories with experiences of gender bias within the profession,” said Prifogle, who monitors the site’s social-media accounts. “But I’ve also been really excited with fellow panelists who want to make sure we have a diverse panel, with women and people of color.”

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at nell.gluckman@chronicle.com.

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