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Fostering a Sense of Belonging: Incorporating Women into Your Public Administration Curriculum

stack of thick books on table
By Megan E. Hatch, Cleveland State University:

Summer for me is a time of deep reflection. Thinking about finishing lingering projects, starting new research projects, my courses. This year, the last one is particularly salient. I am spending this summer focusing on revising the curriculum of two of the most important courses in our MPA program: the introductory course and the capstone. The necessity of getting this right cannot be overstated. For most students, the MPA is a terminal degree, so this is the opportunity to introduce them to the history, norms, and expectations of public administration. Certainly they will learn more as they continue their careers, but if they are not satisfied with their introduction to the field they may not continue in public service.

One thing I keep returning to is the importance of showing my students there is a place for them within public administration. Regardless of their gender identity, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or anything else, they can make a difference in their community. Many students already have public service motivation, so I see my role as cultivating a sense of belonging. To me, belonging comes from understanding the diversity of public administration. That is a topic I cannot possibly do justice to here, so instead, I will focus on the topic of my recent article in the Journal of Public Affairs Education(JPAE)―gender.Some of my favorite articles to get you started on other topics are by Vanessa Lopez-Littleton and Brandi Blessett, Domonic A. Bearfield, and a 2011 JPAE symposium.

In my JPAE article, I make the argument that the 3 Cs (content, context, and concepts) need to be aligned. By this, I mean the concepts we teach in the classroom, which are reflected in the content of readings, activities, and lectures, should match the context of the on-the-ground experiences of public administrators. Yet, this is not the case today. If you were to look at a typical MPA syllabus, you would think the field is dominated by men. I found on average, less than 20 percent of authors assigned in top-ranked MPA programs’ introductory courses were female and never was that over 42 percent. With an average of 59 percent of students enrolled in NASPAA-accredited programs identifying as female, it is clear women are an integral part of public administration.

One way to make women feel included in public administration is to include more women in our syllabi. When I say that, the common response is “But the founders of public administration were men.” It is true, Wilson, Gulick, Simon, Waldo, Wildavsky, and a host of others were (white) men. But that does not mean women were not part of public administration from the beginning. Camilla Stivers’ groundbreaking book should not be forgotten: as the field took a turn towards a scientific approach, women’s methods and contributions were devalued. This, coupled with the observation that women originally published less than men in public administration journals, lends credence to the idea that the field is dominated by men. However, since the late 1990s, this gender bias has been changing and even eliminated by controlling for mitigating factors . In fact, women are now more likely to publish in top-tier journals. While the contention that the founders of the field were all men remains prevalent, it is neither an accurate representation of the field today nor of public service historically. Those of us with Ph.D.’s in Public Administration probably had a comprehensive exam reading list dominated by men. Often instructors teach what they were taught, perpetuating this dominance of male authors. If like me, summer is a time of reflection for you, I implore you to stop this cycle and revise your curriculum to reflect the contributions of women.

How can you do this, given the earlier observations that men originally published more in public administration journals, and the “classics” are written by men? I have a variety of recommendations in my article, and othershavesuggestionsas well, but I want to focus here on incorporating research by women into your curriculum.

There is undoubtedly value in learning our field’s history. In fact, I believe it is essential for students to understand the various iterations and themes, from the politics/administration dichotomy to Scientific Management to New Public Administration and New Public Service. Yes, many of the original articles and books on these topics were written by men. But those were not the final words written on the topics. An easy way to incorporate more women in your syllabus is to pair a male-authored “classic” with something a woman wrote. Some of my favorites include complementing Woodrow Wilson with the Perspectives on Politics symposium on his legacy, Martha Derthick with the Federalist Papers,  Norma Riccucci with Michael Lipsky and street level bureaucrats, and Deborah Stone with Herbert Simon and bounded rationality. When teaching budgeting, leadership, nonprofits, bureaucracy, or performance management, there are plenty of established and early career female scholars whose work will only enhance student understanding of these topics. There is nothing in the Laws of Teaching Public Administration ™ that say readings must be at least 50 years old. If anything, newer articles and books help students understand what they can expect as they enter the field.

This devaluing of women scholars is not unique to public administration. Jeff Colgan has an excellent article on this process in internal relations. The group Women Also Know Stuff was founded after a media article cited several influential political scientists, all of whom were male. The Women Also Know Stuff movement includes a website with a database of women scholars by specialty, Twitter account, and an explanatory journal article. That database has a listing of 76 women public administration scholars, by the way. They inspired other organizations, including Academic Women in Public Administration (AWPA), a group in which I am a board member. Search our database and you will see a list of almost 400 women scholars in the field. Our Twitter account frequently highlights new articles and books by women. We host meet-ups and panels at conferences. All those resources are places to look to see the myriad of ways women are contributing to the field.

After you have made these changes, use the Gender Balance Assessment Tool (GBAT) developed by Jane Lawrence Sumner to test the gender balance of your syllabi. Feeling ambitious? I hope you are. Do not stop there. What I have offered you is a mostly technical solution to an adaptive problem. We also need systematic change to the structures and philosophy of the field. That is hard work, but is the only way to incorporate marginalized groups fully into public administration. I recommend starting by thinking about who is left out of your curriculum, why, and how you can incorporate those other voices. I am not claiming this is easy; in fact, I can personally attest to how difficult it is. I am going to be spending a lot of time this summer working on those two courses, and they will not be perfect. Incorporating diversity into our curriculum is a never-ending process. But it is an essential one if you want, as I do, to foster a true sense of belonging among our public administration students.

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