In Honor of Women’s Day: Women Studying International Relations

In Honor of Women’s Day: Women Studying International Relations

Ok, I’m biased about this subject matter (international relations being my main area of focus, and me being a woman), but since entering my graduate international relations program I’ve noticed something quite striking:

Males outnumber females.  By a very large number.

In my Chinese International Relations and Security Class, there are 5 females and perhaps 15 males.  My other classes also hold the same demographic.  I always imagined international relations to be a relatively balance degree of gender (it’s not engineering), but I was alarmed by the contrast.  International Relations (IR) is basically an extension of politics–and there are no women in it.

Class Conduct

I’m not an outspoken, hyperactive woman.  I wish I was.  I don’t raise my hand immediately after the professor asks a question.  In fact, I’m very considerate about voicing a valid and thoughtful opinion when participating in class instead of just blurting out whatever comes to mind. Rather than ramble,  I’d rather keep quiet until I can form a valid opinion.

Here’s an example:

“During the Cold War, why did the US care so much about the ‘domino effect’ spread of communism in Asia compared to, say, Africa–or Latin America?  Why was Asia so important?”

I envisioned the map of the world in my mind and it came to me instantly:


Yet I didn’t raise my hand.  I wasn’t confident in my answer.

One of the male students raised their hand and said geo-proximity (closer to former USSR); the professor said that was not the case.  I remained silent.  For whatever reason, I didn’t feel confident enough in my answer to raise my hand.

Finally, one of the white male students said:

“Aren’t there like, more people in Asia or something?”

And the teacher praised him.  Said that was exactly right–even though I was thinking it all along.  And much more eloquently.

I hated myself.  Why was I always so quiet?  Why didn’t I raise my hand?  Why am I so self conscious?I looked around my class and realized:

All the students who raise their hand and constantly voice their opinion are, primarily, a white male.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want to blame my lack of response on the fact that I think males were given priority in early education.  Or because I’m female.  Or whatever social construct you want to come up with.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the confidence and proactive responses of mostly white males is more than just mere coincidence?  Perhaps they don’t question their self-confidence or logic because, in essence, it has always been validated?

I read a recent article in the New York Times about the construct of self-confidence in young females.  Basically the study found that females from 5-7 believed that they themselves, or other females in the class, were the smartest of the bunch.  This changed from 11 and onward, when all females agreed that the males were the smartest group in the class despite the females superior academic performance.

Throughout my life I always thought myself shy.  I always thought that it was just me–a purely personal problem, in essence–that prevented me from speaking up at large gatherings.  Yet since joining this IR graduate program, I realize that I’m not the only one keeping quiet:

All women are quiet.

The fact that only the white males constantly voice their opinions (and rarely the males of color, or even the white females) was alarming to me indeed.

And I’m a realist, so I don’t want to harp on this so much. Ok, so white men were trained to be the leaders of our society–then what?  What can I do to change the status quo?

I try.  I try to raise my hand more.  Speak up more.  Write smarter papers.  Stand out more.  But honest to god–it’s hard.  It’s hard to overcome years of social construct.  I shake when I speak up in class.  When I form an opinion in my head, I question whether it’s valid or not at least twenty times before I even think about raising my hand (and that’s if a white male hasn’t beat me to it).  I really hate myself in those moments, and I wish I could stand up more not just for women but for minorities (as a half-Asian, I consider myself as a weird-hybrid minority).

If we look at the IR realm today, women are barely in it.  Angela Merkel.  Theresa May.  And that’s it.

Some Foreign minister from the government of Japan came to speak at our school, and while she was an inspiration in some ways she was just a puppet in others.  She rattled off platitudes without real advice.  Bare bones diplomacy.

On the other hand, a female professor at my school was the assistant deputy to the secretary of state for China under the Clinton administration, and she basically pieced together the China-Task-Force plan for the new administration  in 2017 (she wasn’t expecting Trump, but gave it to him nevertheless).  An inspiration.  She was bold, concise and smart.  Eloquent, kind, and firm.  A true role model for all women.

But aside from a handful of these women in IR, the majority of this sector is dominated by men.  Like a splash of cold water to the face, I realized IR was a male-dominated industry.  Making it as a woman in this world isn’t easy.  Not at all.  And damn, it gets me depressed.

But not despondent.

So to all you women in tough fields–I hear you.  Don’t give up.  Don’t compromise yourself.  No matter how hard it is, try to raise your hand.  Show up your male classmate.  Don’t give in.

**PS: I apologize for lack of updates.  Holy god, does graduate school kill all of your free time.  I literally sleep, eat, study–repeat.  It’s been a terrible few months.  I’m learning a lot and I love it, yet at the same time I’m wondering if I can survive.  I have four 10 page papers due in the next two weeks.  Ouch.  Hopefully following this semester I can cram in some more blog posts.  Apologies in advance for the lack of posts–they’ll be back, I promise!!**

15 thoughts on “In Honor of Women’s Day: Women Studying International Relations

  1. Great blog! Thank you. I hope you keep going and get to the top and never give up! You be the role model have been there too. Please remember huge numbers of us men feel just the same. There are ‘thick skinned ‘ people of both sexes that are not in anyway self conscious. Go for it -and keep us updated!

    1. Thank you! Very happy to receive your comment 🙂

      I know, I am also aware of some white men who are also shy and hesitant to participate in class–I had to make sweeping generalizations but from my own personal experience the white-male confidence seems to be the norm.

      Also, there are a few women in my class who are quite outspoken and extremely smart. I’m in awe of them and, honestly, wish I could make intelligent remarks that are even half as good as theirs. Again, there are exceptions.

      Thanks for your support! I’ll do my best

  2. Great post! Oh, this is so true: “God grant me the confidence of a mediocre white male.”

    I was not quiet in class. If I knew the answer, my hand was up. If I disagreed, I argued. And all too often, after the white boys in my high school English class watched me answer correctly for the millionth time, they would mime machine-gunning me. It hurt, but I kept answering.

    I wish I’d had the courage to flip them off.

    But other women had it worse. They hadn’t been encouraged to debate with their brothers or sisters or parents. They hadn’t been praised for being smart. Being disliked by the white boys bothered them so much that they quit answering questions. They started playing dumb in 9th grade and by graduation, it wasn’t entirely an act. They didn’t question or think critically, they just asked smart boys for answers. And the white boys ate it up and thought they were the shit.

    Our high school valedictorian used to hide her textbooks behind magazines when she studied — she didn’t want to look too nerdy.

    1. I hear a lot of stories about women who ‘pretend to be stupid’ because it helps them fit in better..? Ahhh!! Makes me so sad! Like your valedictorian story 🙁

      I hope things will change. Otherwise I’ll have to raise my daughter in Sweden or something, haha…

    2. I wonder if this is something more common in southern California, where popularity is based more on looks and sociability. At least here in the Bay Area, smart is the new sexy. The smart kids were the most popular in school.

      1. My high school population was about 3,000 and in the DC area on the East Coast. Too big to have any one super popular clique (or I just didn’t notice). There were smart popular kids and sport popular kids and cheerleader popular kids.

        If they wanted to impress the not-as-smart kids, though, I guess other girls felt compelled to hide their AP textbooks and polysyllabic words. Because God forbid you threaten their egos or make them feel inferior.

        Like, I dunno, HILLARY CLINTON.

        I hope you are right and that is changing, though.

      2. It’s not. Did women raise their hand a lot in your class? More than the men?

        I’m sure the smartest girl wasn’t the most popular girl–and same for the guys. I’m sure the cutest girl, who was smart enough, was the most popular. Am I wrong?

        Anyway, popularity wasn’t the point of my post. The point of my post was female confidence. Throughout a woman’s life (not just high school) she is constantly placed below her male peers (indirectly). This is proven research.

        Sometimes it’s not even about grades. A lot of women (like I wrote in the post) get great grades, but they don’t speak up in class. They aren’t aggressively confident. And usually it’s the slightly-above-average-white-male who grow up and develop personality traits that US employers supposedly want, which is ‘speaking up,’ ‘taking leadership,’ ‘being proactive.’ How are women supposed to develop these skills when we’re being subconsciously taught to not speak up, get along with everyone and practice complacency?

  3. Good post, Mary. I used to be shy too. Now I’m not, but only when I am not speaking in Spanish. My mother tongue makes me shy, I don’t know why. (I read somewhere that each of the languages you speak gives you a different personality and in my case it is absolutely true. I am less shy in English, and not shy at all in Chinese).

    I also remember thinking the correct answer in school but not saying it aloud. Sigh! It got better in high school, when I was in a small class of similarly nerdy people.

    1. Your language comment is so interesting!! You’re absolutely right–I’m not shy or hesitant AT ALL in Chinese.

      I think Japanese is one of the languages that helped tone down my opinion. In Japanese language and culture you’re supposed to be quiet and humble with a key emphasis on listening. It goes against Japanese culture and mentality to persistently speak up.

      In English I’m shy. Honestly, I feel intimidated by my American peers. I think cause I grew up Asian my mom emphasized humility and perseverance and all those Asian values, where in America it’s all about being strong, forceful, pursuing your own agenda, loud, insistent… just a lot of clashing factors.

      I strangely feel liberated in Chinese, probably because I don’t have to worry about manners so much. You can say almost anything you want in Chinese and not sound rude (or you sound rude, but no one cares). I love it.

      1. This is a really interesting sub topic that I’d be interested in hearing more about (maybe one of you talented tri-lingual ladies could write a post about it, or maybe you already have somewhere?)

        My Chinese is not yet good enough for me to have any personality in it (except maybe struggling, bumbling person who can never seem to find all the words to express what I want to say!) I loved what you said about nobody caring if you sound rude in Chinese Mary! My Chinese fiance thinks I will be meaner in Chinese and he’s probably right haha

      2. Interesting! As far as I understand, there is also an emphasis on listening in Chinese culture, especially if you’re a woman, if someone’s more senior, … but maybe most Chinese just don’t expect non-Chinese to adhere to it? I know I’ve been considered quite rude for speaking my mind sometimes, but people will not usually tell me directly because that would be rude too or I simply got a pass as a foreigner who doesn’t understand the culture enough. In general though I do think that we can all benefit from listening more, but it shouldn’t be just because we’re a woman or because we’re younger than someone else.

        I’m not a very good speaker, I feel like I can express myself better in writing and I always need a little time to process things and think about an answer. Whenever I speak my mind too fast, I’m very self-conscious and afraid I’ll say sth without thoroughly thinking it through.

        Anyways, interesting article and I always enjoy reading your posts, no matter if you post once a week or once every three months ;-). Grad school is important!

        1. Good point Ruth! The same goes for Japanese. In Japanese culture they’re taught to listen and not to talk too much about themselves, so it’s rare to meet a Japanese person who just blathers on about themselves. I picked up the Chinese and Japanese listening habit–so I’m an excellent listening; however, id idn’t get any practice with the speaking part!

          I think you should keep speaking your mind, that’s what makes you… you! I want to teach my daughter (if I have one) to always speak up. I want her to have confidence.

          Thanks for the sweet comment! Thanks for dropping in and reading!

  4. “Some Foreign minister from the government of Japan came to speak at our school, and while she was an inspiration in some ways she was just a puppet in others. She rattled off platitudes without real advice. Bare bones diplomacy”

    That seems about right; its rare to find any critical thought or ideas coming from any spokeserson repping for “all things Japan”. You can almost always predict what the outcome will be, and if I had a choice I would leave the room, sleep or put my earbuds in and listen to anything but whats coming from their mouth.

  5. A bit off topic but Ive often wondered how the Japanese/Chinese American navigate their ethnic roots in Japan, China etc. Ive watched Japanese Americans in Japan on the train etc, acting “American” or speaking English and getting looks of disgust from other Japanese. They seemed conscious of the stares, and its kind of a sureal thing to observe. They are Japanese, but their not Japanese. Ive tried to discuss or “connect” about the difficulties of life in Japan with them like many of us foriengers do time to time, but this seemed off limits, or their answers became evasive or uncomfortable. It was sort of like “why is this white guy talking about this; stay in your lane” I did once meet a Japanese American lady that kept saying “Im American” obvisouly not happy with her stay in Japan. Its an interesting dynamic to observe.

    1. Yeah this is an interesting dynamic. I’m half, but not 100% Asian-American, so my experiences differ drastically. I notice that Asian-Americans have a bit of an easier time in Japan learning Japanese because Japanese people judge the book by its cover all too often. They see your Asian face, automatically assume you’re Japanese, then speak Japanese to you. I was always jealous of this. After they find out you’re Asian-American (not Japanese) then the Japanese start giving you the foreigner treatment. They start treating Japanese like one of their own, but with some foreign hospitality sprinkled in there.

      As for China.. oh man, the Asian Americans that went to China (especially the Chinese-American ones) made me really upset. They live a double standard. With their white/non-Chinese friends they talk about how Asian and Chinese they are, but then they elevate themselves far above the local Chinese people. Putting a Chinese-American (like born and bred) and a local Chinese person in the same room would be a nightmare, it would be the ultimate culture clash. I REALLY hated how the Chinese-Americans would look down on the local Chinese. I hated it so much. I had a very bad image of Chinese-Americans in China. Of course, not ALL OF THEM are this way, but a good portion are.

      I once asked my local Chinese friend if it was easier to get along with Chinese-Americans. He said: “They’re not really Chinese, Mary.”

      That answer, for some strange reason, gave me a lot of comfort. It made me realize that unless you really give a shit about the local people and try to understand their culture and plight, they won’t welcome you. So basically, if a Chinese-American with crappy Mandarin and no respect for the culture goes to China, the locals will not welcome him/her with open arms. However, if you speak Mandarin well and you really care about the culture and people–even if you’re not Chinese–they will welcome you warmly.

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