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At Sciences Po in France, a Lack of Gender Studies Rankles Some Students


The entrance to the prestigious Sciences Po on rue St.-Guillaume, Paris. A gender program in the university’s master’s program in international relations is sorely missing, say some female students there. The university disagrees. CREATIVE COMMONS

PARIS — Women outnumber men in international affairs graduate programs across the world and are increasingly demanding that curriculums reflect feminist thinking and include gender mainstreaming.

Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York, Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs and the London School of Economics are three of the world’s top universities granting master’s degrees to students who are pursuing careers in diplomacy, development and human rights, among other avenues.

Moreover, the places where students may end up working — like the United Nations, World Bank, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and international nongovernmental organizations — put gender equality at the center of their agendas more often than not. And three Western countries — starting with Sweden and now emulated in Canada and Iceland — actively promote a feminist foreign policy, aware that it is smart policymaking that boosts a country’s economy.

Yet for those interested in a feminist approach to international affairs, such classes are actually hard to find at Sciences Po, in particular, despite that numerous international organizations cite gender equality as crucial to securing peace and sustainability and that demand from its wide-ranging international student body for such classes is high. (This reporter has a master’s degree in international affairs from Sciences Po.)

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The schools that are training the next generation of professionals who are most likely to bring gender equality to fruition recognize its importance as well: Sciences Po is one of 10 universities playing a central role in the UN’s HeForShe campaign, an initiative calling on male solidarity to achieve gender parity. Columbia University’s SIPA offers a highly sought-after specialization in gender and public policy; and the London School of Economics offers six different master’s degrees in gender. That includes one in gender, development and globalization and in gender, policy and inequalities.

Nevertheless, among the hundreds of courses offered throughout Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs in 2017, only three treated gender as the main subject. There is also the regularly offered “Is a gender-equal society possible?,” a course available to all master’s programs, not just students of the international affairs school. Some students complain, however, that it is too introductory and broad for the issues they confront in areas like human rights, global policy and diplomacy.

“Gender studies is not something that is very much French, it’s very Anglo-Saxon,” said Régine Serra, the gender equality supervisor at Sciences Po, in an interview with PassBlue.

“We at Sciences Po, we don’t have a gender studies department, we have a social sciences department, which is history, political science, sociology, economics and law. But within these departments, you have research fellows who work on gender issues. So we don’t have a gender studies department per se, because this is not part of the French university environment.”

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The sense that Sciences Po does not appear to think that gender studies is a serious discipline “is a strange and sad state of affairs, indeed, particularly given that Cynthia Enloe, Christine Sylvester and Nira Yuval Davis have become cornerstones in international relations courses across the globe,” said Catherine Rottenberg, a Marie Sklodowska Curie visiting professor at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Like women’s rights issues, gender studies programs at the master’s level exist around the world, including at universities not only in the US and Britain but also in Colombia, Germany, India, Belgium, Hong Kong, Belarus, Costa Rica, Mexico, Netherlands and Palestine. Even in Afghanistan, students at Kabul University completed their master’s degrees in gender studies last year for the first time.

Moreover, Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs boasts a global student body, more than 70 percent of whom are not French. About 1,600 students from more than 100 countries graduate from the university each year and go on to work for leading international organizations. It is the top school in Europe for politics and international studies and ranks fourth worldwide. Only a third of the university’s courses are taught in French. It is English, not French, that is the required language to enroll in the program.

But while Sciences Po might be slow to recognize feminism’s value, many French women are not. In France, the #balancetonporc (“out your pig”) movement has, like the #MeToo campaign in other countries, brought sexism more into the open and led to calls for policy change. And while some famous Frenchwomen like Catherine Deneuve have denounced the movement as too puritanical and an assault on sexual freedom, younger generations are pushing back. Feminists, members of Parliament and the former Minister of Women’s Rights criticized the contentious letter signed by Deneuve and others.

After the #MeToo campaign broke the silence of many women’s sexual harassment experiences, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced a five-year plan to address the problem, including setting up police hotlines and giving women the ability to secure legal evidence of abuse from a hospital without pressing charges. Feminist groups welcomed the proposals but noted that they required adequate funding to succeed.

At the UN itself, France, a permanent member of the Security Council, appointed a woman, Anne Gueguen, to be deputy permanent representative to the ambassador, François Delattre, last year. She is now one of about a half-dozen female deputies sitting on the Council. Nikki Haley represents the US as an ambassador, and Britain’s newly appointed ambassador is also a woman, Karen Pierce. Poland, an elected member of the Council, is also represented by a woman, Joanna Wronecka.

Lucie Goulet, a French foreign policy expert and a founder of Women in Foreign Policy, a London nonprofit group, thinks that a “gender blind” approach to international affairs is unfair.

“Otherwise, you end up teaching foreign policy as thought and as done by men,” she explained by phone. “That’s what gender blind usually means — it means white men. If you don’t introduce gender, you keep reproducing in many ways the exact same situation as you’ve had before. It’s foreign policy done for men and by men.”

At Sciences Po, some students agree that change must happen. Last year, a group started Sciences Po Students for Gender Inclusivity, an initiative to make the university more gender-sensitive. The group conducted a survey of the student body, and of those who participated, more than 71 percent said they believed that gender equality was a problem at Sciences Po in the curriculum or elsewhere.

More than 72 percent said they would like a compulsory course on gender equality and 70 percent believed that change was needed in the classroom. Respondents said they wanted to see a gender concentration, more female instructors, that “mansplaining” was a problem and that they wanted contributions from non-Western and gender nonconforming faculty.

Currently, the Paris School of International Affairs offers nine master’s degrees on topics ranging from international security to human rights to environmental policy. There are also an impressive 23 concentrations, some regional, while others focus on topics like agriculture, emerging economies and migration. With so many options, some students say they find it difficult to understand why a gender concentration is missing.

In response to the survey, Students for Gender Inclusivity sought to tackle everything from calling for an intersectional approach to sexual harassment on campus, remedying the lack of a gender concentration, calling for courses about women’s rights and addressing the dearth of female instructors.

But unlike at Columbia University, where the gender and public policy specialization began because a student group lobbied for it, the students in Paris didn’t get far.

Mallika Singhal, a co-founder of the student group at Sciences Po, said that it struggled to get meetings with the administration to express its concerns and that requests for a gender concentration were dismissed.

“Their reasoning was that gender is not a de facto discipline or study in France, so the objective is not to create a master’s in gender studies but rather to promote gender [equality] within personal development,” Singhal said. “It’s like trying to inculcate a culture of being gender equal, but then it’s not treated as a discipline itself. We found that ridiculous.”

Instead, Serra, the gender equality supervisor at Sciences Po, explained that the career services office at the university focuses on issues like sexual harassment awareness and “preparing young women for inequalities in the job market” through voluntary programs like assertiveness workshops, self-confidence workshops, public speaking practice and salary negotiation.

According to Catherine Rottenberg, who also serves as chair of the Gender Studies Program at Ben Gurion University in Israel, such approaches to gender discrimination are examples of neoliberal feminism, “a form of feminism that publicly acknowledges gender inequality while simultaneously disavows that such inequality is structural.”

“By avowing that gender inequality exists, the university can, on the one hand, pre-empt a certain kind of political critique,” Rottenberg said in an email. “Yet, on the other hand, neoliberal feminism provides these institutions with easy (and relatively inexpensive) answers, deflecting all responsibility from the university onto women themselves.”

Rottenberg continued: “Focusing on such things as ‘changing attitudes,’ ‘internalizing the revolution’ and ‘work-family balance,’ the solutions neoliberal feminism proffers include precisely ‘Lean In’ groups and ‘confidence poses.’ Sexism and structural barriers disappear from view, while the individual becomes the locus of both the problem and the solution.”

The founders of Students for Gender Inclusivity have since graduated after starting their initiative, but the baton has been passed to a new crop of women who are eager for changes in the program. They want to see not only a concentration on gender inequality in the curriculum but also more courses that offer serious studies of gender inequality.

Mathilde Renaud is one of the women running the student group. She thinks that her generation can change international relations in academia in her country.

“Showing that even this old institution [Sciences Po] can evolve would lead the way for further improvements in other schools and colleges,” she said. “This is why student actions can be really critical to move forward century-old traditions. I do believe that the future is on the shoulder of the youth and I am convinced that we can do great things.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Elizabeth Walsh is a journalist covering international politics and women’s rights. She has a master’s degree in international affairs from Sciences Po and a bachelor’s degree in literature and gender studies from the University of Virginia. She speaks English and French.

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At Sciences Po in France, a Lack of Gender Studies Rankles Some Students
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Diann Bailey
Diann Bailey
6 years ago

I am wondering how Gender Studies is not French….this is 2018 is it not?

6 years ago

“’Gender studies is not something that is very much French, it’s very Anglo-Saxon,’ said Régine Serra, the gender equality supervisor at Sciences Po, in an interview with PassBlue.”

Oh my. What’s her adress? I want to send her some Simone de Beauvoir, Jeanne-Elizabeth Schmahl, Simone Veil, Julia Kristeva, Chantal Chawaf, Pierre Bourdieu, Hélène Cixous, … Shall I go on?

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