[From Chris Mullen, frequent blog and Facebook contributor]
A few days ago I was reading an interview in 3 A.M. Magazine with the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. The second question of the interview turned to the “..the treatment of women in professional philosophy.”
3:AM: Why is academic philosophy seemingly a worse place for women than in the rest of the humanities? and most other places in the academy?
EA: It is stunning how far behind philosophy is, not just compared to the other humanities, but to most other disciplines—including economics, chemistry, statistics, biochemistry, and molecular biology—in the representation of women. Even mathematics and astrophysics have more women. No theory of biological sex differences can credibly explain this.
Anderson goes on to ask, “The puzzle is why is gender bias greater in philosophy than in other fields?” A good question. While her answer- “Gender Symbolism…the tendency to project gender categories onto inanimate things and abstract ideas“- could be the subject of an entire post in its own right and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to discuss some recent (and relatively recent) investigations into the “philosophical gender gap.”
One recent study published by Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy entitled Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy looked “..at gender representation in philosophy among undergraduate students, undergraduate majors, graduate students, and faculty.” I won’t get into all the details of the study but what the authors found was that “the proportion of women across academic standing revealed that the proportion of females reliably decreases as one moves through each level in the academy, from introductory courses through the faculty population.”
What was also discovered was that once the path to majoring in philosophy has been navigated, there was no “comparably significant drop” between female philosophy majors and “philosophy graduate students who are female.” Part of their findings suggest that there is a link between female faculty and the retention of female majors which they breakdown to the gender makeup of faculty at “a given institution.” They suggest two possible reasons for this, the “role model hypothesis”, where “more women professors might lead to more women majors” and to “a much simpler hypothesis: that the mere presence of women faculty in philosophy classrooms yields a quantifiable result in the percentage of women entering philosophy at the undergraduate level, independent of course content.”
The results of this study suggest that the real area to be focused on is the time “between taking an introductory class in philosophy and declaring a major in the field” since this is when most women seem to abandon philosophy for other academic paths.
Of course, the discussion about the low participation of women in philosophy is hardly a new one as women’s under-representation in philosophy has been well known for decades. Sally Haslanger, a philosopher working out of MIT, wrote a paper back in 2008 that also sought to address the “gender gap” in philosophy, Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone). In her paper, Haslanger expresses anger at the “outright discrimination” women face in philosophy circles. (An experience many women in philosophy have shared and documented, observations which sparked debate among academic philosophers .) Haslanger relates the discrimination women encounter to “Schemas” which frame “unconscious bias.” “Schemas” are “a mental construct that, as the name suggests, contains in a schematic or abbreviated form someone’s concept about an individual or event, or a group of people or events. It includes the person’s or group’s main characteristics, from the perceiver’s point of view, and the relationship among those features.” The most obvious “Schema” here would be the “sexism” of our “patriarchal” society whose effects play out in the “familiar dichotomies of “Anglophone philosophy” which:
map neatly onto gender dichotomies, e.g., rational/emotional, objective/subjective, mind/body; ideals of philosophy, e.g. penetrating, seminal, rigorous, and what we do, e.g., attack, target, demolish an opponent, frame it as masculine and in opposition to the feminine.
(A brief digression: Mary Midgley, a philosopher I have a great deal of respect for, quotes a passage from Colin McGinn in her memoir, Owl of Minerva, about the ‘cut and thrust of philosophical debate‘ that he experienced as a student — ‘a clashing of analytically honed intellects, with pulsing egos attached to them .. a kind of intellectual blood-sport, in which egos get bruised and buckled, even impaled‘ etc etc. McGinn regards this as an excellent thing; Midgley regards it as a very bad thing. I add this because it seems to offer some insight into the socialization of men and women and their approach to conversation and debate. Just a thought.)
Others have attempted to investigate the possible relation to how gender relates to philosophy. One study sought to demonstrate how gender plays a role in what intuitions one has to philosophical thought experiments like the Trolley problem. (I would also suggest that an insight into this question from a different angle was also addressed 83 years ago by Virginia Woolf- A Room of One’s Own.) These “gender differences” relate not only to how each gender “perceives” a given problem but they also relate to the “social norms” of the discipline of philosophy itself. If the “schema” of philosophy is “governed by certain masculine norms” as Haslanger suggests above, then approaches to a given philosophical topic that deviate from those “norms” will encounter greater resistance and scrutiny. Combining this with the fact of “stereotype threat” discussed by Haslanger which increases “anxiety, intrusive thoughts, shift towards caution (in response to expected evaluation bias), decreased performance expectancy, i.e., agents expect less of themselves, and disengagement“, and “solo status”, “when an individual is a “solo” in a group, that is, if they are the only member of their social group‘ which produces similar effects, you set up a hostile environment that discourages women (and minorities) from fully participating. (Does this relates to the environment encountered by undergraduates and why so many women abandon philosophy as discussed earlier? I don’t know).
If, as Seth suggests elsewhere, “philosophy is a dialogue with both it’s own history and fellow thinkers“- going back to the Platonic idea of the spark of fire passed from soul to soul – I would think that philosophy classes would depend to a huge extent on how well the professor is able to guide class discussions, to prevent showing-off, male monopolization of the discussion, and other derailing behaviors (which would address some of the gendered biases found in those classrooms by both students and teachers) and that part of the training of professors should focus on how to be more efficient facilitators. I would also think that having more men who are sympathetic to the conditions faced by women in philosophy (and in society) speaking out in favor of change and in challenging “sexism” would go a long way in shifting the burden from women having to mount their own defenses. Just some suggestions since I don’t have any answers to provide.
Addendum: I recently watched the movie Agoria a rather loose account of Hypatia of Alexandria where one of the underlying themes is the sexism she encounters as a woman engaged in philosophy against the expectations of her society (while, oddly enough, never addressing the systemic nature of that discrimination). It is precisely her outspoken views and prominence as a female intellectual that leads, in part, to her eventual condemnation and murder.