Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Lot of Discussion About Women in Philosophy Lately

There has been a bunch of discussion about the dearth of women in philosophy on the blogs the last few weeks. This piece at The Philosophers' Magazine appears to have started us off, followed up by the NY Times and Leiter. Regan Penaluna, writing at the Chronicle, kept us going. She argues that the problem is the lack of feminine role models in the canon, coupled with clear sexism and misogyny from canoncial dudes such as Aristotle and Rousseau. Leiter follows up here. There are a few must-read posts at Feminist Philosophers here, here, here and here.

I have two main thoughts to add. The first regards Penaluna's point that women are not attracted to philosophy because of its dominance by men and the misogyny in the canon. I see how that might explain, to some extent, the fact that we don't have many women. But I don't see how it explains the fact that we lag behind other disciplines in the humanities and sciences with which we are most continuous (I'm thinking of literature and psychology, though I realize this claim is contentious). I am more impressed by the suggestion that a large part of the problem is that we haven't made much of an effort to attract women, but off the top of my head I can't think of ways to attract women that wouldn't seem ham-fisted and condescending. I am open to suggestion.

Second, Leiter and Jender suggest that the APA ought to do a study like the one the Australian Association of Philosophy did. Leiter says, "Surely the American Philosophical Association could manage something similar."

I completely disagree. The APA obviously could never manage anything remotely like that.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Penaluna points out that in Philosophy - more so than in other disciplines - one tends to identify more with the authors one reads,thus making it more problematic for women when the author is a misogynist.
Also the canon in philosophy is, after all, more uniformly male than in English.

And, let's not forget this important point: the atmosphere currently, particularly in some special areas, is very male-dominated and sometimes down-right sexist, making things more difficult.

And finally, let me toss in one more speculation I think Mr Zero left out, about the similarities between the gender profile of philosophy and some scientific disciplines, and the potential similarity in causes.

Anonymous said...

What may well explain the lag behind similar disciplines (English, Psych) at least is that unlike those disciplines, undergraduate study of philosophy has no substantial economic/career continuance or outlet other than graduate school/professional academic (English and Psych both directly feed into a variety civil or industry jobs).

Anonymous said...

I haven't done any sort of scientific study on this, but I have noticed the top students in my classes tend to be girls more often than guys.

Anonymous said...

But is the canon in English less uniformly male because philosophy is just somehow inherently more male, or because more serious and sustained interventions have been done in the English canon than in the philosophy canon? Was it more women working in English that altered the canon, or was it an altered canon that led to more women working in English (not that there's any reason it can't be both)?

I think that it might be more fruitful to recognize, as 10:17 does, that there is a shocking lack of women working in philosophy because there is in many quarters outright hostility to them. This runs the gamut from supposing every woman hired in philosophy to be an affirmative action hire, to not taking seriously what women do or say (because, as women, they can't have 'seminal' ideas), to seeing women who do philosophy (outside some pink-collar ghettoized subfields) as honorary men, to outright harassment, sexual and otherwise.

This conversation could benefit both from more empirical data as well as from the years and years of good work on gender and epistemology, some from within philosophy itself, from de Beauvoir to Haslanger.

Thanks for opening the conversation here, mr zed; hopefully this won't degenerate quite so quickly into a zombie zone.

Anonymous said...

One interesting thread of discussion has been the claim that "aggressive argumentation" is what keeps women out of philosophy. Responders typically consider this to be a sexist point, and point to law and linguistics as realms of aggressive argumentation where women have thrived.

I suspect that those responders misunderstand the point. When people say that philosophy is a realm of "aggressive argumentation", I suspect this is actually a nice way of saying something nastier - namely that academic philosophy has a disproportionately large number of pompous, arrogant assholes.

female philsci-er said...

I agree with anon 11:58. It is condescending to essentialize women as needing to engage in warm fuzzy hand-holding conversation, of which there is a dearth in philosophy.

But often, the aggression or outright dismissal of women working in the field is masked as the ordinary kind of hostile questioning or skepticism, whereas it is importantly different.

An example: In discussions of Nancy Cartwright's work, I have seen several male philosophers hold explicitly incompatible views over the course of an hourlong discussion, because they took it for granted that OF COURSE they disagreed with her. They started out holding position Not-X; as it became apparent that they had gotten her point wrong, and Cartwright herself argued Not-X, they gradually moved to hold position X. Because who could agree with such obviously false material as Cartwright publishes.

That sort of thing looks on the face of it like regular assertiveness in argumentation, but is much more insidious, and needs to be called out and recognized as such before philosophy can move forward with this.

Anonymous said...

Also, affirmative action hiring in Philosophy tends to lead to the stigmatization of women faculty as "inferior philosophers." Putting aside the issue of whether or not the stigma is justified, I've seen several women philosophers leave academe because few if any grad students want to work with them.

Anonymous said...

Female philsci-er,
What makes you think that practice has anything whatsoever to do with the fact that Nancy Cartwright is a woman? Have you never heard philosophers be absurdly contrary when discussing, say, Stalnaker? I think this kind of thing is endemic to the field. (I don't really mind it, myself, but I agree that it can get out of hand.)

Anonymous said...

I once saw/heard Sandra Rosenthal scream at a male philosopher at a conference: "I doubt the whole premise of your question!"

Polacrilex said...

Here is the data I would be interested in seeing:

What is the ratio of female:male philosophy majors?

What percentage of female philosophy majors pursue careers other than philosophy (both inside and outside of academia)?

What is the average salary of female philosophy majors who chose career paths apart from philosophy? What is the average salary of female philosophy majors who became professional philosophers?

In my own experience, I have had a large number of philosophy majors who were also female students. All of them went to law school or graduate school for psychology.

Anonymous said...

Guys. Fellas. Boys. Please. Let me offer the obvious reason why there are fewer women than men in philosophy: they are smarter than us. It's not that they can't handle the "aggressive argumentation" or don't have the creative or analytical skills. They clearly do -- as one poster pointed out, women are thriving in the field of law (and specifically in litigation).

But, seriously, you know and I know that academic philosophy is pretty much pointless. It's great brain masturbation, and it's a noble course of study. But unless you're a shiftless, self-indulgent bum like most of us men in philosophy, you'd have better sense than to work in the field.

Who can back me up here?

female philsci-er said...

way to miss the point, anon 4:05. Cartwright is just an example; *obviously* there are a lot of controversial philosophers who generate animosity.

The point, to make it even more explicit, is that a lot of implicit bias against women gets expressed in what masquerades as regular assertiveness or aggressiveness in questioning or criticism. Yet it is importantly different than the kinds, or level, of such behavior directed at male philosophers. It is easy for people, especially those with male privilege who simply don't have to notice these things because it doesn't affect them, to think that all this criticism is the same. My point is that it is not, we need to start recognizing that.

This is a statistical point. There will be individual cases of aggressive women (per the Rosenthal example), and of irrational objections to particular male philosophers (like Stalnaker). And yet overall, female philosophers get more of it, and more vitriolic versions of it, which does slowly wear you down and make you think that this really is a crappy field to work in.

And yes, I am asserting that this is the case without providing any more examples that people can misunderstand, or providing any empirical data, of which there is so much available that if you haven't seen it, either you have deliberately not looked at it or you fail Google 101. There is always more perfect data that could substantiate my claim to an even finer degree, but the overwhelming weight of evidence supports it already.

Anonymous said...

Way to be condescending, female philsci-er!

Yes, I was aware that it was an example. The example was, I assume, supposed to support your point, but I explained why it did not support your point.

Very funny about failing Google. I've read Haslanger's paper. It doesn't support your point either, in any way that I can see.

In sum: good use of sarcasm and attitude; zero for actual support of your claim.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that the abstract thought experiments that dominate philosophy simply fail to be interesting enough to women to make them want to pursue philosophy as a career?

(Perhaps, something analogous to why there are far more male trekkie/sci-fi enthusiasts than female trekkies.... by enthusiast, I don't just mean 'watches some sci-fi', but is engrossed by it?)

Anonymous said...

Polacrilex: I agree, I think that data would be helpful. As far as I understand, we face a "leaky pipeline" situation: many women undergraduate philosophy majors, fewer women philosophy graduate students, and even fewer tenured or tenure-track philosophy faculty. Knowing why women leave a discipline that they appear to be attracted to in college would be an important place to start, and would generate better understanding, I would think, than the whole "women are just to smart to be philosophers!" meme.

Some of this data has been compiled by Sally Haslanger and the APA's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, I believe. Check out her 2008 paper (and the appendices) "Changing the Culture and Ideology of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)".

Anonymous said...

Positive discrimination in favour of women is easily the most dangerous option to take. Last night Anne Widdecombe made the following comments about David Cameron's plans to recruit more female MPs in the UK Conservative Party, and I think her words apply equally well to the philosophy profession:

"I think it's very bad for women because I believe that every woman in Parliament should be able to look every man in Parliament, from the prime minister downwards, in the eye and to know she got there on exactly the same basis. If she can't do that she's a second class citizen."

If all female applicants were judged on weaker merits then it would become rational (for men and women) to believe that for any female in a position, it's more likely that she's a worse philosopher than a male in a similar position. At least at the moment no woman in any position is thought of as being worse than a male in a similar position. The cost is that there are just far less of them in those positions. At least those in those positions know they got there on merit.

Anonymous said...

Way off topic, but I need some advice. I'm in my 2nd year VAP-ping after getting the PhD. How long do I feature my dissertation on my CV? Right now it's a title and 2 sentence blurb on the first page and a longer page long abstract later in the CV. Should this change the longer one is out? Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

As a tenured female philosopher in a male-dominated subfield at a Leiter-ranked research university, female philsci-er's point seems completely right on target to me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I'm late to the debate here:

Are there any data that show that women are denied grad school admission or academic jobs in philosophy *at higher rates* than men? I know it's tough all over, and that there's a lack of women in the profession; but none of this yet points to bias in admissions or hiring. It could even be that women are *favored*, i.e., admitted/hired at higher rates than men are, but since so few women are interested in becoming a professional philosophers, current demographics information is misleading.

I don't have any data either way but am hoping someone else does. Otherwise, the conclusion seems to be that we philosophers are somehow much more biased than scholars/teachers in every other academic discipline. Yes, we're special, but we'd like to think we are in an enlightened way; and this conclusion would fly in the face of that. (Which isn't to say that it can't be true.)

Anonymous said...

Another possibility: Male philosophers lack the social education that most people have, such that we have an over-developed sense of being threatened by women. And this builds in bias in the admissions and hiring processes, which are conductive to discrimination given their subjectiveness and secrecy.

But, in my experience, that's really not the case. Philosophers are not socially cripple (at least not all of them), and I think all the ones I know can be open and fair about this issue. So this leads me to think that the explanation has something to do with a lack of interest by women to be professional philosophers. (Why should every discipline attract both sexes equally? Are we rejecting the view that men and women are biologically different, and these differences may manifest themselves in cognitive dispositions, i.e., the way we think? Should we think that the nursing profession is biased against men, since it's dominated by women -- or that men are less interested, for whatever reasons, in becoming an RN?)

Anonymous said...

"At least at the moment no woman in any position is thought of as being worse than a male in a similar position." - anon 8:38

Sadly this is not necessarily true. There are any number of examples from threads concerning the job market from this blog and its previous incarnation, in which people felt totally within their rights declaring that they can't get a job because women and minorities are taking them due to affirmative action policies. To some folks, any woman or person of color in a philosophy job is already seen as illegitimate. This is one of the zombie lies referred to in anon 11:21am.

Anonymous said...

I think it is worth keeping in mind that very very few people--men or women--want to go into philosophy as a career. Why? Well, any number of reasons, I imagine: Many don't have what it takes to make it as a philosopher, many just aren't bothered by philosophical problems, many see philosophy as impractical in one way or another (it doesn't help people, it doesn't put food on the table), many who find it to be impractical also don't find it to be fun or creative or whatever in the way that art/music/literature are. Is it possible that one of these factors might be a bit stronger for women than men? It seems plausible to me.

Anecdotally, a disproportionate number of my very best students have been women and when I try to encourage them to go into the field, what they say tends to be that they enjoy philosophy, but that it isn't practical.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am just naive, but could someone give me some examples of explicit bias and misogyny in philosophy? I don't doubt that there is implicit sexism going on, as there is in all fields, to some extent.
But as a BA and MA in philosophy, I am struggling to come up with examples in which sexist comments have been made, in front of or behind the back of another female or minority student.
Like I said, I may just be naive--I certainly have less experience of the field than a PhD or TT prof.

Tired Tenure Tracker said...

Positive discrimination in favour of women is easily the most dangerous option to take..."I think it's very bad for women because I believe that every woman in Parliament should be able to look every man in Parliament, from the prime minister downwards, in the eye and to know she got there on exactly the same basis. If she can't do that she's a second class citizen."

But we know from empirical studies that people are more likely to want to hire a person with an identical CV but a male name. So hiring people on the same basis actually requires "positive discrimination." If, for example, you adopt a policy of when you read a CV, you bump it up in your estimation because it had a woman's name, you would be correcting your own bias, and only then could you end up rating the identical CVs the same.

(Given these empirical results, one might worry that men in philosophy can't look women in philosophy in the eye and to know they got there on exactly the same basis...)

So this leads me to think that the explanation has something to do with a lack of interest by women to be professional philosophers.

There are relatively few things you can do with a philosophy Ph.D., so one would assume that most people who sign up for the Ph.D. want a tenure-track job. If women get tenure-track jobs in a lower proportion than men, that is some evidence that your explanation doesn't account for all the data, that there is something besides lack of interest that is keeping women out of philosophy. (Of course, it's defeasible evidence: we might find that women lose interest in their Ph.D.'s more quickly.)

Here's one thing that has puzzled me: women seem to drop out of grad school at an alarming rate. Individually, they all have a reason that has nothing to do with gender: "I want to study something else"; "I'm depressed and grad school is making it worse"; "I want a career with more regular on/off hours" (to name some of the reasons my graduate school colleagues dropped out). But that's just it: these reasons aren't gendered - they might be reasons for men to drop out too. So why are people that drop out because of them disproportionately women? (Is it that these aren't really their reasons, just their justification?)

Mr. Zero said...


What does it matter if the sexism is explicit or not? If it's implicit then it's there. Implicit sexism is sexism.

Anyways, you should read the Haslanger piece.

Anonymous said...

Just a small point, so we don't feel the need to reinvent the wheel.

This subject of gender-bias was discussed ad nauseum on the old blog. Very little definitive came out, except that analyses of hirings over the past several years and the available data on who was on the market suggest that women were represented in hires fairly proportionately to their make-up in the candidate pool. So, presumably, at the stage of hiring, explicit biases in favor of diversity and (mostly) implicit biases in favor of men seem to cancel each other out. That's not to say any particular case of bias is fair, but what unfairness there was seemed to go roughly equally in each direction.

Of course, this says nothing of the biases that contribute to the job pool being what it is.

Philosophy Prof said...

But implicit sexism is a lot harder to eradicate. Philosophers are really good about constructing arguments, checking to see whether or not the conclusion follows from a set of premises, etc., but there is no reason to think that philosophers have any special insight into evaluating whether a premise is true, esp. when the premise concerns matters that are subtle and contextual. Philosophers can be laser sharp, but there are a lot of ways which they are retarded. Show me the invisible/contextual stuff! See, it's not there. Perhaps philosophers are so retarded because they are not immersed in actual situations, but in thought experiments; or maybe it's because they think that mental states are all introspectable, with the result that a behavior is not driven by sexism, racism, etc., unless introspection tells us so. A lot of horrible behaviors are embodied practices. Are human brains and bodies not capable of sophisticated activity without a mind to always see them through?

Philosophy Prof said...

Just to forestall a certain idiotic response to my post, I am not suggesting that if something is invisible to us, we should just accept the word of others as to what is going on. The suggestion instead was that by being regularly immersed in actual-world situations, and not being in detached reflective mode all of the time (which keeps us out of such situations even if we are surrounded by them), it's easy to develop a perceptual acuity where these things are visible and obvious. Sort of like the magic-eye posters. It's a better way to live also, to see what's there.

Anonymous said...

As a woman in philosophy who will be on the job market in a few years, I hope that philosophy departments will avoid affirmative action favoring women. This is partially self-interested. I would rather know that I wasn't chosen for my gender, and I don't want to be seen by colleagues as a less-qualified faculty member who was hired to create a better gender balance.

Anonymous said...

Dear idiot fellow woman in philosophy (anon 11:33pm): read what Tired Tenure Tracker explained, above.
This is why women working in philosophy should be assumed to have BETTER qualifications than their peers when not hired through affirmative action.

Filosofer said...

New thread request:

I could use some anecdotal love from the bruthuhs and sistahs out there who have real jobs and are vicariously reading this one. (Okay, there's not vicariously readingit. They're actually reading it. But you get what I mean.)

I just discovered that I sent out a writing sample with a couple of typos in it. It only went to two or three places, so no huge deal. But it got me thinking: Are there folks out there who were hired for jobs even though they now know they had typos in their application materials? And would they be so kind as to state that fact for the record?

Anonymous said...

Filosofer: I have a tt job; I know for sure that I had typos on my CV, letter of application, writing samples, teaching dossier, etc. So typos are no biggie; worry more about what's on your CV

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking my typo will read "Forthcoming, Ethics" when it should actually read, "draft in progress".

Anonymous said...

I had two typos on the first page of my writing sample last year, one of which was in the abstract. It went *everywhere*.

And I did really well with it. No one seemed to care in the least when they discussed it with me.

There are times when philosophers are actually understanding of others' shortcomings and focus on what actually matters, not silly things. So, don't stress about the types. You have enough other stuff to stress about.

Anonymous said...

Everything I've ever written has had typoes in it. I've had two TT jobs.

Don't sweat the typos. Unless instead of the universal quantifier, you wrote 'fuck off'.