This article shares the possible causes of philosophy’s persistent male dominance.
Philosophy stands out among the humanities: it’s one of the few subject areas where women are vastly outnumbered by men.
Although male and female students take philosophy undergraduate courses in almost equal numbers, the number of women who pursue a career in philosophy is much lower. A recent report by the Equality Challenge Unit found that, among non-Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, philosophy is one of the most male-dominated, with men accounting for 71.2% of the profession.
Why aren’t there more female philosophers? And how can university departments become more inclusive?
Professor Jennifer Saul, head of philosophy department, University of Sheffield
When I was a PhD student at Princeton in the 1990s, nobody that I knew was talking in any kind of systematic way about women in philosophy. I remember just one conversation, on a train, in which several of us women PhD students remarked on how little we spoke in seminars, and swapped some tips on how to overcome the fear of speaking that had somehow come upon us only once we hit grad school – “Get used to your voice! “Try asking ‘how do you spell that name?’”
It wasn’t until many years later that I started getting to know women who did get together to talk about these issues. Then I learned facts – that women are only 17% of full-time academic staff in philosophy in the US (the UK’s a bit better with 29%). And I learned that this was worse than in most fields of science, where gender disparities have long been a source of concern. I wanted to learn more about the range of women’s experiences – good and bad – in philosophy. So I decided to create a blog where people could share brief anonymous anecdotes.
What I received shocked me. It was a deluge of stories –10 or more a day, almost all tales of horrendous sexual harassment. This wasn’t the sort of open-to-interpretation stuff that I’ve found many expect. This was the distinguished visiting speaker whose first words are: “Show me a grad student I can fuck”. This was woman after woman leaving philosophy after being harassed, assaulted, or retaliated against. It was bad, and it was a torrent. (And the stories and help requests that came to me off-blog were even worse.) The profession was shocked, and galvanised.
Since the blog started, there have been several very public high-profile sexual harassment scandals in philosophy. And there’s now starting to be a backlash against the feminists who have “taken over the profession” and who are now said to wield enormous power to persecute.
The truth is we’re not running the profession: we’re still down at 17-29%. We’re starting to make some small bits of incremental progress in fighting a problem that’s been going on far too long. This is an enormous source of hope, for me. But it’s far from a complete turnaround. And we have even further to go with other issues. As male as philosophy is, for example, it is far, far whiter – and philosophers are barely beginning to address this problem.
Patrice Haynes, senior lecturer in philosophy, Liverpool Hope University
Education was valued highly by my Caribbean parents, especially mathematics and the sciences – serious subjects that would set you up for a secure, professional job. When I declared that I was going to do a master’s in philosophy my father was pretty horrified. Philosophy is for posh, white boys with trust funds.
My father’s image of the uselessness of philosophy reflects a wider suspicion outside (and even inside) academia that it’s merely a relic of the past, languishing in the shadows of science.
In some sense my father is right: pursuing an academic career in philosophy is rather cavalier, for there’s no guarantee of a job at the end of many years of study. I suspect this may explain why ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the discipline. Add to this philosophy’s eye-blinding whiteness and it is easy to see the lack of appeal.
To my knowledge there are just five black philosophers working in the UK, three of whom are women – and I’m one of them. At philosophy conferences, I’m typically the only black academic among the delegates, and often I’m one of the few women present – unless it’s a feminist philosophy conference, in which case the number of men can be counted on one hand…
To date, I’ve not encountered any direct racism or sexism in academia (excluding the presence of this in the western philosophical cannon). Yet it’s worth noting that neither I nor the two UK-based black women philosophers are employed by standalone philosophy departments: this threshold remains to be crossed. Moreover, while there are few women philosophy professors there are zero black philosophy professors in UK institutions.
Occasionally, I’ve been told by American academics, usually middle-aged males: “They’ll love you in America. All you need to do is mention you’re a black woman in your application and you’ll be in!” I’m not entirely convinced. After all, although the American Philosophical Association has 11,000 members, there are only 30 or so black women philosophers based in US philosophy departments. More problematically, while such comments are no doubt well-meant they also raise the dreaded spectre of tokenism. Hard-earned academic achievements are overshadowed by one’s ability to improve the diversity profile of a department by 100%.
Stella Sandford, professor of modern European philosophy, Kingston University
Academic disciplines and practices are not immune from the tendency of societies to “gender” everything. They are fully part of the social-cultural world, even if people often consider them to be remote.
But there are also reasons internal to the discipline itself. In comparison with other subjects philosophy tends, still, to be very inward-looking. It tends to define itself rather narrowly and has found it extraordinarily difficult to accept challenges to its traditional ways of doing things.
Other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences were generally quick to respond to the ideas of the social movements of the past half-century, but for a long time philosophy remained indifferent to these. The kind of philosophy that dominates in the UK has tended to see itself as engaged in a purely rational practice uninfluenced by social and political contexts. It hasn’t therefore been able to see the ways in which it in fact mirrors the interests of its relatively narrow band of practitioners and excludes others.
In the wake of the women’s movement, for example, most Anglophone philosophers clung on to the idea that thinking about gender belonged to sociology and had nothing to do with them. The groups most affected by these social movements didn’t – perhaps they still don’t – see their concerns taken seriously in philosophy. It is little wonder if they choose to study in more hospitable areas.
Helen Beebee, Samuel Hall professor of philosophy, the University of Manchester
In philosophy, the ability to think with exceptional clarity and rigour about very abstract issues is highly valued, and rightly so; but this is, of course, a stereotypically male virtue. And that means that women have to be that much better than their male counterparts in order to be judged to have the same level of ability. That’s just the way stereotypes work: it’s much easier to think that someone is an intellectual giant if that’s a quality that fits neatly with other things you know about them.
It’s really hard to tell when or whether you’re the object of these kinds of biases. If you don’t get a job or get your paper accepted for publication, there are always other possible explanations.
But there is at least good general evidence – if not specific to philosophy – that stereotypes can explain, at least in part, the relative lack of success of women and other minority groups.
And there are personal experiences. I’ve sat in plenty of meetings and seminars where women’s views have been accorded less respect than those of the men in the room.
My own level of standing within the university hierarchy has, throughout my entire career, been systematically underestimated by colleagues.
As a 40-year-old head of department, when I arrived at a meeting for heads of department one of the other heads (a woman) said: “Oh, I’m sorry, student reps aren’t invited to this meeting.” Early on in my career – in my late 20s and early 30s – I took to wearing a suit in the first few weeks of the academic year, in order to save people the embarrassment of mistaking me for an undergraduate (and this is in institutions where the chances of someone being a mature student were pretty low).
These days, like most of my male colleagues of whatever age, I don’t bother; nobody mistakes me for an undergraduate. But they do – and I’m 46 – routinely mistake me for a PhD student or a postdoc, unless I very quickly say or do something that makes that assumption untenable.
I sometimes think I should cultivate the look of the stereotypical woman professor. I’m not sure what that look is, but minimally I think you have to have grey hair and be over 50. So, if I stop dyeing my hair, I won’t have long to wait.
Katharine Jenkins, PhD candidate, department of philosophy, University of Sheffield
I started thinking about the situation of women in philosophy when I was studying for my MPhil. Some undergraduates reported that women spoke in seminars much less often than men, and as the graduate student representative, I helped raise this issue with the philosophy faculty.
Initially, there was some resistance to the idea that this was an issue of gender, as opposed to simply an unavoidable problem caused by some students being “shy”. But we surveyed the students and found that this was indeed a gendered phenomenon.
Discussions in philosophy are often conducted in a very aggressive and combative way, and given that social norms discourage girls and women from behaving in these ways, it’s hardly surprising that these modes of discussion make some women feel less than fully at home.
This problem can be addressed quite straightforwardly by having seminars that are more closely moderated so as to help make them less combative. This is good for anyone who might be put off by a very aggressive environment, and I also think it encourages more nuanced philosophical engagement.
Richard Pettigrew, professor and head of the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol
You often hear people speculate that the adversarial nature of some philosophical debate is offputting for women because they are less comfortable in combative situations. I don’t see any evidence of this. But it is certainly true that women tend to be judged negatively by others if they display adversarial behaviour.
It seems that women in a philosophy debate are in a lose-lose situation. Either they perform well by the standards of the debate, but then they are judged negatively on their character — they are judged “abrasive” or “high maintenance” for behaviour that would have earned a man plaudits such as “competent” and “knows his mind”. Or they behave in a way that will attract less opprobrium, but then they are judged negatively on their philosophical ability.
Another factor is unconscious bias – where we evaluate a person’s performance on a task more negatively if they belong to a group that is stereotyped as being bad at that task.
What to do? On the one hand, we need to try to change the stereotype. We can do this by creating gender-balanced reading lists for our courses, by ensuring that there is a gender balance in the rostrum of speakers at our conferences, in our seminar series, and on the boards and committees of our journals and learned societies.
We also need to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias by anonymising where possible, whether it is in undergraduate grading or in hiring procedures, and by training all staff in the known ways of reducing bias.
Male philosophers must become more involved. If the burden of combating the under-representation of women in philosophy is borne disproportionately by women, this will deprive them more than is fair of the time they have to devote to their research and teaching, which is how philosophers build their careers. Men must be equal partners in combating the problem.
Dr Meena Dhanda, reader in philosophy and cultural politics, University of Wolverhampton
Women in academia, generally speaking, are up against the usual pressures – keeping families together and looking after students. Many tend to find their voice later in life than men. Finding the right words and the right milieu within which to express our philosophical thoughts is a difficult task.
Much of mainstream philosophy is tame and taming, precisely because it is engaged in reproducing privilege.
Feminism and anti-racism are only superficially incorporated within the language of cultural politics. Perhaps that’s why the position of black and minority ethnic women in philosophy remains annoyingly low. Few think that anything needs to be done to undo the effects of continuing implicit gender or racial biases within the curriculum, in hiring practices or in the progression of teaching staff.
My recent interdisciplinary and collaborative study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, UK, entitled Caste in Britain, which outlines the implications of making caste as an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010, uses philosophical tools, without naming any philosophical theories.
It will not be seen as a philosopher’s work, given the orthodoxies entrenched in our subject. I know this; but still think that if philosophy were to become more open to women’s insistence on thinking through the implications of our embodied existence – an existence enmeshed by identity markers such as gender, race, caste or class – then many more similar projects need to be undertaken.
The thorn of racism is so deep in the flesh of philosophy that it is no longer visible from the surface. It hurts. We need more black philosophers, women philosophers – adventurers and heretics, unruly, rigorous and untiring thinkers, committed to making philosophy respond to the world we inhabit.
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