women in philosophy

by newschoolphilosophy

A series of five articles published last month in the New York Times’ blog The Stone  (moderated by the New School’s own Simon Critchley) has served as the center of the current conversation about disproportionately small numbers of women and minorities on philosophy faculties. In the first article, Sally Hasslanger notes that the most recent (ten year old) data, only 16.6 percent of university philosophy faculty members are women. Hasslanger goes on to argue that the dearth of women (and implicitly, also of minorities) in philosophy faculty positions should be attributed not so much to the real but relatively rare cases of overt of sexism (racism) as to the environment that makes possible those occasional behaviors. Hasslanger writes of the small number of female and minority philosophers,

With these numbers, you don’t need sexual harassment or racial harassment to prevent women and minorities from succeeding, for alienation, loneliness, implicit bias, stereotype threat, microaggression, and outright discrimination will do the job. But in a world of such small numbers, harassment and bullying is easy.

Most professional philosophers, Hasslanger concludes, are neither sexist nor racist. But the environment of professional philosophy nevertheless licenses bad behavior by the few who are.

An alternate “explanation” of these small numbers has been that women and minorities tend not to thrive in professional philosophy because of its confrontational and competitive culture of debate. In the second of the Stone articles, Linda Martín Alcoff dismantles this argument.  It is not debate per se that is off-putting to many women in philosophy but rather its style:

Too many philosophers accept the idea that truth is best achieved by a marketplace of ideas conducted in the fashion of ultimate fighting. But aggressive styles that seek easy victories by harping on arcane counterexamples do not maximize truth.

In other words, the culture of academic machismo, however exciting it may be to those who enjoy a certain kind of aggressive debating style, has nothing to do with truth: cut and thrust generally favors the loudest voice in the room, regardless of whether that voice is speaking sense or nonsense.

The other articles in the series fill out the picture of the challenges faced in professional philosophy by women and propose alternate, generally complementary explanations of the dearth of women in university philosophy departments.  Rae Langton discusses the psychological effects (particularly priming effects) of syllabi and faculty lists consisting mainly of men’s names. Louise Antony explores the phenomenon of male anxiety in academia, or the worries that some men have about “new” sexual harassment policies and PC attitudes. In the last article, Peg O’Connor argues that the moral burden to change the current culture of academic philosophy lies not with women but with male faculty members.

In all the essentials I think that Haslinger and Alcoff’s detailed, convincing descriptions of the culture of professional philosophy are correct. Nevertheless, their explanations of the dearth of women in academic philosophy are based solely on factors that are endogenous to the field of philosophy. It would be interesting to find out whether there are also exogenous factors, i.e. influences from outside of academia that discourage women and minorities from entering into or persisting in careers in philosophy.

The reason I think exogenous factors might be partly explanatory of the lack of women in academic philosophy can be understood by analogy with a closely related but quite different discipline: mathematics.  The European Mathematical Society Committee on Women and Mathematics reports huge variations in numbers of female mathematicians among different European countries – as of 2005, for example, nearly half the mathematicians in Portugal were women whereas in Norway females accounted for less than 12% of mathematicians. Are Norweigian mathematicians more sexist than Portugese mathematicians?  Do Swiss mathematics departments, in which just under 7% of the faculty are women, have more of an “ultimate fighting” culture than their Italian counterparts, which have five times the number of female faculty?

Even if the answer to these questions is “yes,” it seems plausible that factors external to the university mathematics departments have an effect on whether the number of female mathematicians is somewhat representative or unacceptably low. Exogenous factors might include the expectations parents place on their children, the kind of encouragement (or discouragement) children get in elementary education, and media portrayals of “successful” womanhood.  From anecdotal evidence (i.e. from asking my students why they say “I’m horrible at math” when they say it), I think some women’s confidence in their mathematical abilities is unintentionally eroded by parents, teachers, and peers. As for media portrayals: “A Beautiful Mind” was a fun movie –  but where is the biopic on Emmy Noether? (Incidentally, some also inexcusably old numbers on the gender of members in the American Mathematical Society are available here).

My question is whether something similar is going on in philosophy. On the one hand, it seems that there are not a lot of stereotypes that would discourage women from going into philosophy. Women make up a large part of other departments in the humanities and social sciences, and increasingly in the natural sciences. Although the canonical authors (Aristotle, Descartes, Kant) have been men, even they were corresponding with women (Elisabeth of BohemiaMaria von Herbert; ok- I don’t have any evidence about Aristotle but some of his fellow students in the Academy definitely were women). In the twentieth century, there have been a number of very accomplished female philosophers (Arendt, Anscobme, Millikan, Marcus, Kristeva, Butler, to drop just a few big names). If there is a widely held stereotype that discourages women from entering philosophy, I doubt it is a stereotype about female philosophers.

An alternative is that there is a negative stereotype about philosophy that is particularly discouraging to women. The negative stereotypes about philosophy seem to me mainly to be: (1) Philosophy is useless (grad school version: it is not a progressive field). (2) You won’t make any money if you study philosophy (grad school version: what are you going to do with that, teach?). (3) Philosophy is subversive (grad school version: I can’t believe you philosophy people still read X . – where X is Freud, Marx, St. Paul, or any other thinker who was supposedly proven wrong a long time ago. It is of course difficult to get a coherent explanation of what it means to be proven wrong, and how exactly this proof was made against X’s theory. But by this time you are having a philosophical conversation and the critic is leaving the room).

If there are exogenous factors that discourage women and/or minorities from careers in academic philosophy, then I would expect some or all of (1), (2), and (3) to be more discouraging to women than to men, and to students of color than to white students. (A white, male PhD student in philosophy, I certainly find them quite discouraging.) Is there, for example, more pressure on women and minorities to do something “practical” or “pragmatic” (neither is meant in a philosophical sense) in their studies and careers  than there is on white men?  Does our society tell certain of its members that “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is not for them? Or does it offer equal opportunity discouragement to all?

I realize that all of this could come across as just what Antony and O’Connor warn of, i.e. a white guy trying to avoid responsibility by explaining away the small numbers of women in philosophy as a sociological phenomenon over which he has no control. But I am not opposed to changing the environment within university departments. Rather, the question I am trying to raise is of whether it is enough to change departmental dynamics or whether we need also to change the way gender and race enters into our thinking in more basic and widespread ways, inside and outside the ivory tower. Perhaps we need to reconsider the way we use  our concepts of knowledge on a more fundamental level.