Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Women: Why Collect Data?

My first post on this blog carries a confession: I think I may be a number-nerd. It's not my specialty, but it must at least be a hobby of mine, because I get jazzed just talking about things like the U.S. Census. (To sample, or not to sample? That's an exciting question!) In philosophy, I am one of those phoning kind people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (just the name makes me happy), trying to pin down the payroll data on women in philosophy professorships. (A pdf of semi-recent results is posted on the APA's Committee on the Status of Women site, here.)

So it completely threw me when a participant in SWIP's email listserve asked, of efforts to determine our numbers, "What exactly will collecting these figures, these numbers, do? To whom do you need to prove [attrition, etc.]?" I forget that we don't all get warm fuzzies from pursuing numeric answers, I really do. And a response to the question 'Why' ought to be more than just that it makes me happy to do so. What answers might my fellow data collection fans have?

I was ready with a short answer of my own, at least: It's a matter of justice. If we are as underrepresented as it seems, then it is morally incumbent upon philosophers (and the public and private sources that support us) to provide material and monetary support to the underrepresented. But it's hard to show that moral injustices persist in the absence of data.

You know who's great at showing such data? Almost every STEM discipline. Their professional organizations actually conduct polls, collect demographic information, and present it to public and private funding sources with ease. Try a quick Google search on "women travel conference grant," and see what disciplines pop up. They're engineering, math, and health sciences. Indeed, women in such disciplines are underrepresented, as well, but when you can prove it, you can do something quite tangible about it! In the case of women in philosophy, knowledge is power.


Sharon Crasnow said...

I am totally with you on the numbers! Who knew that I would be fascinated with the way they do, and sometimes do not, point us to knowledge. But that's just the epistemologist in me I think. It isn't the numbers alone though but the numbers together with the interpretation (so you have to have the numbers in the first place to get to the next step). I think that there was another suggestion on the SWIP list that we collect qualitative data as well. The combination would give us the sort of power from knowledge that we need to move on from just lamenting the situation. (And welcome to Knowledge and Experience.)

John Turri said...


I didn't understand your short answer. Could you please elaborate? More specifically, this conditional confused me: "If we are as underrepresented as it seems, then it is morally incumbent upon philosophers (and the public and private sources that support us) to provide material and monetary support to the underrepresented."

Is the idea that (disciplinary?) members of underrepresented groups deserve (additional?) money and resources?

BigKNorlock said...

I'm so glad Sharon picked up on and shared my sense of self-surprise!

Alas, John saw right through the over-brevity of my response. I hope philosophers will forgive me for gently rejecting both 'deserve' and 'additional' as characteristic of my position. The former is a technical term usually based on earning through past action, and I don't think anyone should have to earn justice. What's right isn't always limited to what's deserved. 'Additional' can be taken to imply (and I'm not saying you meant it this way) that underrepresented groups already get just as much money/resources as the rest of the professioriate, in which case it might seem I'm suggesting that just by being present a woman 'deserves' as much as a man 'and more'. My idea is, rather, that underrepresented groups will continue to suffer the sorts of injustices that come with minority status unless all members of the profession direct both energies and monies to initiatives that will improve the status of minorities in the profession. Not all remedies take money; coauthoring articles takes time and initiative, mentoring takes experience and effort, etc. But yes, money ought to be spent.

John said...


Thanks for elaborating.

I think we have a non-technical folk concept of deserving. but I do agree with you that desert needn't be earned. Babies deserve their parents' love, but have done nothing to earn it (at first, at least).

I also agree with you that collecting the data can make it obvious that women are underrepresented (or professionally disadvantaged in various other ways). If we couple that with observations about the psychological effect this has on women in the profession, then it becomes very plausible that resources ought to be devoted to help alter the demographics.

Judging from the numbers that Evelyn recently posted on undergraduate degrees in philosophy, it appears that the most likely place that we as professors could help bring about the relevant change is at the undergraduate level. That's not to say, of course, that changes aren't necessary or appropriate at other levels.

BigKNorlock said...

Right, shoot, I meant to say that I, myself, always read deserving in its technical sense. Curse that John Turri! Poking me in the brain like that.

But I would add, since I stepped in it, that my tendency to point out the 'earnful' implications of deserving stems from a frustrating tendency in American popular discourse to read deserving as earning. Hence my weariness with discussions of affirmative action which seem to begin from the position that if one hasn't done -more- than most to earn monetary aid through past action, then there's no other reason on earth to provide said monetary aid.

So you see, John, when I saw the reference to desert, I had what has become a nigh phobic response!