Friday, April 11, 2008

Gender Equity: False Hopes and False Dreams

Over at The Philosophy Job Market blog, Rebecca Kukla gave us a tally on how this year's job market is shaping up along gender lines. According to the hiring announcements that Leiter has posted, and with all the caveats needed for such informal word-of-mouth data collection, only about 19% of the tenure-track jobs have gone to women. (N.B.: The APA has promised to collect accurate job market statistics this year, but the collection and analysis will take some time yet.)

Since women have been earning about 25 to 30% of PhD's in philosophy, this looks like there are some social or structural barriers to the hiring of women.

This observation set off a fusillade of criticisms, both on the PJM blog and on the SWIP list. Among women in philosophy, one concern is that collecting such statistics carries the implicit message that women who do not choose to pursue a tenure-track teaching career are somehow in the wrong.

This appears to me to be a misunderstanding of the meaning of statistics (and see Kate's earlier response to similar worries). Statistics can only give us a picture of a collective. They cannot tell us anything, much less anything normative, about individuals. They can't say that a certain woman should have been hired in a certain department, or that a certain man should not have.

Indeed, these statistics are completely mute about how many people with PhD's in philosophy move into (or try to move into) tenure track jobs. It is entirely appropriate that some people get a degree and use it for some purpose other than university teaching in philosophy departments. Or they use it for no purpose--they go into another field entirely.

The statistics only point out that men are hired into tenure track philosophy jobs at a disproportionate rate. And the best explanation for this, based on reams of social science research, is that there is explicit and implicit sexism in academia.

But if you don't see my point, then perhaps you'll find some solidarity here instead:
"CEO Barbie Criticized for Promoting Unrealistic Career Images."


KateNorlock said...

I totally fell for it, started reading that link in all seriousness until I realized I was on The Onion webpage -- which I only noticed because my eye was caught by the news teaser, "Beauty of Natural Forest Enjoyed by Logger." Hoot!

Noumena said...

The discussions at PhJMB just get me depressed, so I really don't want to wade through the whole thing ... but I don't see the 19% statistic anywhere obvious. I do see `That's 76.5% of the jobs going to men.', which makes 23.5% going to women, which is darn close to the estimated 25% of new Ph.D.s.

Evelyn Brister said...

Noumena, the discrepancy is because Rebecca at first made an arithmetic error which she later caught.

She counted 105 hires, 85 to men and 20 to women. (She first divided 20 by 85 rather than 105, an easy mistake to make.) Also, I was wrong to say that these were all tenure-track jobs. Some are "post-docs," and "post-doc" is sometimes a cowardly way of saying "temporary position."

Sharon Crasnow said...

I have been an advocate of collecting data but I have to admit that after my initial negative reaction to the SWIP post that condemned their use I did rethink it. While I still think it is a good idea to be armed with this information, I think that the SWIP poster was not just saying that there was an implicit condemnation of women who didn't choose Phil jobs but also that the categories (women, phil jobs, academic jobs, or whatever) were themselves ideological. I am still thinking about this one because I think that there is a point there. Now that I think of it, these were two different posters and two different criticisms of statistics that popped up on the list and I am running them together.

Rebecca's counting and the posts on the PJM started up while I was at the SAF conference in KY and there was quite a bit of discussion there about it as well. One participant suggested that pointing this kind of thing out to women in graduate school could be setting them up for stereotype threat. If they are aware that they are likely to be discriminated against they won't be able to perform as well and then they will be discriminated against. I really don't know what to say about that! So we should pretend that we are not discriminated against so that we will be more successful?

Evelyn Brister said...

So what is the preferred way of dealing with stereotype threat?

And tell me again, when is being ignorant preferable to being knowledgeable?

Some women in grad school (most of them, probably) will be aware of how they are the only women in their year and that they never get called on in class and that the boys have access to networks that they don't. They are already suffering from stereotype threat. Surely, adding to their understanding of this phenomenon so that they can build a standpoint on it, so that they know that their perceptions are not unusual, so that they can build a supportive community, and so that they can contribute to efforts to remedy this totally unjustifiable gender imbalance which is worse in philosophy than in any other liberal arts discipline is not the wrong thing to do.

Some women, though, may be blissfully ignorant. Given the undeniability that many of them will encounter some discrimination soon, it's a question of what is the worse harm. Stereotype threat is a possible difficulty. But at least "forewarned is forearmed."

And anyway, we collect and publicize these numbers not just for the few hundred women in doctoral programs but also in hopes of improving the situation for ourselves and for the thousands of undergraduate women who go through philosophy classes every year.

Sharon Crasnow said...

Don't get me wrong. I agree with you! I have to admit I was really puzzled by the stereotype threat remark. And so were several other people who were involved in the conversation. Several of us pointed out that we had not realized for the longest time that we were being discriminated against because we so bought into the "mind has no sex" idea and were sure that we were operating as minds only in the rarefied world of philosophy. I do think that comments like the stereotype threat argument do point out how confused and divided we have been about how to deal with the ourselves (women) as members of a profession in which we find ourselves a minority and maybe this is one of the reasons why we aren't making any or only a little progress on this front.

I think that the comment also conveys a pretty deep misunderstanding of the point of talking about stereotype threat. As I understand it, the concept is meant to describe why it is that it is so difficult for those who belong to groups that are stereotyped to break away from the influence of that stereotyping. Presumably to be aware of the role it plays allows you to protect against it or counteract it to some extent. But it is also an alternative explanation to the "easy" one that it is lack of ability that keeps those who are underrepresented from being fully represented in certain fields. But the concept wasn't designed to point out something that you should be dodging or avoiding so that it won't have an affect on you.