Friday, October 02, 2009

Newsflash: Fewer Women Than Men in Philosophy

This just in: an article in "The Philosophers' Magazine" reports that a survey of 20 British philosophy departments reveals that only about 20% of full-time faculty are women, much less than in history or psychology or literature departments. A survey of 8 American departments came up with 22% women.

(This is a good point to look toward the sidebar, over there to the left, which has links to more thorough statistics and some of my own analysis. Julie van Camp reliably tracks women in 54 US PhD granting philosophy departments, and her current statistic is 19.6% of full-time faculty are women. Another nice set of statistics is on Sharon Crasnow's blog.)

From the article:

Helen Beebee, a University of Birmingham lecturer and director of the British Philosophical Association (BPA), says her impression is that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women graduating with good bachelor degrees in philosophy and that the numbers of women start to drop off at MA level and then again at PhD level.

Jennifer Saul, a Sheffield University lecturer...says that relative to post-graduate students, there is a significant drop in the number of women going on to become temporary lecturers. She says that number decreases again at permanent and more senior levels of academic philosophy and agrees that an aggressive culture may be a contributing factor. “I think that very combative ‘out to destroy the speaker’ sort of philosophy is something that a lot of women find uncomfortable,” she says. “But I wouldn’t want to say it’s just a problem for women – I think it’s a problem for men and a problem for philosophy because I don’t think it’s a good way to do philosophy.”

Beebee says people might see the fact that so few women choose to pursue a career in philosophy as unproblematic if there is no overt sexism going on but argues that “sustaining a culture whose effect is to exclude women is arguably a form of discrimination, even if the discrimination is neither conscious nor based on unconscious assumptions. And if women who would have made really good philosophers are not entering the profession, the philosophy that’s being done overall is not as good as it would have been if they had.”

I would only add that the U.S. Department of Education statistics suggest that the gender disparity, at least in the US, does begin at the undergraduate level. Women have only been earning about 30% of bachelor's degrees in philosophy, though they earn more than half of bachelor's degrees overall in all subjects. That difference between women and men is maintained and only slightly widened for master's and doctorate degrees. The gap widens again, and more significantly, at the stages of hiring and tenure.

Much has been done in STEM disciplines to decrease gender disparity. Success in engineering, math, physics, and other sciences has required concerted efforts from universities, professional organizations, and foundations, together with government support in the form of funding research and recruitment programs. The discipline of philosophy has received no similar level of support, and our professional organization has not so far even been able to collect data on hiring and on departmental make-up.

I am skeptical that our discipline will reach contemporary standards of fairness and gender inclusivity until addressing the problem of gender disparity is prioritized by the profession at large--men as well women.


Sharon Crasnow said...

Thanks keeping our attention focused on this issue. I have to say that it is rather gratifying to actually see it mentioned outside of the circle of women philosophers who have been focused on it. Feminist philosophers also has a post about the new Women in Philosophy Task Force - one more avenue through which to tackle the issue. See it at

Nick said...

I wonder why we aren't doing "exit polls", asking female BAs and MAs why they're pursuing other avenues. That would be the only way to reliably establish the problem here.

The problem I have with the "philosophy is combative" argument is that I know a lot of women in the field who really enjoy a heated, quasi-militaristic discussion where only the defensible ideas survive. It does them a huge disservice to (tacitly) link their gender with timidity or a lack of confidence.

So, I would like to know if this is really the case, if women are dropping out because of intimidation. It's important to note that even if they ARE doing so, it doesn't follow that the discipline should do all the changing. We (rightly) often talk about the ways in which women are socialized to be meek and deferential and how this hurts them enormously in their lives.

While philosophy certainly has a lot of improving to do, and could easily become less combative, we also don't want to assume that the solution to unequal representation is to just tailor the field to certain temperaments.

Tangentially, certain sub-fields (Ethics and History) approach equal representation. My (possible) explanation for this is that these fields are more practical, more engaged with the world and with actual human lives. Could it be that in this respect women are (generally) more interested in concrete human reality than abstract speculation? I tend to think so, and I tend to think that this is a feminine virtue (to use a hopelessly old-fashioned phrase).

Evelyn Brister said...


This is one of those areas where I'm going to fall back on personal experience, recognizing that it's limited and I can't speak for others.

I know the attitude that Beebee is referring to with the score-keeping of home and away wins. It's not everywhere in philosophy, and I don't see what that style of aggressiveness has to do with our method of argumentation. Of course, we do criticize others (and ourselves), and the critical process produces progress in philosophy. But when aggressiveness is laid on top of that methodology, what is produced is an environment that exaggerates insider-outsider status.

I think the attitude that women are meeker is ridiculous, but I do think that unnecessary levels of aggression serve to protect pre-existing privileges and reinforce cultural stereotypes. Some good empirical research has been done on how exaggerated expressions of competition have undermined the educational success of women, minorities, and other socially marginalized students in the sciences. The research showed that success in such environments was less linked to grades and test scores than it was in more supportive environments.

Still, I think that the point about aggression leaves out another significant factor in the absence of women from our profession. Since there is a widespread assumption that philosophers are male (or masculine), women tend to be invisible. Even prolific, acclaimed women are left out of social networks. The Feminist Philosophers blog has done a great job of pointing out how *certain* speaker series and book series consistently fail to include women.

Again, speaking from personal experience, many of the attitudes that women have to deal with are simply not observable by their male peers. Within my first month of graduate school, the adviser I was assigned told me that women just don't have the constitution or ability to do good philosophy and suggested that I leave for a more "literary" program. My peers did not (at the time) believe that he could possibly have said such a thing.

Nick said...


I see, and that's a very good way of framing the problem: aggressiveness is not necessarily anti-woman, it just reinforces certain status quos.

I guess, though, I still believe that the sub-field issue has many important things to tell us about this. The fact is that it is just about impossible, when you run in the Ethics or History circles, to maintain any kind of prior stereotype of "philosopher as male". A list of the dozen best and most influential modern analytic ethicists would HAVE to include the first names Christine, Annette, Martha, Rosalind, and Elizabeth. Why is this not so in M&E and logic, where the stereotype lives and is most visibly maintained?

In any case, the overall problem needs to be addressed, no doubt about that, and experiences such as yours must be eliminated, whatever the cost. It is frightening to me that my female peers may be having similar experiences which remain invisible to me.