Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How Philosophy Is Like Computer Science

A few days ago Noelle McAfee wrote a post at Gone Public about whether academic philosophy careers are especially harsh on mothers. Her post generated valuable extensive discussion about the compatibility of mothering and philosophy.

Noelle's comparison between philosophy and the sciences set my own thoughts off on a different track. In the past, there was low participation by women in both science careers and in philosophy (I'll post figures on this tomorrow). But in the last two decades, women have come closer to parity in the sciences, and especially in the life sciences, where they now earn more than 50% of undergraduate degrees. Science still has a pipeline problem: the percentage of undergraduate degrees which go to women is greater than the percentage of graduate degrees, which is greater than the percentage of postdocs, and so on, right up to tenured professor.

I think philosophy has the same pipeline problem. But who would know it, since the figures (especially employment figures) are simply not kept.

What has made a difference for women in the sciences is that there is general awareness of the problem of underrepresentation of women and minorities, and there are focused efforts to address the pipeline problem. Every single issue of Science, published by the professional organization AAAS, has a news item or editorial or personal profile relevant to the problem of disparate gender and race representation.

Computer science is the only science/tech/engineering discipline in which participation by women has actually been dropping. In 1985, 37% of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences were awarded to women; ten years later, in 1995, this had fallen to 29% and has continued to fall over the last decade, to less than 17% in 2003.

Are there similarities between computer science's gender problems and philosophy's?

Last week a friend reported to me a conversation he had with an information sciences professor. That professor gave two reasons for the lack of women in their program:
1. It is a pipeline problem going back to middle school. The problem is that CS doesn't have an effective professional organization (he called them fuddyduds) who go into schools and generate broad interest in computing and its social effects. (He said that engineering, which has been raising its participation rates, does have that.)
2. Women just don't know about information sciences programs that might interest them more than computer programming. There are college degree programs that deal, for instance, with human-computer interaction and the social effects of computing. But high school guidance counselors don't know enough about these IT programs, and again, the professional organizations have dropped the ball.

Fuddyduds or not, the APA does the barest minimum to address the problems of women in philosophy. It does not collect data. There is the fabulous Committee on the Status of Women, but from what I can tell, the CSW receives little attention from philosophers who aren't women.

And philosophy, too, is misunderstood ("metaphysics" = spirituality?). There's no reason to think that high school guidance counselors particularly understand what a philosophy degree offers, either.


Anonymous said...

The book UNLOCKING THE CLUBHOUSE examines the causes of women's underrepresentation in computer science. The two factors mentioned above do underdescribe the situation, and I'm going to try to get some of it up over at Feminist Philosophers. JJ

Richard Y Chappell said...

"participation by women has actually been dropping"

Did you mean to say that the proportion of women participating has been dropping? (I'd guess the actual number of female CompSci participants has increased, but just not as quickly as the number of male participants.)

Regardless, I very much agree about the need for philosophy "outreach", to dispel misunderstandings and introduce more people to the discipline.

Evelyn Brister said...

Richard, in the case of CS, the overall number of people earning degrees dipped in the late 90's but has been on the rise more recently. But you're right, I meant that the RATE of participation by women has fallen off.

Unknown said...

A short, interesting article by a female academic computer scientist on factors that might influence women's decisions about whether to pursue degrees and academic employment in her discipline:


Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks for the link, Meghan! The graphs are especially informative. Some of this kind of information exists for philosophy. But the data in the third graph in Spertus' paper tracks employment data (the proportion of women who are full professors, etc.), and that kind of data is rare in the humanities.