Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bringing Philosophy into the 21st Century

In the last decade, at least half of U.S. college graduates have been women. But less than a third of philosophy majors have been women. Women have not reached workplace equity at the beginning of the 21st century, but there are only a few places and ways in which they are not reaching educational parity. Philosophy—the discipline that takes as its subjects ethics, justice, consistency, and self-reflection—is one of those places.

What does this gender inequality indicate about our discipline? Some have taken it to indicate that the material itself is gender-biased, that the methods of argumentation reflect masculine psychology, or that philosophy is a bastion of cultural traditionalism that incubates sexist practices.

That assessment is too negative, in my opinion. As an optimist, a meliorist, and a pragmatist, I think that it indicates first and foremost that philosophers, unlike other analytic disciplines, have not made gender parity a priority.

Philosophers have been satisfied to think that thinking alone—the pursuit of philosophy itself—would be enough to attract and support anyone interested in taking it up. They have made love of wisdom a moral test. Those that are unable to overcome social obstacles to pursue philosophy are not supported.

As a commenter noted, one surprising result in the data on women in philosophy is that the pipeline is not leaking much through graduate school. We can't be exactly certain what is going on because no data is collected on graduate school admissions. At any rate there is a markedly larger disparity in employment than in the earning of graduate degrees.

The most productive place to direct our attention is apparently at undergraduates. It is there that the representation problem starts, and success at increasing the percentage of women at the professor rank is linked to improving parity at lower ranks.

There are other reasons to direct efforts at undergraduates as well. For one thing, such efforts could involve all of us philosophy professors, not just those at a few departments. For another, educational research on gender shows that one of the most effective ways of increasing the percentage of women in a male-dominated field is to improve recruitment and retention across the board. (For citations, see Unlocking the Clubhouse.)

That is, one way to improve the participation of women is to attract more students—both men and women (but proportionately more women). This would be good for the discipline. It would even be good for those people who don’t care in the least about gender issues. And it is something that professional organizations are suited to and funding sources amenable to.

A final thought is that one thing which works against recruitment efforts is the pervasive self-loathing of philosophers. Here’s an example, which was printed in the APA’s Proceedings. Philosophers are paranoid about what counts as philosophy and hostile toward new approaches (including feminist ones). An open mind about what philosophy is and how philosophers can contribute to non-academic problem-solving is important to improving the gender ratio.

Though I don’t understand the causes at work, women are more attracted to disciplines which solve social problems. Philosophy is already one such discipline. Public philosophy, applied ethics, environmental philosophy, and a host of other research areas break down philosophy’s disciplinary isolation, are relevant to the career prospects of graduates, and produce effects beyond the classroom.

(This is the last in my series of 6 or so posts. For someone else's thoughts on solutions to gender inequity in philosophy, see A Philosopher's Walk.)

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