Sunday, December 09, 2007

Why AREN’T There More Women in Philosophy?

In some preceding posts I collected statistics on women’s participation in philosophy by earning bachelor’s degrees (31%), Master’s degrees (28%), PhD’s (27%), and the percentage that teach in any university-level job (21%).

K. Norlock commented on why we should care that the participation of women in philosophy is lower than in any other humanities discipline, rivaling only computer science, engineering, and physics.

Now I finally have the opportunity to discuss CAUSES of women’s low participation.
Why is philosophy, alone among the humanities, so distant from achieving gender parity in its own ranks?

I must confess to feeling stumped and dispirited when I think about this question. After all, I have always found that my colleagues profess concern, in their courses and published papers, about justice, equality, objectivity, bias, ethics, and the value of reflection.

The gender disparity thus raises another question: why don’t more philosophers care? Since I believe my colleagues’ concern with justice is sincere, I think it must be because they are ignorant of the statistics or because they are ignorant of how to remedy the situation.

Here are some possible causes of philosophy’s persistent male dominance:
  • Philosophy is perceived as a masculine pursuit.
  • Philosophical style (“the adversary method”) is at odds with women’s conversational style.
  • Women lack interest in course content.
  • Women are ignorant of what philosophy is and what uses a degree can be put to.
  • There is inadequate advising and recruitment, or advising and recruitment targets men more than women.
  • There is a lack of female role models.
  • There is a hostile social environment (i.e., outright sexism).

It is likely that all of these play a role in perpetuating the disparity in philosophy. But none of them are impossible to address.

For instance, although many people perceive philosophy as having a masculine image, other fields have been successful in changing their masculine image. The life sciences granted women 25% of bachelor’s degrees in 1970 (a lower percentage than in philosophy right now) and reached gender parity in the mid-1990s. Mathematics, too, has increased the proportion of women.

The bright side of philosophy’s obscured image (what is metaphysics, anyway?) is that many people have no preconceived gendered image of what philosophers do, being completely ignorant that there even are professional philosophers.

The problem with causes is that they are tremendously difficult to identify. The good news about solutions, though, is that if tactics and programs confer success, it doesn’t really matter whether a cause is properly identified or not. And since philosophy is lagging behind the academy’s push to include women (lagging by at least 30 years), there is plenty of experience in other fields for us to draw on.


Noumena said...

There's another possible cause -- or perhaps factor would be a better term, as it isn't as direct as the possible causes you offer. Philosophy competes with many other, better-known disciplines for the attention of potential majors -- gender studies, queer studies, African-American studies, history, sociology, psychology, the natural sciences, mathematics. Really, just about every discipline outside of the engineering and business schools. And, supposing that a young woman (who's taken a philosophy class or two) is trying to choose between less-female-friendly philosophy (for the causes you identify) and more-female-friendly rival discipline X, of course she's going to be inclined to choose X.

Maybe this is partially a matter of advising and recruitment, but it also suggests what I want to call the interdisciplinary strategy: philosophy is (or should be) a great discipline for second majors, special joint majors, and and supplementary minors. Feminist philosophers of science, for example, could work on setting up joint biology-philosophy majors (which could be heavily advertised to pre-meds).

The bright side of philosophy’s obscured image ... is that many people have no preconceived gendered image of what philosophers do, being completely ignorant that there even are professional philosophers.

I wholeheartedly agree, and this point makes some of the causes you identify especially notable. I suspect that Intro classes where one struggles to understand the esoteric beliefs of long-dead white men about evil demons and that than which nothing greater can be thought drives away people who might be quite interested in ethics, political philosophy, or philosophy of science.

Evelyn Brister said...

Great points, Noumena. I agree.

History of philosophy is essential to doing contemporary philosophy, of course (let me get that point out of the way). But contemporary philosophy is relevant to all kinds of current research in other disciplines. Philosophy is theory, after all, and the world needs theory (it just doesn't need theory exclusively). That makes philosophy great for pairing, as a double major, as a minor, in interdisciplinary programs.

In fact, I read a lot in journals like Conservation Biology, and there I frequently read essays by non-philosophers trying their darnedest to do philosophy. Often they succeed; sometimes they would succeed better if they knew more about the history and tools of disciplinary philosophy.

One thing that we philosophers could do better to make our discipline more attractive to women--and, by the way, to men also--is to teach introductory courses in innovative ways that (while not neglecting our history) demonstrate philosophy's contemporary relevance.