Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Explaining the Persistence of Inequalities in Philosophy

Noumena has posted a deep analysis of the reasons for resistance to moves toward gender equity in physics, theoretical math, engineering, computer science, economics, and philosophy.

Although I said yesterday that I believe that the majority of such resistance, at least in philosophy, is passive rather than overt, it is sometimes given expression. It comes up, particularly, in conversations about the Larry Summers controversy or discussions sparked by comments like John Tierney's last month that women simply prefer less analytic and conceptual work.

This blog as well as others (and the SWIP list) have been keeping track of the research that needs to be done in order to make a strong case that the underrepresentation of women in philosophy represents an injustice. That case has been made strongly in scientific disciplines, as science institutions (departments, universities, federal agencies) actively work (and succeed at!) correcting participation inequities.

One thing that we need in philosophy is good evidence that women are in fact underrepresented. We have this for undergraduate education, from the U.S. Dept. of Education. The data that we have for graduate education is on graduation rates by gender. Some have claimed that without figures on graduate school application and acceptance rates, though, the data is incomplete because we don't know if the pipeline leaks in decisions to go to graduate school or if it leaks during time enrolled in graduate school. (I would claim that these data are relevant to implementing an efficient solution given our discipline's limited financial resources, but are not relevant to establishing the existence of the problem.) Likewise, we have federal employment statistics which show that professorships are male dominated. That type of data could be improved by knowing more about job application rates (by gender), job acceptance rates, and the part-time labor pool. The APA has said that some of this missing information is being collected for the latest job cycle.

Something else we need is a clear understanding and explanation of the persistence of inequalities in our field. Noumena's analysis is clearly motivated by the practical (that is, the rhetorical as opposed to philosophical) problem of convincing the resistant that 1.) unequal gender representation is a problem; 2.)
unequal gender representation is a problem that we collectively ought to take responsibility for; 3.) unequal gender representation is a problem that our institutions have a duty to address.

There are two hurdles to be overcome. One is in the nature of trying to overturn a status quo. Even passive resistance to change can be enough to quell it. The second is that the causes of gender inequality are very likely irrational.

When we look at other struggles for justice, there are strong forces working against rational persuasion. We might hope that this is not the case for philosophers--that philosophers are more likely to change their beliefs and practices based on reflective consideration of rational argument. Although that is perhaps too optimistic, it suggests another avenue for research--collecting and responding to the reasons that are given for failing to address our professions inequalities.


Brandon said...

One of the problems that I think arises, and something that actually worries me sometimes, is that there seems to be a widespread assumption among the people who make the argument that if women are simply choosing not to follow a philosophical career, that means the status quo's OK -- after all, they're getting a choice and acting on it. But of course this is a leap; if women are choosing to drop out of the stream at some point, there may be any number of reasons why they are doing so, and some of them may well reflect the fact that things need serious changing. It's the old problem of people assuming that choice = justice, without regard for the reasons why the choice is being made the way it is.

Evelyn Brister said...

This seems exactly right.

The objection is a version of Tierney's point: women have choices, women have preferences, and their preference appears to be to disproportionately follow the path of getting a degree in psychology and working in PR or marketing or practicing clinical psych--and not to follow a career where they work with inanimate objects or (in our case) do conceptual analysis.

And you ask, how can we think this is a REAL choice and not take into account the ways that it is thoroughly socially mediated?

I could list several faults with this reasoning--you allude to the way that women are not included in social networks or are otherwise made to feel uncomfortable.

One other response which hasn't received as much attention is the essentialism that goes into choosing one's interests. That is, are interests 'given'? In other words, are choices of study areas and of professions akin to the choices we make in an open and informed marketplace? Was my aunt's major (in the 1960's) in home-ec REALLY a choice? And what accounts for the change in preference, such that hardly anyone majors in home-ec anymore?

I would argue that interests are not simply given like this. In college, and in our professional lives, we make choices for numerous reasons and only afterwards become a person for whom that choice seemed inevitable.

Tierney assumes that engineers, mathematicians, and physicists are people who have personalities that lead them to enjoy manipulating inanimate or conceptual objects, but the studies that he cites are of people with prior training. Don't most of us learn to enjoy what we do well? And we do well what we have trained at?

I now study presettlement forests (beginning in my mid-30s) and can't imagine walking down the street without noticing what trees are lining it and whether they're native. But 15 years ago I would have been walking down the same street wondering what Heidegger meant when he described truth in terms of a clearing.

Noumena said...

the causes of gender inequality are very likely irrational

Are they? The oppression of one group goes hand-in-hand with privileging another, which means that oppression is rational, in some sense, for the privileged group.

Evelyn Brister said...

So true!

It's rational for the privileged to prefer the status quo if we take 'rational' in the sense that economists use it: whatever best satisfies one's self-interest in accumulating goods or high reputation.

That's a different sense of rational, though, then saying that people hold a belief because it is supported by rational reasons.

One sense calls for providing a well-reasoned argument (this is a project you're working on, right, Noumena?). The other sense calls for changing the system so that there are costs to supporting discrimination, making it no longer in one's rational interest.

I think the latter is the reason why some of the sciences have been successful at shifting their gender ratio fairly rapidly. Granting agencies have made it necessary for people to give at least lip service, and usually more, to improving diversity. And the more diversity increases, the higher the costs in acting against gender/race equality because doing so cuts down on one's own professional possibilities. The person you would like to network with is more likely a woman or minority. This is a point that is made (implicitly or explicitly? I can't remember) in an article by K. Brad Wray in the Oxford collection "Value-free Science?". It explains why once women reach a certain portion of a population (about a third) discrimination tends to decrease.

Noumena said...

I think there's a slight misunderstanding I want to clear up. While there is a practical aspect -- I want to understand the underrepresentation problem better in order to solve it, of course -- the initial post over on my blog was entirely theoretical/philosophical, and not really practical/rhetorical. Young's account of injustice as oppression isn't exactly mainstream; even reading heavily (compared to my fellow students) in leftist and feminist circles over the past decade, I never encountered her name often enough for it to register as important. I still wouldn't have read her this summer if one of my oral exam committee members hadn't told me to. So I don't think I can just truck out Young's account, show how it gives a nice analysis of underrepresentation, and expect an instant conversion from non-feminists. This project doesn't seem all that rhetorically promising, at least not at this early stage, and not with philosophers.

It can also help us avoid unnecessary disagreement with those who do not think underrepresentation is a problem. For example, you talk about `unequal gender representation'. But your interlocutors could complain that biology and chemistry (and the humanities!) suffer just as badly from unequal gender representation as physics and math and philosophy, so you're a horrible misandrist blah blah blah, or whatever. Talking instead about the marginalization and de facto discrimination suffered by women blocks this move, and puts the focus of the discussion on the real cause of the problem.

Brandon -
Ann Levey has a paper in Hypatia (20:4) where she argues that `much of the current gendered division of labor is perpetuated through women's voluntary choice', and hence `justified political action may require that we fail to respect some people's considered choices'. She also argues that this is a reason for rejecting liberalism, though, so it's probably not a rhetorical point to just pick up and run with. But Martha Nussbaum has written a lot developing your same point, which she calls `adaptive preferences', and she's an unabashed liberal.

Evelyn Brister said...

Noumena, I hope I didn't offend you by saying your approach was rhetorical! I only meant to distinguish between responses to the gender parity problem that deal in rational argument and responses that are institutional. An institutional response might be just a department's undergraduate advisor trying to be especially energetic in recruiting or supporting women-or anything that is a change in practice.

Also, I think you should accept more credit for a nicely written and novel elaboration in the terms of a justice framework.

Brandon said...


Thanks, I'll have to read the paper. It seems to me a bit of a jump to move from "much of the current gendered division of labor is perpetuated through women's voluntary choice" to "justified political action may require that we fail to respect some people's considered choices," because the perpetuating choices may be symptoms of a deeper problem -- that is, it may not be the choices that are really the problem. But if they were the problem, then it does sound reasonable to consider whether we should not respect some of these considered choices; we do this anyway in other areas of life (justice systems, for instance, are designed not to respect certain kinds of considered choices), so it's a reasonable question to ask just how far this should extend. So it sounds like I might find the argument in Levey's paper interesting.