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Why Are There Few Women in Philosophy? October 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Philosophy Profession.
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Via the NY Times:

Writing in The Philosophers’ Magazine, Brooke Lewis says tallies of full-time faculty at top American and British colleges show women make up less than a fifth of philosophy departments in Britain and little more than that in the United States. This suggests “that gender representation is far less balanced in philosophy than it is in many other humanities subjects.”

What is the explanation for the relative lack of women in philosophy?

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level. “I can remember being a Ph.D. student and giving seminar papers and just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience,” she says. “I can easily imagine someone thinking, ‘This is just ridiculous. Why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?’ ”

This doesn’t strike me as the right explanation. Philosopher’s engage in vigorous debate and I have on occasion heard excessively hostile remarks at symposia or in seminar but “intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience” does not characterize any philosophical discussion that I have witnessed. To suggest that women can’t handle the ordinary give and take of critical discussion is demeaning to women.

Moreover, there are lots of other disciplines that involve argument—the law for instance—in which women are well represented.

Rather, as with any complex social phenomena, I suspect there are multiple explanations that converge to create a pattern of under-represented women.

There is far less overt discrimination than there used to be as well as conscious attempts by many departments to be more inclusive. But unconscious stereotypes or other biases may influence hiring and publication decisions. (Here is an interesting discussion of empirical studies on this issue. In reading the comments, it appears the empirical data is equivocal)

It takes a long time for an “old boys network” to unravel despite deliberate attempts to eliminate bias. Until there are more women in the field who function as role models and advisors, and more women in the canon, women are likely to feel they don’t quite fit, even in the absence of explicit bias.

Also, it takes decades for senior positions in philosophy to reflect the make up of the pool of students who are going into philosophy. It would be interesting to have data regarding the gender make-up of undergraduate philosophy majors today compared to 30 years ago.

Finally, the peculiarities of philosophy may contribute as well. Some areas of philosophy lack a practical dimension, and philosophy is a discipline that involves some degree of isolation. Perhaps some significant portion of smart women self-select for disciplines that involve more collaboration or “real world” impact.

book-section-book-cover2Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | Threads - February 15, 2010

[…] Furrow at Philosophy on the Mesa was sceptical. “This doesn’t strike me as the right explanation. Philosophers engage in […]

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