Why aren’t there more women in philosophy?

I just finished reading Louise Antony’s ‘Different Voices or Perfect Storm: Why Are There So Few Women in Philosophy?’ in the September 2, 2012 edition of Journal of Social Philosophy. I highly recommend that readers have a look at it.

Some other excellent discussions of the issue are here:






The reason I mention this now is that, in some recent blog discussions, it’s been suggested that the best way to combat sexual harassment in philosophy is by starting with more women, not the other way around. So, how to attract more women into the discipline? I suggest these articles make a plausible case for what might work best. Again, it’s all sketchy at present; but surely this is worth considering.

3 thoughts on “Why aren’t there more women in philosophy?

  1. Intro psychology classes often mention very few women psychologists. Yet where I did my undergrad, many more female students than male students majored in psychology.

    I imagine debates in law schools are aggressive, but women are better represented there.

    STEM fields are also supposed to be about as poorly represented. Why isn’t a big part of the answer stereotype threat? Note that both women and black people suffer from stereotypes according to which they are worse than average at mathy/abstract reasoning.

    I’m sure there are other reasons too, but I think we should be more creative in thinking up possible explanations that we can try to test. I think people are nervous about suggesting sex differences, but no one has to be an essentialist. Freshman college students have already had almost 20 years of social conditioning before they enter our intro philosophy classes; it would be surprising if there weren’t statistically significant differences among the etc. of different groups.

    I’ll throw out some possible(??) factors
    – the average female freshman may have more of a concrete plan for university than the average male freshman. Since hardly anyone learns about philosophy in high school, if this is true it may mean that many of the women in your intro class have already decided on other majors or careers whereas many of the men are still trying to figure this out.
    – the average female freshman may be more concerned with learning things that are directly useful or applicable to her life/to the rest of the world.
    – the average male freshman may have had more practice with the tools/concepts of philosophy before even entering the intro class. (There may be general differences in the sorts of extracurricular things high school girls and boys do, or the ways in which they interact with one another, or the way the way they’re treated by their parents, the games and toys they were given as young children, etc., that could support this.)
    – on average, female freshman may have a less direct way of making objections, asking questions, etc., than their male counterparts. This mild communication barrier (?) could lead to greater difficulties (e.g. less immediate and unqualified positive feedback for questions) in philosophy classes, where clarity and simplicity are so important.

    Any more ideas?

    General thought: It’s possible that what happens to women before they get to university is largely responsible for turning them away from philosophy. (Or that what happens to men turns them toward philosophy.) We shouldn’t assume that the problem is something we (as a discipline) can fix even at the intro level. Though obviously once we have some idea what’s going on we may be able to remedy it!

  2. The first of the linked blog posts asks the following question: “Why don’t philosophers seem to care (or care enough) about the gender imbalance in the discipline?”

    For many of us who are inclined to care about the well-being of others, I think there’s a pretty simple answer, viz. there are too many other things to care about. Every year roughly 6 billion animals are killed (and in the process subjected to unfathomable and wholly gratuitous pain) for human consumption. Drones are flying over Pakistan dropping bombs on children. Cycles of endemic poverty are working to confine millions to lives of abject suffering. In light of such things, it’s really hard for me to wax indignant about the fact that several thousand (mostly rich, mostly white) women have decided (or will decide) to study a different subject in graduate school.

    Now, granted, there’s probably more that I can do, qua philosopher, to create a welcome climate for women in this discipline than to alleviate the suffering of the teeming millions. So I endeavor to do so. I treat female colleagues and students with respect. I don’t put up with sexist behavior in my classes. I try to craft inclusive syllabi. Nevertheless, I take it that all of that is just constitutive of “not being a dick.” It’s clear to me we have some kind of professional obligation not to be dicks. It’s not at all clear to me, however, that lack of gender parity in a particular academic discipline is evidence of injustice or even something I should care about (on the presently false assumption that its detached from discrimination and harassment).

    Suppose that golden day arrives when the women who *want* to do philosophy professionally are able to do so without being subject to harassment or bullshit. Why isn’t that state of affairs sufficient? Why should I care, at that point, whether or not there is gender parity?

    One reason some people have floated on the blogs is that gender parity is a necessary precondition for women to be able to do philosophy without being subject the harassment or bullshit. If that’s true, then it’s an instrumental good I’d sign up to work towards. But it’s still not something I’d care about for its own sake.

  3. The idea that we ought to seek gender parity in all occupations rests on a stack of unexamined, and mostly false, assumptions; two major factual premises and one major normative one.

    1. Unstated premise #1 Men and women (in aggregate) have precisely the same innate interests – almost certainly false.

    2. Unstated premise #2 Men and women (in aggregate) have precisely the same abilities – Unknown as regards philosophy, obviously false as regards firefighting, the NFL, or the military.

    3. Unstated premise #3 Gender parity is desirable

    Why is gender parity desirable? Nobody can give even a half decent reason as to why that would be the case. The principal of diminishing returns seems to indicate that going from 35% women to 50% would be unlikely to yield much of any benefit.
    The fact that we spend our time talking about the comparatively modest gender gap, while passing over the racial chasm, ought to occasion some soul searching, but that won’t happen.

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