Tag Archives: bias

Is philosophy a man’s game?

Philosophy is a long way behind in the gender equality stakes.

The Philosopher’s Magazine suggests that only 20% of tenured staff in the US and the UK are female, compared with, for example, about 40% in psychology. Anecdotal experience, on the other hand, suggests that the numbers are much more even at the undergraduate levels. What is happening in between? How does a relative gender parity skew towards the masculine at the postgrad and professional levels?

Recent discussions on the internet have revolved around the following:

  • the generally aggressive, combative, belligerent culture of discussion within philosophy;
  • the association of women with the ‘softer’ or ‘woolier’ sub-disciplines – aesthetics, ethics, history of philosophy, ancient philosophy, and so on – and men with the ‘harder’ or ‘colder’ sub-disciplines (metaphysics, epistemology, logic);
  • women being left out of informal, male-dominated networks (that convene over e.g. poker, basketball, beer at the pub);
  • and, more broadly, widespread prejudice and outdated stereotyping, or the clash of ‘schemas’ (= unconscious biases) – as above, folk understanding says women are ‘life-giving’, ’emotional’, and ‘nurturing’, while philosophers have to be ‘rational’ and ‘penetrating’ and ‘hard-nosed’. Such prejudice gives rise to e.g. evaluation biases, and women end up locked out as a result.

(cf. Brian Leiter, this article in the NY Times, this brilliant paper by Sally Haslinger of MIT, dana @ The Edge of the American West here, Kieran Hiely with a classic post on the subject, some great discussion over at the FeministPhilosophers blog, and visit the Women in Philosophy Task Force here).

So, what’s going on? It seems ridiculous to me to say that women aren’t suited to philosophy because it’s too rational or rigorous. Women don’t seem to have much trouble succeeding in the law, for example. And commenters have noted that there are plenty of female linguists doing work on semantics, while philosophy of language remains largely male (despite the fact that both groups are working on similar things). Perhaps the disciplinary culture is the relevant factor?

The canon of philosophy is full of dead white men, sure. That can’t be encouraging to female students. But then again, the literary canon is also full of dead white men, and there are plenty of women in English departments. Maybe women are promoted in English departments because that fits with our biases – English (as an ’emotional’ or ‘sensitive’ discipline) is something, you know, women can do. What is for certain is that gender inequality is not unique to philosophy. Economics provides a good example. Of the last 64 Nobel Memorial Prize winners in Economics, only 1 is a woman. And that’s this year’s winner, Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the prize for her work on managing shared resources (a ‘soft’ and ‘wooly’ speciality – none of the precision and mathematical rigour of logic general equilibrium theory there).

So, how are we doing in Sydney? UNSW is doing OK – 33% (5/15) of listed philosophy staff are female, including the discipline co-ordinator (in English – 45%, 10/22). USyd, on the other hand, has 6 women in a department of 34 philosophers (17%); compare with the English department, where over 50% of staff are female – 14 out of 29. These samples ought to be too small to be representative, but USyd’s faculty in particular reflects the general trend observed by The Philosopher’s Magazine.

So – is philosophy a man’s game? What do you think?