Where the Boys Are

The good people at Feminist Philosophers have lately been keeping track of "men's conferences"--philosophy conferences that happen to feature an all-male line up of featured speakers. This public shaming, in combination with email to conference organizers, is intended to increase female representation at these events. All of which gets me thinking...

The pool of possible speakers for conferences varies by topic. An ethics conference without any women would be disgraceful, because there are plenty of women to choose from. One of the all-male conferences recently shamed at FP is called "The New Ontology of the Mental Causation Debate." The pool of possible speakers consists of philosophers who work in philosophy of mind, on mental causation, with a focus on ontology. And there might be some geographical requirements as well, depending on the way the event is being funded. It's not so obvious there are lots of women to choose from.

If there aren't, it may be just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit the fault of people like me. Which means--people who used to work in that area, but switched to an area of philosophy that already had good female representation. I see this all the time. Women start in fields that are more abstract, technical, and male-dominated, and later move into fields with more "human" content, and more women.

That's the pattern when women stop concentrating entirely on...whatever they were doing, and start doing feminist philosophy. Or they get out of metaphysics and into ethics. I see this also in other academic fields. A relative of mine started out in a male-dominated hard science, and later moved into female-dominated science-ed. Every time a woman makes this sort of move, somewhere down the line someone's going to have a harder time putting together a conference with gender parity.

Why don't women choose to be "where the boys are"? That's ultimately what really needs to be asked, not (for the most part) why specific conferences today feature a lot of men. Does it have anything to do with inhospitability to women in the more abstract areas of research? In the cases I know best (my own and my relative's), I think not. But that's two people. I'd love to know more about the thought and emotion behind these shifts.


Michael LaBossiere said...

Based on my own experience (as a guy, I get to hear what some other guys won't say in front of women), there is still some hostility towards women. In some cases, some rather nasty hostility. Of course, some philosophers are hostile and mean to everyone.

It might also be the case that women and men generally have some different areas of interest (due to genetics, socialization, or whatever) that lead to some unequal distribution.

Getting outside of philosophy, you won't see many women at gaming conventions playing D&D, Warhammer 40K or Call of Cthulhu. Also, you won't run into as many women as men playing Halo 3 or World of Warcraft. Does that mean that gamers are sexist and hostile to women? Well, some are. Some are hostile to all that is not them and aren't afraid to scream(or type) their rage into the microphone or keyboard. But most are not...and many would be overjoyed if more women picked up a D20 or a game controller. But, most women just seem to find these nerdtastic activities uninteresting. Should something be done about that?

Jean Kazez said...

I'm surprised you've witnessed overt hostility to women in the philosophy business. Over many years, at many institutions, I can't really say that I have. Sexual harassment, yes--and that can have the effect of excluding women. Plus, there are indirect ways that women can feel excluded. The talking style in philosophy tends to be combative, which can have an impact on how "at home" women feel. Plus, the intellectual style of many philosophers is detached from real life...

There are various things that subtly drive women away, but the men I've been around are not (on the whole) chauvinists. Just the opposite, actually.

Interesting question why it should matter whether women are represented in any particular setting. I've been dragged to video game mega-stores by my son, where there's nary a female to be seen and I feel like a fish out of water. You might say--so what? Men would feel out of place in other settings.

I think the problem is that many male dominated "worlds" are high prestige and perceived as desirable. So you want girls and women to feel they can go there, if they so desire. I would like my daughter to feel she has the same chance of being a mathematician or an astronaut that my son does. You want female philosophy students to think they can make it into any field they want, a feeling that's hard to sustain if the field is 90% male.

So--it's not unconcerning that so many philosophy conferences seem to have all-male speakers, but I'm not inclined to think the organizers are avoiding women, or making no effort to invite them. It comes about for much more complex reasons that are hard to "fix"--if a fix is needed (yes, no, maybe).

Michael LaBossiere said...

Fortunately, I have not seen much of it-but more than I would hope. After all, I naively expect philosophers to be better than that. Also, being male, other males are more likely to say what they really think to me about this matter.

I've had similar experiences with racism. Since I look white, people have said things to me that I doubt they would say in front of people who are not white.

But, I am happy to say that most philosophers are decent folks.

I wonder if anyone has done a study comparing video games/gaming with academic. It might well be that both are constructed to appeal to guys so that women generally find them less inviting.

As you point out, philosophy can be rather combative-a hallmark of most male favored games. So, if males have a greater inclination to feel more at home in combat that women do, then that would help explain the lower numbers of women in both gaming and combative academics.