There’s been a torrent of discussion about women in philosophy since TPM published an article on the subject in the last issue. Here at Brian Leiter, Peter Carruthers suggests that experimental philosophers get involved in figuring out what keeps women underrepresented in the field. Carruthers points out that women are 25-30% at every stage—undergraduate education, graduate school, and professional philosophy. He thinks women pick up on the combativeness of philosophy early on and many are deterred.
The discussion that has ensued over there is typical of these kinds of discussions. Lots of theories are advanced, but they all fit within certain parameters, as if an invisible cop were policing the discussion. There are Things We May not Say, and everyone knows what they are. On the other hand, there are Permitted Hypotheses, and those are generally understood as well.
One of the Things We May not Say is that women are worse at philosophy. It’s just as well that’s forbidden, because I really think that’s nonsense. Even if some professions are disproportionately male because of gender-related aptitude differences (not impossible), I doubt philosophy is one of those. So: women can do philosophy. But do they choose to?
Another Thing We May not Say is that women choose to less than men because they have different interests. One reason we may not say this is because it raises the spectre of innate gender differences, and that’s anathema to some people. But of course the idea that women have different interests isn’t intrinsically connected to any claim about innateness. It might just be that by the time women are adults, social influences have pushed them in certain directions.
I actually think the “different interests” hypothesis is pretty attractive. It’s corroborated by the fact that even within philosophy, men and women are drawn to different subjects. More women are in ethics, fewer in epistemology and philosophy of mind.
One of the commenters at Leiter offers a different explanation why more women do ethics and applied ethics. She says these are areas in which people can prove themselves comparatively quickly, and women are eager to do that, because of tacit sexist prejudice in the field. That’s a Permitted Hypothesis, because of the way it makes women’s underrepresentation a result of sexism. Explanations in terms of biasses are the only ones many parties to these discussions will take seriously. (And so many don’t care for Carruthers’ point about women disliking combativeness.)
If you settled too quickly on a “different interests” hypothesis, and ignored sexism, that would be a serious problem. We don’t want to overlook injustices. On the other hand, we don’t want to blame people who aren’t blameworthy. I also find it pretty insulting for women to be portrayed as avoiding aggressive debate, unduly anxious to prove themselves, and drawn to subjects not out of interest but to get ahead rapidly.
If you did find out that women have somewhat different interests, then you’d have to accept that there are naturally fewer women in philosophy. Or at least, that in a society that’s overall like ours, there are bound to be fewer women in philosophy. You might think society as a whole should shift toward a less gender-based way of raising and educating children. But you wouldn’t go on thinking there’s a fixable problem specific to philosophy. So diagnosing this properly has implications for what does and doesn’t need to be done. I hope some experimental philosophers will take up Peter Carruthers' suggestion and look into this...without preconceptions.