Women in Philosophy

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.


s. wallerstein said...

Excellent post. I will not venture a hypothesis, because first of all, I have none and second, if I invent one, it might fall into the non-permitted category. Actually, the idea that I have to think about whether my hypothesis is politically correct or not before formulating it scares me. Yes, I understand your irony. By the way, there's a tacit premise that women should want to become philosophers.

Ophelia Benson said...

I did the next 'Threads' (issue 48) on this - the discussion that followed that piece in issue 47. I included something you said at Feminist Philosophers - the thing about getting lost in a difficult problem and being content to see it as a game that doesn't necessarily do anything useful. I thought that was really interesting, and not like the usual commentary. (I thought Julian might possibly object to the self-referential aspect - quoting a TPM columnist - but he didn't.)

s. wallerstein said...

Wouldn't it be better to do a study of, say, personality traits in male philosophers, female philosophers, males in general, females in general, and then in-depth interviews about motivation with male and female philosophers and with males and females who consider studying philosophy, but don't, etc.? This does not seem like a question that can be settled in a symposium or seminar.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, Cool. I had to go back there to find out what I'd said. Looks like I said women are more likely to want things to matter, and men are more likely to be satisfied with playing a game. My feeling: games are fun. I love games. At some point, though, they need to matter!

Faust said...

Mmmm games that matter and games that don't. I tend to think of everything as a game. Some games have at stake life and death (war, international politics), others merely someones life savings (stock market, addictive gambling), and some just pride and/or ego.

I would phrase it more in terms of the abstract vs the concrete. Not things that matter vs "games." What "matters" is what you value, and I would be willing to accept that at least stereotypically, the things that matter to women tend to be, on average, more concrete than the things that matter to men.

But I'm no expert on this subject, it's something clearly best to focus on empirically, and I would be curious to see what the correlations are between say:

women and men in mathematics,

women and men in science,

women and men in philosophy,

and sure: women and men in game design.

Of all of the above I bet science has the most women represented: it has a lot of room for being very concrete. But that's just a theory. I've never researched this question.

Wayne said...

Okay let me say first of all, I'm playing Devil's advocate here.

Why can't women be less adept at philosophy than men? We generally accept that women are less adept at certain activities, than men, and men less adept at certain activities than women. I think women make better nurses than men, because typically they have more empathetic and nurturing natures than men, who look at things from a problem solution perspective.

If this is the case, it makes sense that women would be less adept at philosophy because it isn't something that can be empathized with or nurtured, in the same way that other people are.

Women are turned off by the combative nature of philosophy, precisely in the same way that they are turned off in the combative nature of football.... They simply can't compete. I can't be competive in football either, and I'm not very interested in it, precisely because I wouldn't be very good at it.

This is not to say that all women cannot be philosophers. There are individual variations amongst all individuals, so that would account for the 20-25% of women who are philosophers. But the vast majority simply arn't good philosophers, just like the vast majority of women would not make good football players....

And just like the vast majority of women could kick my skinny scrawny vegetarian butt.

s. wallerstein said...

A clarification: when we talk about philosophy, we're talking about analytic philosophy in U.S. or perhaps U.K. universities. In Chile, at least until fairly recently, many women studied philosophy, which was basically ancient philosophy and continental philosophy. What's more, until about 10 years ago, philosophy was a required subject in Chile in secondary education, so there was a good job market for people (including women) with degrees in the subject. Recently, the idea that the purpose of education is to form so-called "human capital" has become dominant here, and philosophy has been eliminated (at least in public schools) from secondary education. In any case, there is no genetic or innate reason why women do not study philosophy, if by philosophy we mean the classics, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, etc.

Ophelia Benson said...

One big reason not to say all that is that it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women start to think ‘I’m a woman, I don’t like combative situations, I like to nurture – at least if I’m a real woman I do, and I don’t want to be some kind of freak, so I’d better not like combative situations…’ Men start to think ‘Women are whiny timid pussies who can’t handle anything combative, like philosophy and government and law and warfare and business and economics’ and before you know it women are stuck with nursing, teaching, or Staying Home With the Kids.

In other words that kind of thing is, though covertly, much more prescriptive than it is descriptive.

Or to put it even more simply, the claim that women are not ‘suited’ to this or that kind of work, or indeed pretty much all kinds of work, has been used for a long long time to keep them confined, limited, uneducated, diminished.

Jean Kazez said...

Wow, what a festival of political incorrectness.

I don't see any merit to the idea that women aren't as good at philosophy as men Two reasons--first, in my many years of teaching, I've seen no such correlation. Second, the skills that underlie being good at philosophy are ones that aren't possessed more by men than by women. They are basically language and reasoning skills. Women are now 50% at law schools and at medical schools because they have plenty of those skills (plus others). There's no reason they couldn't be half of all philosophers if they wanted to be.

As to there being fewer women because they're more concrete and less abstract in their thinking---well, law is actually quite abstract, and so is linguistics, two fields with lots of women.

Same goes for the business about women wanting to nurture. They don't get to nurture much in law and linguistics, but they are attracted to those fields.

So...I'm not buying any of this stuff. What I'm suggesting is something much more subtle. When you work on certain sorts of philosophy problems (ones I used to work on, but no longer do), you're bound to occasionally wonder "does this matter?" That thought occurs to both men and women. What I am saying is that men can have the thought and not care if the answer is "no." Women seem to care more if the answer is "no." So while women may really enjoy the puzzle in question, they're less inclined to make it their life's work.

I do agree with Ophelia that some aptitude differences are best not pointed out, since pointing them out becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Harping on it winds up having the effect of increasing the amount of difference. But in this case, I really don't see the aptitude difference as being real. What I do see as real is a subtle difference in values, and I don't think it really harms women to hear that's what they're like. In fact, I think a preference to spend one's life on things that matter is a virtue, and it's really men who ought to be concerned if they exemplify it less.

I should--what I'm saying about women wanting things to matter more is speculative. It fits my own observations over the years, but I'm open to being refuted by somebody's more systematic research.

s. wallerstein said...

I will continue to talk about Chile, because I think it will illustrate something about women's job options. In a discriminatory job market, women (and other minorities) choose jobs which assure them a fair chance, for example, teaching in public schools, given that in public schools wages are uniform (all teachers, male and female, with 20 years of service and satisfactory performance receive X pesos), given that in public schools the laws about a right to childcare are enforced, given that in public schools the laws about pre-birth and post-birth leave are enforced, given that in public schools there are strict codes about sexual harassment. Wages for public school teaching may be less than those in other areas, but women prudently opt for an area in which they feel that they will be protected against abuses of their rights. Given that there are or were jobs in school teaching in philosophy, women with interest in philosophy study the subject, just as those with interest in history become history teachers. Women, in Chile at least, opt for studying philosophy because it is a good bet and because, among other good bets, it is an option that interests them.

Jean Kazez said...

Are philosophy teachers in Chile really half female?

It certainly would be interesting to see how many women went into philosophy if you could count on getting a good job with a philosophy PhD. I'd love to know the answer. Some people say risk aversiveness is the whole reason why there are fewer women studying philosophy in the US.

Jean Kazez said...

I should say--they think it's a big part of the reason.

s. wallerstein said...

I have no idea of the exact proportion of women to men philosophy teachers in Chile, but philosophy is not known as a male field in Chile by any means. I was discussing the subject earlier this morning (we're on different zones) with a university psychology professor (psychologists are more female than male in Chile), and she confirmed my impression that philosophy is full of women. My impression is that people who expect discrimination seek job sectors where there is little or none: lots of women police officers in Chile too. I think in the U.S. lots of blacks join the military because they see it as a truly equal opportunity employer.

Faust said...

Mmmm I think you misinterpreted "abstract" vs "concrete." Not that I blame you, it was an off the cuff opposition. I could have also said "practical" vs "impractical, or perhaps better, "practical" vs "theoretical" that might have been more precise.

I tend to think of law as being quite "concrete" in the sense that law is constantly practiced every day in ways that have a direct impact on people's lives. Yes it has strong abstract components: but those components are used in "real world applications" as they say. Is there a branch of law where it is ONLY law "theory" or some such? If so then I think it would be a good place to test the notion of men being more drawn to theory as opposed to practice.

So I'm all for figuring out an interesting opposition here that is supportable by evidence, but what I don't think is helpful is your opposition of "matters" with "doesn't matter." Not that you have said this specifically but you contrast "matters" with...with what? My distinctions may be clumsy or imprecise, but "matters" vs "doesn't matter" is just a question begging dichotomy that explains nothing.

Do sports "matter" to me? No. Do they matter to untold millions of people? Yes. Do animal rights matter to you? Yes. Do they matter to the owners of agribusiness industry? Nope. Does continental philosophy "matter" to people who believe in the analytical tradition? I just don't see that the concept "mattering" does any work at all here until we know what makes things that matter matter.

So, wondering out loud, let me re-frame my opposition as "theory" vs "practice." Physics has practical applications but it also has highly theoretical branches like string theory. Are there more men in highly theoretical physics than women? Can we break up law and linguistics similarly?

If there is a problem here to be solved or an answer to be had then we need to start sketching a theory that can be tested and I'm not sure a general commentary on mattering even starts us on our way.

I think the "interests" hypothesis seems a good place to start, but we need to get a sense of what it is that is interesting to women and men and why. As likely as not those intersts are likely to wind up being nurture rather than nature in the end.