Women's Intuitions

Here's an interesting paper about why women are under-represented in philosophy.  Wesley Buckwalter and Stephen Stich propose that part (but only part) of the explanation is that women's philosophical intuitions differ from men's.  When students are presented with philosophical thought experiments (Thomson's famous violinist, Jackson's case of Mary, Foot's trolley cases, Gettier cases, etc.), their study reveals that men and women don't have the same reactions.  The authors think women's intuitions may make them feel "different" and thus less inclined to join the profession.

There's a problem though...  In several of their cases it's women, not men, who have "the right intuitions"-- the ones that "most people have," as philosophers like to say.  How does that square with the exclusion hypothesis?  The authors speculate that philosophy is more often taught by men, who are likely to have the intuitions seen more often in men, so female students are likely to find themselves at odds with their professors.  The resulting sense of alienation will outweigh whatever validation comes from one's intuitions meshing with a well-known author's. 

I'm not so sure about that.  One of the thought experiments is Frank Jackson's case of Mary, the color-blind neuroscientist.  She learns all the physical facts about the color red.  Will she thereby be in a position to know what it is like to see red?   The data shows that females are more skeptical than males.  Are we really to believe that male philosophy professors are typical males, instead of having Jackson's intuitions--that Mary cannot know what it is like?  That would surprise me a great deal.   Still, in the majority of the cases Buckwalter and Stich look at, it's men who have "the right intuitions"--the ones that match the author's.  That's got to be off-putting for women.  What to do?  Read the paper for their answer....

The paper got me thinking about other aspects of philosophy that may be off-putting for women (research needed--I'm just speculating).  For example, there are the thought experiments themselves. A lot of them are really weird.  Both male and female students can be impatient with these things, and it could be that women feel especially that way.  The good news is that the thought experiments are easily transposed into the key of real.

Take, for example, Thomson's case of the famous violinist.  You are kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers and hooked up to him, and have to lie next to him for 9 months giving him life support.  Granted, he has a right to life; does that mean you have to stay there and keep him alive?  The analogy is supposed to help us think about what would follow if a fetus were a person with a right to life.  We are supposed to conclude: not much.  Women would still have a right to choose abortion.

The violinist story is a lot of fun, but it's not impossible to replace it with a real life story. I don't have the perfect story to suggest, but there's an interesting variation on the violinist theme in Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void.   Joe is mountain climbing in the Andes with a friend.  The two are connected to each other by a rope, and Joe falls into a deep crevasse.   Joe is (of course) a person with a right to life. Does that mean that the friend who is connected to him must stay there trying to save his life?  The friend thought otherwise--he cut the cord.  Was that permissible or impermissible?  For some students, that would be a more engaging question than the one about the violinist. 

Another potentially aversive aspect of philosophy classes is the way the most opinionated people are rewarded.  If you are "still thinking" and not ready to declare a preference for one view over the others, let alone to defend it tooth and nail, you will get very few pats on the head.  The expectation that one will quickly have firm views might be more off-putting to women than to men.  And it could be a bigger problem than aggressive combat--a feature of philosophy often said to be particularly bothersome to women.  It's fun to fight (isn't it?) when you're 100% sure what you think. Not fun at all when you're still thinking, still trying to understand.  In philosophy culture as it is, one must have a view now, not tomorrow, not next week.

[Update: Why would women especially resent the "must have an opinion" culture of philosophy?   I can think of lots of possible explanations, but I don't think it's because they're simply slower then men.  Heavens!]

So--there are lots of potential factors that could be studied, and if they really do affect men and women differently, some are fairly easily changed.


s. wallerstein said...

Perhaps these comments from Jonathan Bennett's "A Study of Spinoza's Ethics" (1984) are to the point:

"Perhaps this fact about Spinoza's mind is linked with his being somewhat slow. This thought was prompted by the double contrast with the nimble, razor-sharp Leibniz, and is confirmed by my own experience of my contemporaries: those whom I find to be faster on their feet than I am are also those who are better at rigour than I am. I would add that although agility and sharpness are enviable, they are not everything. Spinoza was a great philosopher, and also a better philosopher than most of those who could think faster and more tightly than he could."

Jean Kazez said...

I think not to the point, because I wasn't saying that women are slower, or less agile, or less sharp, or less anything mentioned in that paragraph. The issue is about having opinions, convictions, views, etc, not speed of comprehension.

s. wallerstein said...

You did say "if you're still thinking and not ready to declare a preference for one view over the others...you will get few pats on the head. The expectation that one will quickly have firm views
might be more off-putting to women than to men".

That phrase about "still thinking"
and the one about not having "firm views" "quickly" lead the reader to think that women might be tend to be slower thinkers, in the sense that Spinoza is. It is evident that Bennett does not consider Spinoza's slow-thinking in negative terms. In fact, from the context, one might well surmise that Bennett considers that taking one's time to form firm views may well be an intellectual virtue.

Anonymous said...

I think you may be on to something with your speculation that the way opinionated people are rewarded in philosophy can be off-putting. I take alot of time to form a solid opinion- and, I like to think, this time is well spent entertaining all the options and possible problems with a particular view.
At least in my own case I am reticent to do my philosophical exploration out-loud, so to speak, because I don't want to say anything unintelligent for fear it might reinforce stereotypes about women being stupid and rash.

Jean Kazez said...

I'd really like to get off the subject of whether it's OK to be slow, because it just reinforces the idea that I said women are slower. I didn't. If they do especially resent the expectation that they should have opinions on everything, I don't think it's because they are slower.

Faust said...

My money is on the combat business. The "having your position ready" is subsidiary to the combat bit. The REASON you need to have your position ready is SO THAT you can engage in combat. If you're "exploring" or "still thinking" then how can you join the fray? The combat is there is separate the wheat from the chaff, those who will be best at thriving in the publish or perish, one up over the other guy world of academic philosophy.

Now I'll go read the paper ;)

Jean Kazez said...

I think that's part of it--one must have a view in order to be combat-ready. And what other conversation can there be but arguing? But it's also a question of definining yourself. If you don't have a bunch of views, then you're nobody...sort of, that's the idea.

Personally, I do like to argue and I'm happy to define myself. The issue is the pressure to do it all immediately and constantly. Somebody says something, and there's no option of saying--oh, how interesting, I'll mull that over.

One of the nice things about a blog conversation is that you do get to mull things over, without having to say "excuse me, I'm going to go mull that over."

Wayne said...

Is this about a bias against women in philosophy, or is this really about a bias against women in higher education in general?

There are more male professors than female professors in institutions of higher education, generally.

You take the subset, philosophy, which is a particularly SMALL subset, its not particularly surprising that any small subset of a already skewed population would be more or less skewed than the population it came from.

I'm not going so far to say that there isn't something about philosophy that excludes women, but it might not be entirely philosophy's fault. Women confronted with academic institutions that where they see few of themselves represented, are less likely to pursue, unless they are themselves a particularly motivated person.

Lets try to look at this from another angle.... Women tend to be very highly represented amongst English faculty, rather than Math or philosophy. Why?

Do women like to read literature more than philosophy? (This is my anecdotal experience. I bring home a non-fiction book, and my wife won't touch it. I bring home a fiction book, she's done with it and on to the next before I know what happened.)

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne--If the paper is right, there are particular reasons why women are underrepresented in philosophy. It's worth a look.

s. wallerstein said...

If you don't have a point of view, then you're nobody.

I assume that the above statement contains several levels of irony.

It is sad that people who take their time to think are excluded from the game.

That reminds me of a Woody Allan joke: I just took a speed reading course. I read all of War and Peace in 15 minutes. It's about Russia.

That is, often speed thinking is like speed reading.

Finally, it is strange that a discipline which begins with Socrates asking questions without answers and claiming to only know how little he knows now only rewards speed thinkers.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't really think the field "only rewards speed thinkers," and the issue really isn't speed of thinking, as I keep saying. It's how quickly a person is willing to declare themselves for a certain view or against it. That is, how opinionated they are.

I don't think it's necessarily bad to be opinionated or deep to reserve judgment, but if males are even a bit more opinionated than females, that's something we ought to know. In philosophy classes it's standard procedure to ask what a class thinks about an argument on the board. If women are even just a bit less inclined to have an opinion off the bat, then they will get fewer pats on the head, feel less at home, etc. This is the sort of subtle difference in comfort levels that the paper is about, except I'm speculating about another possible factor besides the one the authors explored.

s. wallerstein said...

Google ate my comment again.

I withdraw my comment about philosophy only rewarding speed thinkers. It's an exaggeration.

My brother-in-law is one of the most thoughtful people I know. In the 1970's he studied analytic philosophy in graduate school at a name university in the U.S. He dropped out and became a computer programmer, a field at which he is an expert.

He is not an opinionated person. If you ask him a question, he will be silent for a while and then begin with "that's complicated, but...." He takes his time to explain his ideas and often circles back to step one to correct himself. I never get the impression that he tries to beat me at a game or to put me down. Rather, he invites me to follow his reasoning or to reason along with him.

I had never asked him why he dropped out of philosophy until last year, because I assumed that
his decision was motivated by economic factors, when my sister became pregnant. However, when I asked him, he grew silent and said: it wasn't the place for me.

I think that he could have been an excellent philosophy teacher.

Wayne said...

Hmmm.. Their conclusion is interesting. If female students have the wrong intuition, and then are told they are wrong, they are less likely to pursue the field. (not their wording).

Maybe that says something about the the way we teach philosophy.

I mean I had terrible intuitions about many of the thought experiments listed when I first encountered them. Sometime I was told I was wrong, Sometimes I wasn't told I was wrong, but given a follow up questions about my intuitions in a Socratic fashion. I think back and realize when I was questioned in a Socratic fashion I was more apt to change my mind.

When I try this with a particular female student of mine who is now in grad school, I was always met with some pretty severe resistance. (Maybe I just suck at Socratic teaching).

Jean Kazez said...

I certainly do coax my students to have "the right intuitions." If they say they want to hook up to the experience machine, I'll work 'em over for a while, but then relent. The people who started off "right" will (I suppose) feel more at home in a philosophy class. There's something to this!

I think more research needs to be done on other factors that make students feel at home in a classroom or not, and whether some of these other things are gender-skewed.

Anonymous said...

I think your students that want to hook up to the experience machine are right ;)

Faust said...

Previous comment mine.