Women in Philosophy

Part n of an m part series, I guess. I was intrigued by these comments by Ross Cameron.

As I understand it, women are under-represented in the major journals (I mean, even given their under-representation in the profession – that is, woman are even more under-represented in the journals than you’d expect them to be, given how many women there are in the profession). Why is this? Well, we’d need a study on this, but the following seems likely to me. Since women are under-represented in the profession it is very likely, for every paper sent to a journal, that it will be refereed by a man. Men and women vary in their styles of writing and arguing. So while when a man submits a paper it is likely that it will be reveiwed by someone who writes and argues in a broadly similar style, with women this is very unlikely. Hence, women face a disadvantage in trying to get papers published.

Okay – it’s hardly likely to be that simple. But I bet there’s something to this. And if there’s some truth to this then there’s a good case to be made, it seems to me, for journals implementing the rule that papers by women should, other things being equal, be reveiwed by women. (The ‘other things’ packs in a lot, because it seems far more important that papers be reveiwed by experts in the subject.) Is there a good reason why this shouldn’t happen?

I don’t have any off-the-cuff opinions on this, but I thought it should be shared with a wider audience. I’m not really sure it is true that women are under-represented in the major journals relative to their distribution in the profession. My rough idea (and boy will this be embarrassing if I’m wrong) is that the overwhelming bulk of submissions to Phil Review are by men, and that the gender balance of what’s published roughly equals the gender balance of what’s submitted. (We referee papers blind, but we learn the identity of authors after a decision is made, so I have some sense of who has been sending stuff in, if not the current submissions.) But if it is true (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is) then is Ross’s proposal worth adopting?

UPDATE – Asta notes in the comments that Sally Haslanger will be presenting some research at the Central APA showing that women are indeed under-represented in the major journals, even relative to their representation in the leading departments.

24 Replies to “Women in Philosophy”

  1. uhm, i don’t know whether this remark of cameron has been made with minimal care. i would love to see some data to substantiate it.

    “Men and women vary in their styles of writing and arguing.”

    and there is no way i can agree with the following either:

    “… papers by women should, other things being equal, be reveiwed by women.”

  2. Any effect of gender on writing style is likely to be subtle, and probably swamped by acculturation into the philosophical community. Moreover the assumption that women will be better disposed to writing by women is in need of defense. There are more likely explanations. Women often have less time to devote to research,for a bunch of reasons (they do far more child care than male counterparts, more housework, and I suspect more committee work and more teaching, both because it is expected of them and because they often expect it of themselves). Control for these factors and demonstrate a remaining significant problem and then I’ll take the suggestion seriously.

  3. Let me make it clear that I’m making a tentative hypothesis about the reasons for under-representation: I wouldn’t expect any policy changes without there being a serious study of that hypothesis. I’m not sure what ‘minimal care’ I need to make to make a tentative hypothesis on my own blog; I considered myself to have sufficient reason to mention it that it seemed worth thinking about to me.

    I have only anecdotal evidence that women are under-represented in the journals even given their under-representation in the profession (albeit from a source who has studied this). Obviously, it’s an empirical claim. But it seems worthy of investigation. I agree with everything Neil says; again, I’m not advocating a policy change on the basis of my intuitions – I’m saying this is something that would be worth investigating.

  4. Publishing in especially top-notch journals is mostly done by professors at research universities. I do not know, but it would not surprise me, if women are under-represented at research universities relative to their representation in the profession as a whole. But this could explain under-representation in journal publishing.

  5. Actually, there seem to be three different claims/hypotheses about the profession in the original post by Ross:

    (1) “Men and women vary in their styles of writing and arguing.”

    (2) “women are under-represented in the major journals (I mean, even given their under-representation in the profession – that is, woman are even more under-represented in the journals than you’d expect them to be, given how many women there are in the profession).”

    (3) (2) holds because of (1) (at least, partly).

    The three of them seem indeed to be straightforward empirical, and interesting and important if they are true. But it is not clear to me which kind of data could be provided as to substantiate them. Could anyone give relevant pointers, at least concerning studies about (1)?

  6. Sally Haslanger has been doing some research on this and will talk about this at the Central APA next week. As far as I understand, the percentage of papers by women in the top journals falls far short of the percentage of women at the top 20 research universities (according to the Leiter rankings).

  7. Just a note on one of Brian’s initial thoughts. Suppose that Women are underrepresented in top journals relative to their presence in top departments. That’s in no way incompatible with what Brian (tentatively) reports: that acceptances by gender are in proportion with submissions by gender. (I don’t mean to suggest that Brian was suggesting an incompatibility.)

    One way we might get both these effects would be if women are less likely to send stuff to top journals. And this is compatible with Ross’s conjecture still holding and being needed to explain biases: one potential reason for low submission rates would be if women are less likely to send off papers to top journals until they’re really good (in general, individuals varying as to what stage they “release” papers into the journals seems to me to be a huge factor behind variable publication rates of different individuals).

    Ok, so lots of ‘mights’ and ‘maybes’ in the above, but it’s important to keep track of logical space in these debates!

    I’d be really interested in seeing a thorough study of all this: e.g. one thing that’d be interesting to see would be data on citation rates for papers in top journals by the gender of the author: might give some indication as to whether papers have to be better-than-average to be accepted.

  8. Gillian Russell: the website to which you linked thinks the author of the first paragraph of Sense and Sensibility is male, the author of the first paragraph of Frankenstein is male, and the author of the first paragraph of The Turn of the Screw is female. Not terribly reliable, that website.

  9. That ‘gender genie’ website is pretty wild. It seems to work off of keywords. Apparently it scores texts by occurrences of words such as:

    ‘Feminine keywords’: with, if, not, where, be, when, your, her, we, should, she, and, me, myself, hers, was

    ‘Masculine keywords’: around, what, more, are, as, who, below, is, these, the, a, at, it, many, said, above, to

    These words get weighted (eg each occurrence of “with” scores you 52 ‘feminine points’, while each occurrence of “as” scores you 23 ‘masculine points’), and it guesses male or female author by whichever side has more total points.

    I’m wondering how they came up with the algorithm. Maybe they just a big corpus of texts with authors of known gender, and did frequency analyses?

  10. A thought-provoking post, Ross. But whatever the facts are, surely asking us to do more refereeing will not improve the position of women in the profession!

  11. So if women are in fact underrepresented in top-tier journals, it looks like there are three major questions that need addressing:

    (I)Is this under-representation due to proportionally fewer submissions, proportionally fewer acceptances, or both?
    (II)Whatever the answer to (I) is, what can we plausibly consider to be the major contributing factors?
    (III)What do we do about those factors we agree on as the answer to (II)?

    Seems to me like these questions get harder to answer, but also more important (at least from a practical perspective), as they go. The answer to (I) is just a straightforwardly empirical matter, and would be assayable by crunching a lot of numbers. (II) and (III) are where things get trickier. They require us to start talking about genuine differences between the way men and women do philosophy, without coming to the eventual conclusion that women publish less because they’re too busy shopping and trying on their many pairs of shoes. (“Does this paper make me look fat?”)

    Some ideas that have already been floated that sound interesting:

    Women are likely to submit (per capita) fewer papers than men because (i) they’ve got more non-philosophy commitments (ii) they tend to spend more time perfecting a paper

    And I’d like to add what I have only anecdotal evidence for, but quite strong anecdotal evidence for – (iii) they’re more likely to be adversely affected by nasty referee comments

    And then there’s the other possibility, that women are less likely to get papers accepted than men. A hypothesized explanation for this was (iv) women tend to write papers in subtly different ways, men are more likely to respond positively to a male-style paper, and so the overwhelming chance that a woman’s paper will be refereed by a man disadvantages its chances of publication

    I actually find this pretty plausible. You might think that the same kind of masculine single-mindedness that declares that I WILL BEAT THE LEVEL FIVE MONSTER EVEN IF I HAVE TO PLAY THIS GAME FOR 24 HOURS STRAIGHT!!!!! would have a very particular idea about the right way to construct a philosophy paper, and gender mismatches in this approach could affect judgments in paper quality, even on a totally subconscious level.

    Anyway, cool thread – these are the kinds of conversations we need to be having.

  12. First (as others have noted): need to establish if women ARE less represented in ‘top’ journals than they are in ‘top’ departments. It would be depressing to learn that this is so, since woman are of course under-represented in top departments. However, I would not be surprised to learn that this is so.

    Second: What are the reason(s) for this?

    1. Something in the work itself? (could be: women are more likely to have a ‘womanly’ writing style, which the mostly male reviewers respond less well to; could be that submitted work by women tends to be in areas that are less ‘hot’; could be that the work is of lower quality, and thus gets rejected at higher rates…)

    2. Something external to work? (Could be: women just submit fewer articles; women are less likely to submit to ‘top’ journals; journal editors/reviewers are often aware of who wrote the paper and are more likely to reject a known woman paper than a known man paper; men are more likely to network with other men and this gives advantage at the review stage…)

    I myself have always been struck by the seemingly lower publication rate of top women when compared to top men. It seems worthwhile to think a bit harder about the probably varied reasons why this is so.

  13. I want to make clear that this is a very VERY tentative suggestion. I myself am rather skeptical of it.

    I know lots of philosophers, male and female, have suggested to me that a large percentage of female philosophers work in areas that relate to ethics, especially applied ethics. Their reason for thinking this is based on the fact that, in their experience on the hiring committee of a Canadian university, where affirmative action is taken rather seriously, it is difficult to find very many females within an applicant pool working in, say, M&E (of course numerically there are many who do, relative to none, but the point is what percentage that makes up of the total number of female philosophers, and I am suggesting it is low(ish)). Instead, the emphasis seems to be on ethics.

    If there is, in fact, a lean in the AOS of female philosophers towards ethics, and applied ethics especially, then perhaps that might be a partial explanation of why there are so few papers in top journals by women. One might partially test this hypothesis just by looking at female philosophers in top programs, and how many publish in top journals AND how many in journals that specialize in applied ethics.
    Since top journals publish in, hopefully, most areas, and if a large percentage of female philosophers are working primarily in one particular area, an area that might be likely to be underrepresented in such journals in the first place (e.g. applied ethics), then perhaps the underrepresentation is to be expected.

    Even if this tentative suggestion is true, I still think the underrepresentation is unaccceptable. This is merely a different explanation of it.

  14. Since the number of top journals that publish any applied ethics is small, and the proportion of applied ethics in those journals is very loe, if women work disproportionately in appled ethics, they will have few opportunities for publication in top tier journals.

  15. Brendan, I had the same thought, up to and including the “very tentative suggestion” part; I hope people will report on Sally Haslanger’s data for those of us who won’t be at the Central.

    But even if the explanation is entirely that women disproportionately publish in ethics, and “top journals” disproportionately don’t publish ethics, there remain fairly specific places where sexism could rear its head; most of this could well be unconscious sexism, done without malice, but for that reason all the more difficult to fight. If this is the (or an) explanation, we should certainly worry about these three factors:

    (1) Why do women disproportionately specialize in ethics? Is it that they’re made relatively unwelcome in epistemology/metaphysics/science?

    (2) Why do top journals publish relatively little ethics? Do people unconsciously devalue ethics because the field is considered feminized?

    (3) Alternatively, why aren’t more journals that do specialize in ethics considered top journals? Again, is ethics unconsciously devalued because it’s considered more of a woman’s field?

    Of course I’m layering speculation on speculation here. But I think there is some evidence that ethics is undervalued; Kieran Healy’s study of the Leiter rankings showed that strength in ethics contributed less to a department’s overall prestige than strength in metaphysics/mind/language, epistemology, or philosophy of science each taken individually. And I think the pattern is pretty widespread outside of academia that jobs that women hold are ipso facto considered less prestigious, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see something similar working in philosophy.

    I also think that it might be worth adding history to the list; in my experience the history applicant pool has more women in it than M&E pools, and general-interest journals seem to publish even less history than ethics, while history ranks below ethics in the Healy study.

  16. Ross Cameron says:

    “I’m not sure what ‘minimal care’ I need to make to make a tentative hypothesis on my own blog; I considered myself to have sufficient reason to mention it that it seemed worth thinking about to me.”

    Well, when one entertains a thought such as “Men and women vary in their styles of writing and arguing” I think one needs to be careful. May I ask him what is his sufficient reason to think that this proposition seems to be true. Surely he is free to say all sorts of things in his blog but I assume some sort of explication must be available for the remarks of a philosopher if he wants to be read and understood by others.

  17. So, I don’t want to say too much here because I’d prefer to present the data at the APA session, but here are a few tidbits.

    In the “top” 20 grad departments according to the Leiter report, and based on Leiter’s list of faculty, though confirmed either by contact with a member of the department or by website with photos, there are about 19% women.

    I’ve done research on the number of women published in seven “top” journals over the past five years. One notable result was that in Mind, 95.5% of the articles (not including discussions and book reviews) are by men. The percentages of women in Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs look better than the others.

    However, if we look at journals in related fields oriented towards language and mind we find this:
    Mind and Language: 26.5% women
    Linguistics and Philosophy: 24.4% women

    I don’t have access to numbers of submissions, numbers of papers sent out to referees, refereeing processes, etc. All of this should be examined before we can bs clear what conclusions to draw.

    After the APA I intend to publish my comments in the Hypatia “musings” column, and will also make the data available on a website.

  18. Michael Kremer: Although the ‘gender genie’ website gets strange results when text is inputed from such works as Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and The Turning of the Screw, there may be a plausible way to explain this so that it does not constitute a challenge to the claim that the ‘gender genie’ can usefully be used to test whether female philosophers and male philosophers write differently. In particular, it may be that the algorithm used by the ‘gender genie’ site was developed based on the tendencies for word use among contemporary writers. If such word use has changed since the time that Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and The Turning of the Screw were written, then (if the algorithm was developed in the manner suggested) it should come as no surprise that the ‘gender genie’ gets the gender of the authors of those works wrong.

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