Women in Philosophy and Journals

Five more quick thoughts on Sally Haslanger’s important paper.

  1. It really is important to get some data on what is happening at the undergraduate level. In my experience, lower level undergraduate courses are whiter and maler than the student body, and upper level undergrad classes are demographically much more similar to the demographics of the philosophy faculty than they are to the undergraduate community as a whole. I suspect that if we fixed this problem, and had more non-(white males) majoring in philosophy and going on to grad school, a lot of other problems would look a lot more tractable. Compiling this data will cost money, but I think it is a worthwhile expense.
  2. I think people who have never been in such a position can very often underestimate how disconcerting it can be to be the only member of a demographically marked group. When I first moved to America I naturally gravitated to other foreigners, because I never felt comfortable being the only foreigner. This gradually passed; it is a lot easier to become one of the locals than one of the boys, especially if you speak the same language. But it’s a real issue. This is one of (many) reasons why I think demographic diversity is more important in hiring than diversity of research focus. A more diverse faculty (and graduate program) will simply do better work. (See the previous point for another reason for favouring demographic diversity.)
  3. The data that Haslanger presents about journal publications is, as she is careful to note, hard to make much of unless matched with data about submission rates. Quickly eyeballing some data, I’d say that the rate at which women submit to Phil Review is roughly similar to the rate that Phil Review publishes papers by women, for example. And we certainly haven’t been flooded with papers on feminism, for instance.
  4. Haslanger doesn’t quite say that she thinks making refereeing more anonymous will be a solution to the problem, but seems to suggest this. (If I’m misreading what Haslanger is saying, I apologise in advance.) I suspect this isn’t going to be particularly helpful, though I’m far from certain here. First, my rough sense is that non-anonymous publications (Phil Perspectives, Oxford Studies in X) have been publishing more women (though perhaps not more minorities) than the blind review journals. Second, this might be self-serving, but I suspect unconscious discrimination is more of an issue at this time than conscious discrimination. I mean, I can’t imagine thinking “I’m not going to publish this because it’s by a woman.” But I can imagine thinking “I’m not going to publish this because it doesn’t have features X, Y or Z that I regard as key virtues of a philosophy paper,” where, in practice, virtues X, Y or Z are virtues that are more commonly found in papers written by men than by women. (For a sense of what X, Y and Z might be, see the violence metaphors at the start of Haslanger’s paper.) When I’m evaluating papers as part of applications (for junior faculty positions or grad school) I can adjust for this a little. If nothing else, I can look back at my judgments, note I’ve only been promoting male files, and go looking for the good files from women I must have missed. Blind refereeing makes this impossible. In short, blind refereeing will at best lead us to a kind of equal opportunity; given the possibility/probability of unconscious biases amongst the judges, affirmative action might be the better solution.
  1. Obviously one of the solutions to the previous problem would be to have more women editing major journals, making hiring decisions, ranking grad school applications, running the philosophy major so as to encourage more women to be in philosophy etc. That is, remove the unconscious biases physically! But this can’t really work for an obvious reason – there aren’t enough women to do all these jobs because the profession hasn’t been doing enough work at recruiting and retaining women. In practice, a lot of the work at trying to make the profession more diverse has fallen on a few shoulders. Unless we can clone people like Sally Haslanger (and my colleague-to-be Howard McGary) who put in superhuman amounts of service to the profession, we will need to rely on institutional measures like affirmative action. Having said that, it would be good to have more women editing leading journals. One nice effect of Cornell doing reasonably well in terms of hiring women in the last couple of years is that eventually the editorship of the Review should be more balanced, and hopefully the same thing can happen at other top journals.

23 Replies to “Women in Philosophy and Journals”

  1. I think people who have never been in such a position can very often underestimate how disconcerting it can be to be the only member of a demographically marked group.

    There is evidence that being in a marked minority (that is, relative to the context) is depleting of so-called ego resources; roughly, the resources we use for executive functions. See, eg. Inzlicht, M., McKay, L., & Aronson, J. (2006). Stigma as ego-depletion: How being the target of prejudice affects self-control. Psychological Science, 17, 262-269.

  2. A couple of thoughts on unconscious bias…(1) You write: \“I suspect unconscious discrimination is more of an issue at this time than conscious discrimination.\” I think Haslanger and Valian (who she draws on) would agree with this. But they wouldn\‘t agree with this understanding of unconscious bias: \” I mean, I can\‘t imagine thinking \“I’m not going to publish this because it’s by a woman.\” But I can imagine thinking \“I\‘m not going to publish this because it doesn’t have features X, Y or Z that I regard as key virtues of a philosophy paper,\” where, in practice, virtues X, Y or Z are virtues that are more commonly found in papers written by men than by women.\” They would insist that all of us are extremely likely to have internalised unconscious schemas according to which being a woman and being a good philosopher are incompatible. So even though we\‘d never consciously reject a paper because it\‘s by a woman, we might still be negatively affected at an unconscious level by the knowledge that the paper is by a woman. If that\‘s right, then anonymity is arguably needed. (2) This is also why just getting women in editorial positions won\‘t eliminate bias— women will also be very likely to have internalised these same schemas. Although getting women in visible powerful positions may help to break down these schemas by showing that women can be good at philosophy, so it may have an eventual and less direct effect.

  3. Really? I don’t about the second part, but on many campuses, lower level courses are taken to meet a requirement and therefore reflect the undergraduate student demographics almost exactly.

  4. Neil,

    That’s rather helpful. I’d imagine that in a lot of cases what is really relevant is whether someone takes themselves to be a marked minority is more relevant than whether they really are one. Of course, in philosophy women and non-whites have very good reason to take themselves to be marked.


    That may be right, that may be the framing effect. I think/hope I’ve spent enough time around talented women philosophers that I don’t think that way, but it’s hard to tell, so we should be careful.

    Having said that, I suspect that in my job there’s a sense in which I have the opposite frame. As a sweeping generalisation, women tend to be much more hesitant in sending out papers. If I knew a submission to the Review was by a woman, my credence that it was (a) ready to be considered for publication, not just a 2nd or so draft, and (b) appropriate for the Review rather than some more specialised journal, would rise a little. Perhaps some other credences (e.g. that the person writing was any good) would go down too, which is the worry. But it’s not one-way traffic here.


    I guess I’ve never taught anywhere where philosophy was a requirement. Actually, I’ve spent a fair bit of time at Brown where there were no requirements. But even at Cornell, there are lots of ways to meet requirements, and by far (maybe 60/40 out of a student body that’s majority-female) more men than women choose philosophy as a way of meeting the requirements philosophy meets.

  5. In case anyone is interested in international comparisons, I thought I’d mention some of my observations of the UK university system (which is, alas, not in any way better for women in philosophy than the US).

    In the UK, high school kids applying to university have to make a more-or-less binding decision about what subject(s) they will major in for their undergraduate degree. So a high school kid would apply to a university to study Physics (in which case his application would be assessed by the university’s physicists), or to study Biology (in which case her application would be assessed by the university’s biologists).

    In the UK, there are quite extreme differences between the demographic profiles of the applicants for these different subjects, even at the undergraduate level. At least at Oxford the proportions are roughly as follows: the overwhelming majority of kids applying to study Literature and Foreign Langauges (including Classical Languages and Literature) are women; for subjects like History, Biology, and Medicine, male and female applicants are more or less evenly balanced; for Philosophy, only about a quarter of our applicants are women; for Maths and Physics, even fewer are women.

    I don’t know what explains these sharp differences between subjects. But it presumably has a lot to do with the different experiences of boys and girls even before they come to university for their undergraduate studies.

  6. This passage puzzles me: “But I can imagine thinking “I’m not going to publish this because it doesn’t have features X, Y or Z that I regard as key virtues of a philosophy paper,” where, in practice, virtues X, Y or Z are virtues that are more commonly found in papers written by men than by women.

    Do you really mean to suggest that we should discount virtues that are not equally distributed along gender lines? Or did you rather mean to suggest that the gender difference is [conclusive?] evidence that X, Y, and Z are not really virtues at all, but merely parochial biases?

  7. Jender, it’s worth noting that unconscious biases are not something we’re simply stuck with: we can do things to moderate their influence. We can engage in various actions that bring our unconscious judgments temporarily into line with our conscious. My colleague Cordelia Fine has reviewed the ways we can do this: Is the emotional dog wagging its rational tail, or chasing it? Philosophical Explorations 9: 83-98. Having papers unblinded (wrt to gender) could be used as a cue to engage in this kind of activity.

  8. I know it’s annoying when comments aren’t on the main point of the thread, but I wanted to offer a brief clarification on Ralph Wedgwood’s comment above. I think what he says applies more to the English system than the UK system as a whole. My experience of the Scottish system is that students apply to the faculty, not the subject. Once in the faculty there is a fair amount of freedom to chop and change subject – more than our students in England have. It’s harder to change faculty than it is to change courses within the faculty, but it’s not impossile (I did it).

    I want to think much more about the main issue, but here’s a quick thought. Isn’t there something to be said for moving to less anonymisation and not more? If the bias is largely unconscious, more anonymisation isn’t going to help. If, on the other hand, we are aware that the author is a female then we can consciously try and overcome our unconscious bias. It obviously isn’t going to help if the reviewer is consciously and unrepentantly sexist; but I think that would be rare (I hope so!).

  9. Thanks for the reference, Neil! Many of you have raised good points about how non-anonymous reviewing could be useful if the reviewer is aware of their own potential for unconscious bias, and striving to overcome it. That’s right, but I have personally talked to some prominent non-blind editors who will swear that they are completely free of bias, and that they have always been so. Great if this is true, but unlikely. And folks like that are, I would think, very prone to bias— since they don’t know that they have something to correct for. Still, I like Brian’s point that affirmative action of some sort could be useful to correct for bias against philosophical styles. Perhaps— fantasy time here— one ideal procedure could be blind editing and blind reviewing, followed by a non-blind check to see if female papers have been unfairly downgraded for showing traits that are more common to women?

  10. Another point about blind refereeing and editing that isn’t just about sex: It is a very rare philosopher, I’d think, who is completely uninfluenced in their judgments by whether or not they know the name/work of the person who wrote a paper. This influence can work in favour of the unknown— I do know one non-blind editor who went out of their way to publish good work by students and early-career philosophers. But of course it’s more likely to work the other way. And, given tight constraints on space, can make in unfairly hard for the unknown to publish (and unfairly easy for the famous to publish).

  11. I wonder how much longer blind review will be feasible. The last paper I refereed for a journal was one I’d read online a couple of days earlier. And it wasn’t the first time either. I was going to try out the Philosophy Research Network site but realized before I hit the button that the paper I was planning to put up was under consideration, and that having it online could kill blind review.

    This is a real moral dilemma. I believe that insofar as possible everyone should put their stuff, including works in progress, online for everyone to see. But once this happens, and once everyone gets in the habit of googling around to find papers online for their own research purposes, blind review is seriously compromised. Ceteris paribus I’d prefer blind review to affirmative action. But in most cases, in hiring for most jobs and in promotion, pay raises, etc for virtually all, blind review isn’t feasible. And it’s getting there for journal submissions.

    Back on topic, I agree with Haslinger—things aren’t so hot for women in philosophy. One problem is that there are lots decisions that affect our careers where review isn’t blind—from informal contacts with colleagues to course evaluations to invited presentations and publications—that produce the qualifications and professional characteristics that are blind reviewed. So the data on which blind review operates is already corrupted. Suppose I apply for a research grant, submitting my vita and a proposal. Well I may be missing out on a number of vita entries that male colleagues got because the procedure for getting them wasn’t blind. And my proposal may not be up to scratch because I’m not getting the non-blind institutional support that my male colleagues are getting, because I don’t know the ropes that my male colleagues know because of informal networking or whatever.

    This is like positive feedbacks in the economy—why VHS beat out Beta and why Macs have such low market share: disadvantage perpetuates itself and grows. And blind review at some stages masks the phenomenon.

  12. Brian, I noticed in your reply to Jender, you write, “I think/hope that I’ve spent enough time around talented women philosophers that I don’t think that way…” This gives the feel that it’s bad or wrong or unenlightened to be susceptible to this sort of bias. I think this is a common sentiment: it seems a lot of people resist the possibility that their own judgment is subject to unconscious bias because they believe this bias reflects badly on their character. But I think this is a mistake.

    Consider the following analogy. Pretty much everyone is subject to the Müller-Lyer optical illusion: a 1” line with arrows that point “out” will look longer than a 1” line with arrows that point “in”. But the tendency to incorrectly judge “out” arrows as longer than “in” ones does not reflect poorly on one’s character; it is not something one should be ashamed to admit. It’s just that if one is making a bunch of bets on lengths of lines with arrows, one would do well to be aware of this bias and to try correct for it.

    Likewise, our ability to form certain heuristics as an aide to quick decision-making may lead us to incorrectly judge male philosophers as better than female philosophers of the same quality. But, as with the Müller-Lyer illusion, this does not reflect poorly on one’s character; it is not something one should be ashamed to admit. Of course, we would do well to be aware of this bias and try to correct for it.

    But if we believe such biases indicate some sort of moral failing, we are much less likely to acknowledge our susceptibility to them. And we cannot correct for biases we won’t admit we have.

  13. I think Jender’s original comments and the followups are on track. Unconscious bias can work in terms of gender just as much as on factors that are correlated with gender. Recall the thread on Leiter’s blog (I think it was there) on affirmative action. It was clear in that thread that a large number of posters thought there was a system-wide bias in favor of female philosophers. If people think that they will likely also think that the work of younger female philosophers is less good than that of males. And they will possibly also let that view color their assessment of work they referee.

    I think the suggestion in favor of blind refereeing (to the extent possible) is a really good one. It will work in favor, not just of women, but of younger philosophers of either gender. The thought that this manuscript on which I may be being unduly harsh may have been written by someone whom I respect keeps me, when I’m a referee, honest.

    And it isn’t just volumes like Phil Perspectives that are not anonymous. Anonymity is optional at many journals. I’ve gotten papers to referee with a well-known philosopher’s name right under the title. It gives such people a leg up, and given the historical ratio of men to women in the field this will favor men over women, as well as the (possibly deservedly) well-known over the less well known.

    Many times we will still have a pretty good idea who wrote the papers we read as referees. But that’s just to say we cannot achieve the ideal result. And actually, as long as the papers by people we don’t know about get respectful treatment due to the uncertainty involved, the good effects of such refereeing will accrue for most of the cases that matter – namely those where outsiders have something to say that needs to get a fair chance at a hearing.

  14. This discussion about the virtues of anonymous vs. open refereeing is doing a fantastic job concretely illustrating some of the deep problems facing women and minorities in philosophy!

    Here’s another situation I’ve encountered more than once with people (OK, mostly men) who see themselves as consciously attempting to overcome gender bias: when a committee’s being formed, a panel being organized, speakers being invited to a conference, candidates being selected for interviews, etc., a list of names will get compiled, and then someone will say: “Oh, we still need a woman.” Now, on the one hand, this can be seen as a good thing—an attempt to compensate for whatever biases kept women from getting on the initial list. On the other hand, however, if you ask whoever said that WHY adding a woman to that list might be a good idea, you’re often met with a blank look or, sometimes, my favorite answer: “Well, we should really get ‘a woman’s perspective’ on [topic x].” Nothing like asking someone to singlehandedly represent over half the human race! The “we still need a woman” claim is also frequently linked with the (usually unconscious) attitude that what’s necessary is getting a woman—any woman—as opposed to someone who’s actually going to be a valuable contributer. This can lead to non-optimal people being invited, with predictable results, which then reinforces the opinion that working for equal representation is a bad idea, because there just aren’t that many ‘good’ women out there.

    Here’s a mundane (but kind of funny) example of the unconscious ‘all women in philosophy are interchangeable’ belief at work: in my (wonderful!) 13-person department, there are 3 women. Two of us are about the same age and work in the same historical period, although on completely different topics. We look nothing alike. Yet, at some point, every single member of the department (including the other woman!) has called us by the other person’s name—something that’s never happened, to the best of my knowledge, to any of the men in the department, including those of the same age who work on similar topics. It’s a little enough thing, but it becomes pretty noticable when it happens over and over (and over!) again. Perhaps the best example of this was when the other woman got a paper accepted at a journal by an editor who mentioned in the letter how lovely it had been to talk to her at the conference the previous weekend. She hadn’t been at the conference—I had! (I lobbied for an acknowledgement in the footnotes, but I think she decided against it.)

    In any event, my point is just that it’s not sufficient to advocate for proportional representation in journal submissions, acceptances, interivews, hiring, etc.—although those are all good and necessary things. We need to advocate for a better understanding of what the profession has to gain from such representation.

  15. Here’s another situation I’ve encountered more than once with people (OK, mostly men) who see themselves as consciously attempting to overcome gender bias: when a committee’s being formed…

    There’s a danger that affirmative action arguments end up being half-successful here.

    Everyone is very pro-affirmative action/quotas when it comes to the distribution of duties. But somewhat less keen when it comes to the distribution of rights.

    One of the many bad effects of departments having such a poor gender balance is that many women get insanely high administrative workloads.

    Of course, it is also a problem if people think that the only reason to have women involved in conferences, shortlists etc is tokenism, rather than (say) overcoming millenia of systematic biases.

  16. I want to second Maya’s thought here with a comparison to a different case, closer to what I think Haslanger fears is the situation of women and other numberical minorities in philosophy.

    We’ve all had the following experience: We’re in Q&A following a talk by someone well-established and a graduate student hesitantly asks a good question. Student’s question gets blown-off. A bit later in the discussion, a faculty member with some professional standing asks the same darn question, but more aggressively. Speaker is stumped.

    Heck! Seen it? Many of us have done something like this at some time. This is the unconscious bias that even very, very good, liberal folks are subject to. Like it or not, at some time or other, almost all of us have evaluated someone’s contribution to a discussion based upon our perception of their professional standing.

    Haslanger’s worry is that numerical minorities are too often playing the role of the hesitant grad student in the above tale. Her fear is founded in part on studies that show that “identical term papers, CVs and the like” are rated by evaluators more highly when they are thought to be those of men.

    “Identical” is the important part here. Haslanger’s worry, as I understand her, is that sex alone may be playing an unconscious role in an editor’s evaluation of a paper’s worth and a department’s evaluation of a candidate’s cv. This makes double-blind refereeing at journals look like a good idea. As others have pointed out, a perfectly blind refereeing system is, as a practical matter, impossible. But I myself don’t see a good argument for not trying to approximate one.

  17. I’d like to second the comments in favor of blind-refereeing. One of the many problems seems to be that unconscious negative bias can have the effect that papers of women and minorities may be treated with less charity: a complex or original argument is more likely to be judged as confused; a simple, true thesis is more likely to be judged as trivial etc. If any of this is happening, then strengthening mechanisms that work in favor of blind-refereeing at journals is a good idea.

  18. \“at some point, every single member of the department (including the other woman!) has called us by the other person’s name—something that’s never happened, to the best of my knowledge, to any of the men in the department, including those of the same age who work on similar topics.\”

    I know of two men to whom something similar has happened – Ross Cameron and Robbie Williams, both previously at St Andrews, now both at Leeds. Although this may not be a fair comparison, as it is widely believed to be at best indeterminate whether they are in fact distinct. On one occasion, attempting to express annoyance at the phenomenon, Robbie was heard to remark on how annoying it was that people kept calling him \‘Robbie\’.

  19. The ironic thing about Carrie’s comment is that it was actually me who said “People keep calling me ‘Ross’!”, not Robbie saying “People keep calling me ‘Robbie’!”.

    … Unless, of course, I’m getting us mixed up again!

  20. No … it was definitely qua Robbie that you said that. I was there. Although it\\‘s funny that you qua Ross have now also succumbed to a similar confusion (if indeed, it is a confusion).

  21. Nice, Carrie and Ross(Robbie?)! As long as Elizabeth can still tell the difference, though, I’d say you’re OK.

    You’re making me sorry I even brought up the case of mistaken identites, though! =) I was really interested in the discussion of blind vs. non-anonymous journal refereeing. I’d have to say—great points from Janice and Susanna notwithstanding—that I’m more with Brian on this issue. That is, I think that the practice of blind refereeing as it stands might simply hide its prejudices better. The editors who are making the final decisions (and the initial ones, too, for that matter!) see all the names, decide to whom to send the paper out, etc. That’s an enormous part of the ‘blind refereeing’ process that isn’t at all blind. It would be extremely interesting—as I think a couple of people have already pointed out—to see where exactly in the process paper submissions from women start to fall off the boat, so to speak.

  22. whoops! I just realized that Janice was advocating a completely blind process where the editor wouldn’t see the names either. The effectiveness of that strategy would depend in large part, I think, on how large the relevant subfield was. If you’re in a relatively small field, you’ve got a pretty good chance of figuring out who the paper’s from, regardless. I don’t think I’ve ever refereed a paper that I couldn’t locate in a particular school (from writing style, references in the footnotes, even whether they’re using American or British paper-size, etc.), and from there it’s pretty easy to figure out who from that school is writing on topic X. I don’t think there is a reasonable way to get around that issue!

Leave a Reply