There have been a lot of discussions why the gender ratios in academic philosophy remain so abysmal these days. Prominent recent posts include:
- Jenny Saul at Feminist Philosophers (one, two)
- Louise Anthony at Feminist Philosophers (here)
- Dana at Edge of the American West (here)
- Evelyn Brister at Knowledge and Experience (one, two, three)
- Richard Zach and LogBlog (one, two)
There’s a very big question about why philosophy is doing such a bad job at getting women into senior roles. I suspect that such a debate will be helped by thinking about just where things are going wrong. For someone to become a full professor of philosophy, they typically have to go through a number of stages. Here are four particularly prominent ones:
- Enrolling in an intro philosophy course
- Applying to graduate school
- Getting an entry-level job
- Being promoted to full professor
There might be other ways of dividing up the typical career path that are more helpful, but I find it useful to think about these four steps.
We know that the numbers at step 4 are terrible. What we don’t know, in general, are what the numbers are at the other three steps.
We do know a little. We know in Australia, for instance, that the majority of intro philosophy students are women, 57% in fact. That’s what the big AAP report found out. We also know that in Australia, there’s near gender parity in the Honours year, with 47% women. (That’s an extra year of philosophy study, after the requirements for the undergrad degree are completed, and practically essential for graduate study. It’s much like a 1 year coursework Masters.) We also know in Australia there are somewhat fewer (proportionally) women graduate students than Honours students (39% vs 47%), though I don’t think we know whether that happens at the application stage or later. There are about the same percentage of junior faculty as PhD students (40%), and then a cliff dive in getting to full professorship (6%).
Now some of the drop off from junior to senior professorship comes in because the numbers of junior professors was lower in recent years. But I doubt that’s all of the explanation. Still, it’s nice to see numbers like this. Imagine what it would be like in the U.S. if 47% of honours majors were women!
One reason for thinking hard about where the drop off is occuring is that it rules in or out certain hypotheses for why there are proportionally fewer women.
For instance, it’s hard to square the Australian data with a particularly strong version of the claim that philosophy is offputting to women because of its aggressiveness. You know a fair bit about what philosophy is like before starting Honours. You know a lot more by the time you end Honours and start a PhD. It’s hard to explain any drop off in numbers beyond that as due to agressiveness I think.
For similar reasons, it’s also hard to square the Australian data with a claim that the subject matter is just not something appealing to women. You don’t sign up for an Honours year if you don’t like the subject.
And it’s somewhat hard to square the Australian data with the hypothesis put forward by Regan Penaluna (via Leiter’s Blog) that women are put off by the all-male canon. After all, the canon is pretty male in Australia as well. To be sure, an intro philosophy student taking the courses I took (and later taught) could well come away with the impression that Judith Jarvis Thomson is the most important philosopher of the last 50 years given the amount of time we spent on trolleys and violinists. But I still think this explanation is hard to make consistent with the Australian data.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how these three explanations (aggressiveness, subject matter, maleness of canon) could together account for more than a few percent of the ‘missing’ women in non-Australian philosophy programs, given that all of the features are present in Australia.
Now it’s true that there is attrition, from 57% in intro classes, to 47% in Honours, to 39/40% in junior faculty. And that attrition might be explained by agressiveness/dislike of the material/maleness of the canon. But beyond that we need a different explanation.
As several of the posts quoted at the top suggest, I suspect the right explanation will have more to do with conscious or unconscious biases, or with network effects that create institutional biases. I’d guess, though this is something that would need to be checked against the facts, that the small size of the philosophical community in Australia makes it less likely that all-male subcommunities will have time and space to develop, and that might ameliorate the kind of network effects that, e.g, Dana discusses. But more work is needed here.
Of course, the Australia data is just Australian. Things may look very different in other countries. I don’t know if there’s much data about what’s happening in Britain. I’ve heard it suggested that there’s a much bigger dropoff between undergraduate numbers and graduate numbers than we see in Australia, but I don’t know whether that’s something that’s been measured. I have seen, thanks to some excellent bloggers, some data about America!
Richard Zach and Evelyn Brister have been posting about the percentage of women among philosophy BA’s in the United States. As Prof Brister points out, the number got to around 30% fifteen years ago, and hasn’t moved much since. It’s striking how much lower this is than the Australian numbers. It’s also striking that it isn’t that different to the percentage we see of women in graduate programs, amongst junior faculty and so on.
And that puts more constraints on what can count as a good explanation of the numbers. We need to explain not just why the U.S.A. numbers are so low, but why they are so low compared to other countries.
Here it would be nice to know just where things are going wrong in the U.S. system. Is it that 50% of students in intro classes are women, but a much higher percentage of men are going on to further classes? Is it that we start at 30% and never get better? Or is it somewhere in between?
My anecdotal observation is that the last is true. We don’t have female majorities in our big intro classes – far from it. But the gender balance in intro is better than it is in 300/400 level courses, especially in metaphysics, epistemology, language and logic. If that’s right (and it would be nice to know if it is) then two things are going wrong: we’re not attracting enough women to intro courses, and we’re not giving them enough reason to stay in philosophy.
I’ll end with one very speculative hypothesis. Word of mouth seems to play a much bigger role in course selection in American universities than it (seems) to play in Australian universities. Australian universities typically feature very small numbers of students living on campus, with the vast majority commuting. (Just about everyone I knew as an undergrad commuted, with the exception of a few who lived walking distance from campus.) Perhaps philosophy is getting a bad reputation through the word-of-mouth networks, and that’s feeding into fewer women taking intro courses.
Perhaps. Any better explanations would be very gratefully received.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized