Gender Balance in Philosophy Departments Across the World

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:

  1. Enrolling in an intro philosophy course
  2. Applying to graduate school
  3. Getting an entry-level job
  4. 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.

11 Replies to “Gender Balance in Philosophy Departments Across the World”

  1. Thanks for the data, Brian. Two points: – As I mentioned already over at LogBlog, I think the pipeline works differently in different places, so it may not be very fruitful to look for a given set of mechanisms as being responsible for the gender discrepancy everywhere. In the US it seems that the discrepancy is there from the start, while this may not be the case elsewhere (not in Australia, as you mention, and not in Brazil or the Netherlands either, although I don’t really have data to corroborate my impression here). But of course, it does not mean that at least some of these mechanisms are not universally present, such as gender biases. I have to say though that as an undergrad in Brazil I never, ever felt that ‘philosophy is for boys’, not even that some areas of philosophy are for boys, and the faculty at the department where I was as an undergrad displayed (at the time) pretty much a 50-50 distribution. I only started feeling something was wrong when living in the Netherlands and in the US. – I think we should push for gender balance data to be made available in every department’s website, just as they now all feel they must publish placement records. Ideally, we should know, for every department, the proportion of men-women who enroll as undergrads, the proportion of those who obtain their BA, the proportion of those beginning their PhD program, the proportion of those finishing and obtaining their doctorate degree, and the proportion of women faculty (on the different levels). If there was the social obligation of making this information available on the departments’ websites, we could get a much clearer picture of what is going on. Maybe we should convince Leiter to start the campaign! =)

  2. One popular explanation that’s been bandied around is that women tend to prefer fields in which the job prospects are better. I don’t think that can be a major factor in explaining why women stay away from (in the US at least) undergraduate majors in philosophy, but it might have more relevance in explaining the attrition through the pipeline (see comments in this post). The main reason I though that this can’t be a good explanation of the general phenomenon is that there are much higher percentages of women in other fields where the job prospects are about the same (English) and much lower ones in fields where the job prospects are better(Engineering). It then occurred that there is a difference at least between philosophy and English on this count: English is a teachable subject (ie, you can become a high school teacher, which, I think, is traditionally female dominated), whereas Philosophy isn’t. (It has recently been introduced as a teachable subject in Ontario, and I know it is a teachable subject in some European countries. So if the percentage of women in the undergraduate ranks at Ontario universities is going to go up faster in Ontario than elsewehere in Canada in the next few years, that would support this hypothesis.)

  3. Catarina,

    I agree that we shouldn’t expect the same kind of explanation everywhere. I just mean to sound a note of caution about alleged explanations of American data that would suggest false predictions about Australia, Brazil, Holland, etc. I think there hasn’t been nearly enough attention in this literature to differences between cultures, and how this impacts what happens in philosophy.


    That’s an interesting hypothesis. I don’t know which Australian states have high school philosophy – maybe there will be an interesting gender gap between those that do and those that don’t.

    I have to say though, I’m reasonably sceptical about this ‘explanation’ because of the Aust-US comparison. I’d say that philosophy degrees are much more useful in the US than in Australia. That’s because in the US, philosophy degrees are excellent stepping stones to law school, and law school is really lucrative. But in Australia law is an undergraduate degree – philosophy is much less clearly useful.

  4. Brian, in case it wasn’t clear, I actually meant to endorse your point on the importance of cultural differences! The statistics speak for themselves anyway, so it was very helpful of you to bring in the data concerning Australia. As I said, I don’t have such data to offer, but I can say that I have experienced completely different situations in different places. What is perhaps somewhat surprising is that I have the feeling that in some ‘Latin’ countries (Brazil, Italy, perhaps Spain), women are put under less gender bias pressure than elsewhere. That’s a hunch I have, which I hope to be able to corroborate with data some day.

  5. Greetings, philosophers. I commented on this on Leiter’s Blog too, as he picked up the story in the Chronic. I wish to add that we know what works in the anthropology of gender equity: Recognizing difference, talking about it, and noting that it matters helps minority students acclimate to an extraordinary degree. Insisting that gender does not matter, that it isn’t there, and that you don’t even notice your students have colors or genders has been proven to be a recipe for disengagement. The best way to get someone to give up and quit is to tell them you don’t see them.

    I stress this because I think it is an American habit to insist that one is color blind or gender blind. I suspect that this is exactly why Stephen Colbert successfully gets laughs when he milks his insistence of his “blindness” on his television show. We laugh because we recognize it as an American cultural expectation, that gender/race/difference shouldn’t matter, and that (well-intentioned) people affect not to notice it.

    Therefore, I briefly criticized commentators on Leiter’s blog who insisted chauvinist comments are obviously irrelevant to philosophers’ works. This is demonstrably untrue on notable occasions (Kant, in particular, reveals a great deal of fascinating metaphysical commitments in the course of detailing the scarce rational capacities of women). More importantly, to persist in insisting that we “read around” such comments in the canon is to continue to deny recognition to, or to misrecognize, those students in the room on the losing side of a gendered comment. I realize that to insist it is irrelevant is well-intentioned. However, it is not the way to proceed. It is also a partial answer as to why women and minorities do not get the impression that they are, as Margaret Walker has so eloquently said, “welcome to enter and expected to enter.”

  6. I don’t have explanations, but some anecdotal evidence about how things look at one department, mine — where I was DUS for the last few years. I have access to lists of our majors etc, and did a quick count of our graduating seniors last year.

    We had 57 seniors graduating with a major in philosophy last year. Of those exactly 2/3 were men (38) and 1/3 women (19). I think this 2/3-1/3 split pretty much accords with the distribution of our majors over the last several years.

    To obtain honors in philosophy, students have to write a senior thesis. 20 seniors completed the senior thesis; of those 8 were women and 12 men. 10 students received honors on their thesis; 3 were women and 7 men. These numbers fit with the overall 2/3-1/3 split.

    Finally, we had 9 students go on to graduate study this year(most of them students who graduated in 2008 or 2007): 6 men (two to MA programs) and 3 women (all 3 to PhD programs). So that is again pretty much in line with the 2/3-1/3 split.

    As to the department itself, we have a women in philosophy group which is mainly active among the graduate students. We have an active philosophy club which was co-founded by a female undergraduate student, who is now off to graduate school, but we don’t have an undergraduate women’s philosophy group. We have 4 women on the philosophy faculty out of 20 tenured or tenure-track faculty members (including faculty with concurrent appointments in other units and not counting two male non-tenure track faculty). We don’t have an introduction to philosophy class, but in the Philosophical Perspectives sequence in the Humanities Core, taken by first year students as one choice among several sequences, my anecdotal impression from 6 years of teaching is that the split is closer to 50-50.

    Explanations? I don’t have any.

  7. I’m afraid I don’t recall the source or the exact numbers, so I may be completely wrong, but there are two considerations that might serve to explain the situation in the U.S.:

    1. A higher percentage of students attend universities in the U.S. than in most other countries, with much of the growth taking place in the last few decades. Moreover, much of the student population growth is due to women. This makes me wonder if, say, the population of students were smaller, the gender balance in philosophy might be closer to 50-50. In other words, many more students now come to U.S. universities to study business, education, nursing, etc., and perhaps these are disproportionately women. (The number of philosophy majors, for what it’s worth, has stayed fairly steady for a long time, even though it has declined as a percentage of student majors.)

    2. A lot of U.S. universities give their students many more options than they might have elsewhere. At my university, students can major in Apparel Merchandising, Nutrition Science, Urban Planning, and something called “Liberal Studies”. Perhaps women are attracted away from more traditional academic disciplines in favor of these?

  8. Michael: Like you, I don’t have hard data. But I believe here has been similar growth in the student population in Australia over the same period. Moreover, there has also been similar growth in non-traditional academic disciplines. So neither of these factors would appear to explain the US-Australia difference.

  9. I tend to agree with Zach in 2.

    But one question: has anyone thought of asking women who’ve dropped out at some point why they did? I realize that from the social sciences perspective asking people why they make the choices they do is unprofessional but it might be worth a shot.

    I can tell you exactly why, though my dissertation was in metaphysics I ended up spending most of my career writing on feminism and issues in “applied ethics.” Shortly after I got a tenure-track position, a senior colleague came into my office for a chat and told me that he knew a sure way for me to get tenure: I should “get into feminism.”

    It’s also easy enough to see why women are more scared about job prospects: the non-academic options for men with “worthless humanities degrees” and without special credentials are better for men than they are for women. English and other traditional humanities disciplines are teachable; the new subjects that attract women—apparel merchandising, nutrition science or whatever—provide vocational credentials. Philosophy provides a generic humanities degree that isn’t either. Guys believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that with a generic humanities degree they still have viable non-academic fallback positions—generic entry-level office park positions where there’s some hope for advancement into management. Women recognize that there are no decent fallback positions: every reasonably educated woman is by default a secretary—sorry, “administrative assistant”—unless she gets some special vocational credential.

    We’re homo economicus we are—remember, that’s “homo” not “vir.”

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