I thought things would certainly change

Oh yay. One of many items I made a note to follow up from Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender was an essay by Sally Haslanger, a philosopher at MIT, “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone),” from Hypatia, 2008. Then yesterday I happened on and re-read an article by Julian Baggini on the scarcity of women in philosophy, and how does it start?

Sally Haslanger is angry. “I entered philosophy about 30 years ago,” she told me at the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meeting in Boston. “I had a budding feminist consciousness, and I thought then that there weren’t enough women on the reading lists in my classes or among my teachers. But I thought things would certainly change, given the importance of the feminist movement. I’ve been though the profession now and worked hard on the Committee on the Status of Women. I’ve worked hard in other forums like SWIP – the Society for Women in Philosophy  – that were trying to advance women’s interests. After 30 years I was seeing that there wasn’t really that much change, and that made me mad.”

So today I looked, figuring it would be unavailable online, but hey what do you know – it’s available. Probably everybody with any sense has already read it, but I missed it. I love that little thrill when you find something you expected not to find.

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination…In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosoph[er] and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman.

My point here is that I don’t think we need to scratch our heads and wonder what on earth is going on that keeps women out of philosophy. In my experience it is very hard to find a place in philosophy that isn’t actively hostile towards women and minorities, or at least assumes that a successful philosopher should look and act like a (traditional, white) man.

Does that sound familiar? It does to me. An outspoken atheist simply has to be a (traditional, white) man, because women just don’t do outspoken and atheism. Women do shoes and feelings…at best; at worst they do bitchy cunt things.



  1. Kiwi Sauce says

    Women do shoes and feelings…at best; at worst they do bitchy cunt things.

    That comment reminds me of a time I was helping out an army with an officer selection board, and the head occupational psychologist showed me the personality test they were thinking of changing to, and said I could complete it for interest. I did, and he scored me on it, and I was surprised at some of the results, for example scoring at the very bottom for assertiveness. I said that I thought my normed scores were odd, and he double-checked and found he had scored me using the male scoring weights. When he redid the scoring using the female weights, I was right at the top for assertiveness.

    I hate this difference that when a women is outspoken, she’s a bitch. Yet when a man is outspoken, he’s being normal. And etc, obviously.

  2. JennieL says

    Uh, yeah.
    Sally Haslanger’s article is right on the money. Sadly, while the message has been taken on board by many senior people in philosophy, the culture is not changing, mainly because the people who are causing the problems refuse to listen.

    I’m now an ex-philosopher, having made the decision earlier in the year to get the hell out and hope that I can still recover, both mentally and career-wise. Six months ago I gave up tenure for a part-time contract position in a different discipline, and I’ve not regretted it once. Among my circle of friends are two other women who have done the same, and at least one more who has stayed in the profession but changed research areas to get away from the worst of the sexism.

    And yes, any discussion of women in philosophy is very much like discussion of women in atheism. That is to say, it’s exactly the same ‘arguments’, just with ‘philosophy’ in place of ‘atheism’. It’s not the men, it’s those emotional women: maybe women are too busy doing mysterious (but no doubt silly) female stuff, and don’t care about philosophy/atheism; maybe they just aren’t very good at rational thought; they’re too emotional; they are too fragile to handle “robust debate”. And don’t forget: if we listen to women’s criticisms about the culture, they will make everything all girly and shit!

    My strong impression is that the problem is worse in the younger generation. It seems to me that a lot of men were attracted to philosophy (especially certain sub-disciplines thereof) precisely because it was so hostile to women; this has created a critical mass of philosophers who like the culture the way it is, and strongly resist any change.

    On top of that, there are many men who will admit that there is a problem in the abstract, but who will not entertain even the whisper of a thought that they themselves might be contributing to it – even as they exhibit blatantly sexist behaviour.

  3. says

    It seems to me that a lot of men were attracted to philosophy (especially certain sub-disciplines thereof) precisely because it was so hostile to women; this has created a critical mass of philosophers who like the culture the way it is, and strongly resist any change.

    Argh; I hadn’t thought of that before. That too sounds like atheism…among other things.

    JennieL I suppose you’re familiar with



  4. JennieL says

    Hi Ophelia,

    It hadn’t occurred to me either, until I had banged my head against that brick wall for many years. What really brought it home was noticing the kinds of students who were attracted to the major and to the student club. That, and being at conferences where gaggles of younger male philosophers would look at you with a combination of fear and contempt if you dared try to insert yourself into their conversation.

    Conversely, I have found it far easier to have productive and respectful discussions with older male philosophers. Some of them were the reason I made it into philosophy in the first place, and managed to stick it out for so long.

    And yes, I do know about ‘Being a Woman in Philosophy’. I just don’t read it very often because, as you might imagine, it hits very close to home – I get too angry and upset.

  5. says

    God, Jennie, that’s creepy. Things have gotten worse in some ways. How did this happen?? I seriously don’t understand it. And I get angry and upset about it…

  6. says

    Ah, thanks for that, Caryn. There’s a communication from Sally Haslanger! And there are people doing things; good.

    Read that to cheer up, Jennie, if you haven’t already.

  7. Luna_the_cat says

    I never had much time for philosophy, personally, until I got interested in the question of how do we know what we know, and the philosophy of science; and when I started looking more into that, I stumbled across Deborah Mayo, http://www.phil.vt.edu/dmayo/dmayo.html . I was blown away at the rigorous logic of her thinking, and I have to admit to learning a great deal from reading her work.

    The thing that pisses me off is, nobody outside a very narrow field seems to know who she is, and I almost never see her name in discussions of the modern forms of philosophy of science, even when the discussion is all about the limits of falsification and Duhem’s problems, areas where her work is squarely situated. And when I have discussions with the occasional person who is interested in this kind of thing, I often get a reaction of “really? I’ve never heard of her; a woman, eh?”

    And I cannot believe this is because of the quality of her work. Read some of it, judge for yourself. http://www.phil.vt.edu/dmayo/personal_website/bibliography%20complete.htm

    I’m so disheartened about the fact that sexism seems to be getting worse. I hate to say it, but I think JennieL might be right, there has been a kind of male backlash where some who don’t think women have any business intruding into such a serious field have gathered and made an immovable and hostile cohort. But that’s just so damned backwards.

  8. JennieL says

    Yeah, I shouldn’t make it sound like no-one is doing anything about it – there really are some very fine folks in philosophy fighting hard to make things better.

    My own decision to leave was influenced heavily by the local culture, by which I mean that of the particular subdiscipline in which I was working as well as that of my immediate surrounds. I’m aware that other subdisciplines are much better, and if I ever do re-enter philosophy proper, it would be with a different research specialty. The bits of philosophy that intersect and interact with other disciplines often seem to have less of a problem.

    Also, there are very many excellent philosophers who are working outside philosophy departments, and the culture there is very different. I’ve found that transferring across to a different discipline has been highly refreshing and educational – a good kind of culture shock! I’m still doing philosophy (albeit also retraining to do something else), but I now think it’s possible my career may not consist entirely of being repeatedly pinned under a boulder while trying to roll it uphill.

  9. JennieL says


    Yeah, there’s an interesting kind of reasoning that happens there:
    Q: Why does everyone ignore X’s work on this question?
    A: She isn’t very good.
    Q: How do you know she isn’t very good?
    A: Because everyone ignores her work.

    There’s also an availability/representativeness thing going on, which has to do with the stereotyping that Sally Haslanger talks about. When people think of philosophers to [invite to apply for a position / speak at a conference / contribute to a special issue / put on a reading list] they think of middle-aged white males, because their mental picture of a philosopher is a middle-aged white male, and people who don’t fit that picture are harder to bring to mind. And then they rationalise their failure to think of women or minorities by convincing themselves that those people just aren’t that good anyway.

    (See also, atheist conferences, getting women to speak at…)

  10. says

    I’ve never been involved with philosophy or any philosophy department, so this is mostly a guess, at best a generalization: I suspect that a major part of the problem is that philosophy is an area where there’s relatively little connection to the real world, and almost no expectation or opportunity to get the kind of real-world results that get new people and ideas noticed. And that, in turn, leads to certain kinds of people gravitating toward philosophy, the kind who want to deal mostly (or only) with abstract ideas — which they can bend, re-imagine, or protect unchanged as they wish — and not with the real world of results, achievement, and consequences that can’t be re-imagined or controlled. And such people tend to be prone to prejudice and inertia, not to mention tribalism based on whose ideas you cherish.


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