Originally a comment by guest on Being a New Yorker.
I’m an engineer, and happened to run into a senior male academic philosopher at a conference of interest to both of us. We somehow got to talking about the underrepresentation of women in engineering, and he mentioned that academic philosophy was actually even worse in this regard, and academics are trying to develop ways to address it. It sounds like a ‘Harris-style’ issue in that although this guy didn’t get it I wouldn’t be surprised if the bullying and condescending nature of a lot of what is accepted as academic discourse in this discipline (granted men take this stance with each other, not exclusively with women) can drive out women who either don’t appreciate it or don’t put up with that kind of behaviour–and I have to say if my conversation with this particular person was any indication of how people behaved in his department I’d have found another discipline toot sweet.
PS I’m female and this was in the UK.
🙂 I feel honoured! I’ll share a little more of the conversation. This gentleman told me that it had been widely acknowledged that academic philosophy had a ‘woman problem’, and the male leaders of (his department? an academic society? don’t remember now) were brainstorming, apparently in the absence of women to discuss the situation with, why this might be. His opinion was that it was because women preferred less theoretical disciplines where the path between education and nonacademic employment was clearer, and where there was more potential for academic employment. ‘Hm,’ I asked, ‘what about art history?’ Art history, it seemed to me, was similarly unlikely to lead directly to lucrative employment, and yet if I understood correctly most people in that discipline were women. By this point the person I thought I was having a conversation with was pretty much talking at and over me, and seemed uninterested in considering what I’d just said, so I suddenly realised I had something urgent to do elsewhere. Which was kind of too bad, since I don’t normally run into academic philosophers and thought it would be interesting to talk with one.
Ophelia Benson says
In other words, it’s basically another “it’s more of a guy thing.” Just what we all need more of.
LOL yeah, if not exactly in so many words. Also amusing that he would tell an engineer that women avoid philosophy because they prefer more practical disciplines. I do have to admit I was disappointed–I’d always thought philosophers were supposed to be good at this reasoning stuff.
Umm. I think what has been forced into public view is that the:
condescending nature of a lot of what is accepted as academic discourse in this discipline (granted men take this stance with each other, not exclusively with women)
claim is simply false. Women are getting floods of active, misogynist, hostility that is no part of ‘accepted…discourse’ ANYWHERE.
You may be mistaken here: qualifications in academic philosophy are probably only directly relevant to employment in academic philosophy itself, whereas art history offers a wide field of work. For one thing, art history itself need not be restricted to an academic environment, but it qualifies people to work in journalism and other media, in galleries and museums and dealers, as advisers to wealthy individuals and institutions and as freelance dealers and collectors. People can work in more than one of these fields without a clash of interests.
When women faced even more difficulties in getting an academic education in the U.K. art history was regarded as a “suitable” course for upper-middle and upper class young women so there was a tendency for more to study it. I don’t know how far that applied elsewhere. Even if there is less prejudice against women being educated now, it’s likely that art history is probably an area which would attract women for historical reasons and because it would be seen as more female-friendly.
My own guess- and it is only a guess- is that academic philosophy is such a peculiar subject that studying it to a high academic level probably often requires and causes irreparable distortions of intellect and personality. The “bullying and condescending nature of a lot of what is accepted as academic discourse in this discipline” may be accepted as a perfectly normal “full and frank exchange of views”- indeed, from what I’ve seen of philosophers it’s a ritual which is a kind of game and they are unaware of how odd it is and how off-putting it can be.
Good point–I guess a degree in art history would be a good grounding for work at a museum or auction house, or the other areas you mentioned…but on the other hand a) those kinds of jobs, while I suspect they can be lucrative if you manage to get the right one, are probably not that plentiful, b) one can make a similar point that a degree in philosophy can be a grounding for a career in various kinds of writing or public/civil service, and c) from the point of view of an ignorant outsider choosing a discipline as a student the career prospects of neither philosophy nor art history look particularly strong. Also:
‘from what I’ve seen of philosophers it’s a ritual which is a kind of game and they are unaware of how odd it is and how off-putting it can be.’
Yes that’s it exactly–I believe the conversation I’m reporting here was the first (and so far only) I’ve ever had with someone who actually makes a living as a philosopher, but I’ve interacted before with philosophy students and people with degrees in philosophy and they do seem to have this peculiar conversational style, which as I said comes off to me as bullying and condescending, and I think you’re right that they have no idea that this is the case.
It’s a rather specialised kind of reasoning, often acting in a very restricted area having no influence elsewhere in the thinker’s life. For example, the great logician Alfred Tarski combined with this a romantic Polish nationalism which led him to become a practising roman catholic, even though he was a jew by ancestry and an atheist in his beliefs.