In general in US academia, the numbers of women in the arts, social sciences, and the humanities are less than men but not too far from equality. The one exception is philosophy, where the number of women dip dramatically to the level of the sciences.
The reality is that the discipline of philosophy lags far behind other disciplines in the humanities in terms of number of women undergraduate philosophy majors, graduate students, and tenured faculty members. The best numbers indicate that women make up 21% of academic philosophers compared to humanities as a whole where women are 41% of academics. Our numbers are comparable to the physical sciences, where there has been more recent interest and intent to elevate the numbers. Women are 20.6% of academics in the physical sciences and 22.2% of the life sciences.
Some of the problems diagnosed include the long history of professional male philosophers’ criticisms of women’s rational capacity (Marilyn Friedman), implicit bias and stereotype threat (Jennifer Saul), belief in meritocracy (Fiona Jenkins), difficulty in establishing credibility and authority (Katrina Hutchinson), problematic pedagogy (Catriona Mackenzie and Cynthia Townley), microinequalities (Samantha Brennan), and silencing (Justine McGill). Combine and compound the effects of all these practices, and one has very large systemic problems.
This report by the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy UK had similar findings and gives this depressing account of one woman’s experience with sexual harassment.
I am about to start my PhD at an excellent Leiter ranked program. I have a BA and MA from excellent schools. I have worked closely with ground breaking philosophers in my field. I have published, I have an excellent teaching resume, phenomenal letters of recommendation, and moreover I love my job. I am a good philosopher, and I am thinking about leaving philosophy.
I have been a secretary and a chauffeur. I have been disingenuously promised research assistantships and letters of recommendation, in return for dinner dates and car rides. I have been asked if I was married while my colleagues have been asked what they think. I have been told that I’m both cute and idiotic. I have passed on professional opportunities because I am a woman, and no one would believe that I deserved those opportunities—accepting would make me seem like a slut, since men make it on merit, and women make it in bed. So, ironically, I have been praised as professional for having passed on professional opportunities. I have been the lone woman presenting at the conference, and I have been the woman called a bitch for declining sexual relations with one of the institution’s hosts. I think I have just about covered the gamut of truly egregiously atrocious sexist behaviour. So I just have this one question that I think I need answered: Is the choice between doing philosophy, and living under these conditions, or saving yourself, and leaving the discipline?
This blog that has people recount stories about life in academic philosophy gives some idea of the kind of hostile environment that women often encounter.
Philosophy is also notorious for the harshness of its discourse. Robin Wilson writes (paywall) about how women feel marginalized at philosophy conferences and avoid the social gatherings that are an important part of the networking function of professional meetings because they get harassed and propositioned by the senior male academics, in addition to having their contributions belittled with the kind of harsh rhetoric that the field seems to delight in.
Part of the problem, women say, is that philosophy is a verbally aggressive field, and some women may be more uncomfortable than men are with the kind of sparring and jousting typical of philosophical debates.
“You have to have the self-confidence to withstand critiques against your work without taking it personally,” said Ms. Welch, the Spelman professor. “It’s a very critical, crushing profession.”
Other philosophers here agreed. “At many fine institutions, philosophy is so hyperanalytical and combative that young women may be put off,” said Dianna Tietjens Meyers, who is retiring this year from her post as a philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago.
But not everyone feels that this is something that needs to be changed.
Brian Leiter, a professor and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago Law School, said he isn’t sympathetic to arguments that the content of philosophy courses, and the style in which the discipline is taught, should be changed to make it more attractive to women. Some women, he pointed out, “dislike the suggestion that the field’s too combative for delicate women,” and he agrees with them.
“Some people want to make philosophy more like the English department, with more focus on gender and race, and they want it to be more touchy-feely, good-natured, friendly, and mutually supportive,” said Mr. Leiter, who publishes the Philosophical Gourmet Report, an online ranking of top philosophy departments. “The discipline has been argumentative for a long time. Socrates’ interlocutors frequently threaten to punch him in the face, they are so annoyed.”
This kind of thinking (“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”) and that women are less likely to have the qualities that are necessary to succeed, also exist in the scientific disciplines that have long been seen as less welcoming to women than the humanities. As one philosopher said, “Rationality is thought of as men’s kingdom. And there is an argument through time about how philosophy belongs to men.”
One would hope that this is a generational thing that will slowly die away by itself as society’s attitudes change and older faculty disappear from the scene. But I think it will require more proactive efforts because some of the problems may be getting passed on to the next generation. I recall one cohort of physics majors in my department in which the sole woman was easily the most accomplished. She told me that some of her male fellow students would make belittling comments to her and say that women did not belong in physics and that she should get out of the field. This may well be due to simple jealousy towards someone who was doing so much better than them (physicists can be quite competitive) and she was able to deal with it but you can see how having to repeatedly deal with such attitudes would take its toll and make women think twice about encouraging other women to enter the field.