Is academic philosophy a “safe space” for women? | FACTUAL FEMINIST
Some claim that philosophy departments are
hostile environments for women. Could they be right? Let’s look at the evidence—coming
up next on the Factual Feminist. In 2014, women earned 28% of the PhDs in philosophy.
By contrast, they earned close to 60% in English, anthropology, and sociology—and 75% in psychology.
When it comes to gender, philosophy looks more like math and physics.
A group of feminist philosophers is persuaded that women are being kept away by rampant
sexism, both overt and unconscious. In the past few years, there has been a surge of
tendentious and alarmist articles, blogs, and studies on the precarious state of women
in philosophy. There is even a song! Recently, some in this group have ascended to power
in the American Philosophical Association and are hard at work addressing the alleged
crisis. I know that some of you are thinking: Why
should I care what happens in the American Philosophical Association? Well, if you want
to understand what is happening at colleges and universities today you should pay attention.
In 2008, MIT feminist philosopher Sally Haslanger published an article in an academic journal
lamenting that philosophy is combative and judgmental—a “hypermasculine environment.”
Now look. I was a philosopher. My husband was a philosopher. My stepson is a philosopher.
I’ve been around a lot of philosophers. They are many things, but “hypermasculine”
isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, Haslanger was passionate—actually combative. She
attacked analytic philosophy for favoring masculine terms such as “penetrating, seminal
and rigorous.” And she described the “deep well of rage” inside her—rage over how
she and others have been treated. Haslanger called on “established feminists,” to
organize and resist “the masculinization of philosophy spaces.”
Haslanger expected a backlash. Instead she ignited a hostile takeover. By 2013, she attained
a top position in the American Philosophical Association, and wrote in the New York Times
that her group’s “persistent activism….is becoming institutionalized.” Her article
ended with these words: “We are the winning side now. We will not relent; so it is only
a matter of time.” The Factual Feminist is concerned. Academic
philosophy prides itself on logic, rule of evidence and analytical rigor. But Haslanger
and others on the “winning side” appear to be making their case by other means: dogma,
misinformation, and pop-psychology. oss the curriculum. This APA-sponsored poster
is turning up in philosophy departments. (PhilosopHER). Maybe psych and anthropology departments should
have posters like these? [PsychoBROS] Anthropolo-HE. First: It makes sense that women received
only 28% of the philosophy PhDs in 2014, because in the same year they received only 29% of
undergraduate degrees in philosophy. Why so few female majors? To find out, Australian
researchers conducted The movement also ignores the finding— consistently documented by
a vast empirical literature–that, on average, men and women tend to have somewhat different
interests. For example, a large study of multiple cohorts of mathematically precocious youth
found that males were more likely to have strong interests in investigative and theoretical
pursuits. Females, on the other hand, were more likely to show strong preferences for
social and artistic pursuits These are just patterns holding on average,
and we should be careful not to over-generalize. But the research helps explain why different
fields show different ratios of men to women—as in these numbers indicating majors from Princeton:
[insert graph] Yet when the New York Times invited five feminist
philosophers to discuss the gender gap in 2013, not one even entertained the possibility
that women might tend to find other subjects more interesting. Instead the group talked
exclusively about things like male privilege, harassment, and stereotypes.
But plenty of other fields in which women are now outperforming men once had stereotypes
and harassment. If these weren’t barriers to women elsewhere, why is philosophy different?
Let us turn from anecdote and psychologizing
and consider a few facts— a survey of students in the most popular introductory
philosophy class at the University of Sydney. The female students were less likely to pursue
philosophy than the men, but not because they were put off by the argumentative style. Rather,
it was because they were less interested in the field—from the start. This didn’t
change when a professor focused on women in the coursework and always used female pronouns.
Second: Philosophy departments are not biased against women in hiring. There may be fewer
women interested enough in philosophy to pursue a career in it, but those who do are more
likely to get jobs. According to a study by the APA, between 2012 and 2015, other things
being equal, female PhDs were 65% more likely than men to find a permanent academic job
within two years of graduating. And look at the APA itself. Over the past
5 years, women have held 60% of its top offices. For 2016 — women hold all the top positions!
It is difficult to see how a profession that hires women at a higher rate than men
and awards them its top leadership positions is rigged against women.
Without pushback, this movement could mire academic philosophy in divisive gender politics
for years—and actually scare women away. The way they describe philosophy—hypermasculine,
unsupportive, filling women with rage—why would any woman want to enter such a field?
In my senior year of high school, my mom gave me Bertrand Russell’s History of Western
Philosophy. I relished that book. It was written by a man, and it was about men—Plato, Aristotle,
Descartes, Nietzsche. But I thought it was written for me. I wasn’t aware I had entered
an unsafe “hypermasculine” space—to me it felt like a sacred space. I pursued
a BA and PhD in philosophy and taught it for more than 20 years. It never crossed my mind,
in high school or as my academic career progressed, that I would be unwelcome because I was a
woman. I am glad that today’s grievance blogs, alarmist theories, and tirades weren’t
around back then to discourage me—and sorry to think of their influence today on young
women who are drawn to this great and challenging calling.