Brooke Lewis finds perception matches reality when it comes to women in philosophy

Only two out of every ten full-time permanent academic philosophers working in leading higher education institutions in the UK are female, research conducted by tpm suggests. Based on a survey of the full-time staff profiles of the 20 elite institutions which comprise the Russell Group of British universities, tpm has found that while around 32 percent of full-time academic staff in history departments and 39 percent in psychology departments are women, only 18 percent of such staff in philosophy departments are.

A review of the top eight American philosophy departments, as ranked by Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report, suggests a similar picture in the United States, with only around 22 percent of full-time faculty female.

The research supports the common perception that philosophy is one of the least balanced of the humanities subjects in terms of gender. It leaves open the question of whether its reputation as a “white men’s club” is deserved, since reliable data on the ethnic profile of departments proved surprisingly elusive. There is almost no research available on the gender and ethnic make-up of philosophy professionals in the UK, there are no figures regarding ethnic minorities working in philosophy in the UK and no recent figures available for gender. tpm had to resort to a painstaking head-count, based on departmental website faculty lists. Although this methodology is not precise, it is accurate enough to suggest that gender representation is far less balanced in philosophy than it is in many other humanities subjects.

Helen Beebee, a University of Birmingham lecturer and director of the British Philosophical Association (BPA), the professional body for the subject, is currently conducting research on the topic and has asked the heads of philosophy departments at British higher education institutions to supply her with a gender breakdown of students at BA, MA and PhD levels, as well as for staff at different levels.

Stressing that she does not yet have the data to substantiate inferences from personal experience, Beebee says her impression is that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women graduating with good bachelor degrees in philosophy and that the numbers of women start to drop off at MA level and then again at PhD level. Beebee says this tapering off of women may be at least partly caused by a culture of aggressive argument that is particular to philosophy and which begins to become more prominent at postgraduate level. “I can remember being a PhD student and giving seminar papers and just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience,” she says. “I can easily imagine someone thinking, ‘this is just ridiculous, why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?’”

Jennifer Saul, a Sheffield University lecturer and president of the UK division of the Society of Women in Philosophy (SWIP), says that relative to post-graduate students, there is a significant drop in the number of women going on to become temporary lecturers. She says that number decreases again at permanent and more senior levels of academic philosophy and agrees that an aggressive culture may be a contributing factor. “I think that very combative ‘out to destroy the speaker’ sort of philosophy is something that a lot of women find uncomfortable,” she says. “But I wouldn’t want to say it’s just a problem for women – I think it’s a problem for men and a problem for philosophy because I don’t think it’s a good way to do philosophy.”

Beebee says the masculine culture of philosophy is more likely to be off-putting to women than any overt sexism. “I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever felt unfairly treated as a woman in the male-dominated world of analytic philosophy,” she says. “On the other hand, I do think that the culture of face-to-face philosophical discussion, at seminars and in conferences, is pretty aggressive and confrontational.” Beebee recalls working in one department where, “one member of staff kept a list of ‘home wins’ and ‘away wins’ on his whiteboard – a ‘home win’ being a seminar where the members of the department ‘defeated’ the visiting speaker during the discussion.”

Saul says that there are some good examples, such as the philosophy department at Sheffield University, of a how a more constructive approach to the discipline can be taken. “[T]he questions at talks aren’t designed to demolish the speaker. If a question turns out to be devastating to a speaker’s account, then the rest of the staff will try to come up with ways of putting the account back together because the idea is to get something productive out of it rather than to destroy someone.”

Michelle Montague, who has just completed her first year as the only permanent female philosophy lecturer among 20 male colleagues at the University of Bristol, agrees that there are fewer and fewer women in philosophy at each stage of academic life but says she doesn’t find the style of debate discomforting. “I think I can be kind of argumentative and forceful about what I think,” she says. “But I do agree that it might be the case that sometimes it would be more productive if people were more in the spirit of cooperating, trying to figure out or work through some idea, rather than trying to show that someone else is wrong or has made a mistake in their reasoning, which quite often happens in public conferences or public talks.”

Montague hasn’t found being the sole female at Bristol University an uncomfortable experience. “Sometimes one goes to a conference and there aren’t very many women, or you’re the only woman speaker. And you notice it. But I haven’t really had that at all at Bristol.” But she does think that the low number of female teaching staff in philosophy departments is self-perpetuating. “It’s kind of a catch 22 because I think one of the things that would make women more comfortable is if there were more women around.”

Montague specialises in philosophy of mind and metaphysics and says there are especially few women in these sorts of branches of philosophy: “I’ve never done a formal study but my impression from just being around is that there are more women who do ethics and history, and definitely fewer doing philosophy of mind, language, metaphysics or logic.”

Montague says there are so many factors involved that it’s difficult to explain exactly why there are so few women in philosophy generally and especially few in these branches of the discipline. “It’s hard to say but if you had an explanation for why there aren’t many women in maths and engineering, I think the explanation might be similar as to why there aren’t as many women in metaphysics and logic and language,” she says. “I think that the mindset and the kind of mind that is interested in those topics is similar – so I think if you found an explanation for the maths and engineering, it would carry over.”

There is some evidence to support this theory. Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge whose theory of mind characterises male minds as “systemising” (driven to analyse or construct systems) and female minds as empathising. “Philosophy is, as you know, the pursuit of logic and the analysis of concepts as logical systems,” he told me. “It therefore requires ‘systemising’ and all areas of systemising (mathss, computer science, physics, engineering, etc) show this male bias.” However he stresses that biological and cultural factors can both play a role in developing these empathising and systemising traits.

The existence and extent of biological gender differences is a controversial issue, with prominent critics, such as Harvard developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke. But it is generally agreed that cultural assumptions have a powerful impact on either creating or greatly exacerbating any such differences as there may be. “There’s some very good literature showing that people are affected by stereotypes about their group,” Saul says. “So if you have a maths exam and you do something to make women conscious of the fact that they’re women before taking the exam, like having a box where you tick what your sex is, women’s scores go down and men’s scores go up. That’s how sensitive people are to these stereotypes, so if you do something to activate the stereotypes they can be very damaging.

“I think logic is going to activate the same stereotype and given the importance of logic to philosophy, those stereotypes would be easily activated by a lot of philosophy as well – I think that can play a real role in maintaining the male-ness of the discipline.”

Beebee says people might see the fact that so few women choose to pursue a career in philosophy as unproblematic if there is no overt sexism going on but argues that “sustaining a culture whose effect is to exclude women is arguably a form of discrimination, even if the discrimination is neither conscious nor based on unconscious assumptions. And if women who would have made really good philosophers are not entering the profession, the philosophy that’s being done overall is not as good as it would have been if they had.”

At least to some extent philosophy is consistent with a general trend in academia (and perhaps many other professions) of having an inverse proportion of seniority of position and representation of women: women made up 42.6 percent of all academic (including part-time) staff in the UK but only 18.7 percent of professors in the year 2007-2008, according to a report published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency earlier this year. But the fact that especially few women survive in a subject that attracts roughly equal numbers of male and female undergraduates suggests that, while both sexes are equally drawn to philosophy, there is something about the discipline that is discouraging to women. More in-depth research is needed to work out at what point, and for what reasons, women decide to leave the discipline and what, if anything, could be changed.

But, while there is still a long way to go, there have been some signs of improvement in the representation of women in philosophy in recent years. Female representation outside the Russell Group seems to be better than inside. “Both the director and the president of the BPA are women, as is the director of the Aristotelian Society,” Beebee points out. “At this year’s Joint Session at UEA [the leading general philosophy conference in the UK], about 25% of the non-refereed ‘open session’ presentations and nearly 40% of the plenary presentations were by women. I’d say these numbers are probably better than one would have got at a comparable UK conference 10 years ago.”

Gender roles and cultural assumptions are slowly changing in other fields and areas of life and it is possible that philosophy, arguably the oldest of humanities subjects, is simply taking a little longer to shake off its well-entrenched tradition of male dominance.

Additional research by Matthew Humphrys HicksMy BlogNewsBrooke Lewis finds perception matches reality when it comes to women in philosophy Only two out of every ten full-time permanent academic philosophers working in leading higher education institutions in the UK are female, research conducted by tpm suggests. Based on a survey of the full-time staff profiles of...