Women and Minorities in Philosophy

There’s currently a huge amount of momentum around the issue of improving numbers of women and minorities in philosophy.  A major catalyst for this has been Sally Haslanger’s incredibly important paper on the topic.  I know that many women just starting out in philosophy found that paper a very depressing read.  But the extremely good news is that it’s serving as a real catalyst for discussion and action, and there’s actually a lot of optimism and energy. There’s a nice example in this post from Evelyn Brister:

In the last decade, at least half of U.S. college graduates have been women. But less than a third of philosophy majors have been women. Women have not reached workplace equity at the beginning of the 21st century, but there are only a few places and ways in which they are not reaching educational parity. Philosophy—the discipline that takes as its subjects ethics, justice, consistency, and self-reflection—is one of those places.What does this gender inequality indicate about our discipline? Some have taken it to indicate that the material itself is gender-biased, that the methods of argumentation reflect masculine psychology, or that philosophy is a bastion of cultural traditionalism that incubates sexist practices.That assessment is too negative, in my opinion. As an optimist, a meliorist, and a pragmatist, I think that it indicates first and foremost that philosophers, unlike other analytic disciplines, have not made gender parity a priority.       

Brister argues for greater attention to undergraduate recruitment and retention. If you have thoughts on this, head over to her post and share them! Sharon Crasnow suggests that those of us from under-represented groups who have persevered or even thrived in philosophy should reflect on what helped us to do this and to talk about this. If you have stories on this to share, go tell Sharon. There are also some very important data collection efforts getting underway– more on those in a later post.

One thing that’s struck me is that there actually are a lot of genuinely well-meaning people in philosophy who would like to improve recruitment and retention of women and minorities in philosophy, at all levels, but who need some guidance about how to do so. I’m going to be working on providing a document with such guidance, and would appreciate any suggestions you may have. One thing I’d particularly like to hear about is what sorts of techniques actually help one to correct against the very unconscious biases that Haslanger and Valian have drawn our attention to. But I’m really interested in hearing about any ideas you may have– or reports of efforts, even those that haven’t worked. Please put them in the comments!

Note: Categories have been updated as a result of comments.

33 thoughts on “Women and Minorities in Philosophy

  1. I’m surprised to hear this since as far as I can make out my undergraduate year is about 50/50 (although that’s judging on lectures and there are some men who don’t come to any). The problem is much more extreme in the post-graduate level and in particular areas of study. At my university at least hardly any women go into logic and metaphysics. I guess that other than recruitment drives there isn’t really any easy solution. From my experience one of the things that is hard about philosophy for some women is the confrontational aspect. Arguing out your own view on a subject requires intellectual confidence, which is tied to women’s overall confidence issues. Were low confidence levels the cause of the disparity, it might also explain why less women get into the graduate realm, since by that point originality is more sought after and more confidence needed. Perhaps this has already been considered?

  2. Now, here is a post that I would recommend be filed under the category of “disability”. The dominant conception of “disability” employed by disability theorists and the disabled people’s movement construes it as complex and contingent form of social disadvantage, a political asymmetry that can be eliminated through social change. Disabled people, on this view, comprise an oppressed minority. This political conception of disability is meant to counter the medical model of disability that associates it with “healthcare,” “medicine,” “cure,” “deficit,” “defect,” and so on.

    Disabled philosophers confront significant discrimination in the discipline of philosophy, in hiring practices, in what is regarded as the accepted discourse of the discipline, and, yes, from feminist colleagues and claims made by feminist philosophers, especially feminist bioethicists.

    Nondisabled white women must acknowledge that they are relatively privileged in academic philosophy. There has been alot of discusion on at least one list for feminist philosophers about the gender disparity in philosophy and the ways to overcome this injustice. For the most part, however, this discussion has seemed to assume that women philosophers are similarly situated with respect to academic philosophy, that is, similarly excluded from it, and that the institutional, discursive, theoretical, political, and concrete obstacles “we” confront are the same for all. This is certainly not the case.

  3. Many thanks for this, Shelley. The discussions I’ve referenced focus mostly on women and racial minorities in philosophy– and, actually, mostly on women. But you’re absolutely right to point out that there are other minorities in philosophy as well. Since the discussions that have been taking place haven’t done much with disabilities, and since this is an area about which I’m not very knowledgeable, could you suggest some articles on disability issues in philosophy? Other minority groups in philosophy that don’t get discussed so much are trans people, sexual minorities, religious minorities (religious people quite generally may well be a minority in Anglo-American philosophy). If people know of helpful literature on problems these groups face in philosophy, I’d appreciate that as well. Also, if I’ve left groups out, please tell me! It’s hard to correct for one’s own ignorance, so I appreciate all the help I can get.

  4. Another under-discussed minority group in philosophy is aging philosophers. Also philosophers from poor and work class backgrounds.

  5. The Canadian Philosophical Association’s Equity Committee put together a “hiring equity toolkit” (found at http://www.acpcpa.ca/wp-content/uploads/publications/equity/Toolkit2004.pdf) to try and provide more concrete examples of actual practices that might improve hiring in philosophy. The toolkit is now several years old and doubtless imperfect in many ways, but it does attempt to provide tangible examples and strategies, rather than detailing theoretical frameworks, or repeating expressions of good intentions or exasperation with the status quo.

  6. Thank you for all of these thoughts and especially, Cressida, for the ‘toolkit’. I’m going to go look at it right now!

  7. NSF has been running the important Advance Program for a number of years and it has c ompiled a list of winning sites at which there’s a lot of useful material about recrutment and retentIo n.
    try NSF.gov. Go to crosscutng programs. It is in that list.

  8. also, let me mention a cOncern. Only 4 Per cent of female BA students get a phd in philos. That is terri ble. Guys are 30 per cent better. These figs were on swim-l.

  9. I would be interested to see if there is a correlation between schools that emphasize analytic philosophy versus continental. I also would be interested to see someone look into how many women enter into post-graduate work in philosophy but do not end up with a degree, as most of the women, including myself, in my program did not end up graduating. But I agree that the fact our program had no female mentors was a contributing factor.

  10. A second thought after having just read through 30+ job application files: usually gender is one of the factors one can become aware of when reading C-V’s, or if not there, letters of recommendation. Race, ethnicity, age, and disability status are not usually very evident from the file. This makes it difficult to be pro-active about various broad kinds of affirmative action, Sometimes reading between the lines of the letters tells you something, or guesswork based on lines of the C-V about activities… But disability status in particular is hard to discern. In the case of my students, I sometimes learn rather late in the semester of a disability that is in no way evident (e.g., learning disabilities, mental illness, heart disease, kidney disease, HIV-status, cystic fibrosis, cancer status, etc.), and sometimes at least the students appear loath to disclose their disabilities. This is to be deplored, of course, but I wonder if Shelley has suggestions about how to become more pro-active? I know from some minority students I’ve taught that the idea of having any special standing qua minority can be offensive, and for me it was certainly offensive to be told after I got my first job that I was only hired as an ‘affirmative action’ candidate. I’d welcome more constructive suggestions about being pro-active on this. I’ve tried to be hyper-vigilant about gender, race, and ethnicity, but I don’t know really how to be on the lookout to be promoting or giving careful consideration to disabled candidates.

  11. Correct me if I’m wrong here… An underrepresented minority is not a group that makes up less than 50% (or 30%) of the discipline, but one that makes up less than its proportion in the general population. So if women are 50% of the population they should ideally be 50% of philosophers. To figure out whether homosexuals, religious minorities, and other groups actually are underrepresented we’d need to know not just how many of them are in Philosophy but how many are in the general population and compare the numbers. The fact that they seem to be minorities in the profession does not automatically mean that they’re underrepresented.

    If, say, the percentage of members of religious minorities/homosexuals/disabled individuals/poor individuals/etc. in the general population is the same as in Philosophy, then they’re not actually underrepresented (though you can still call them minorities). I’m guessing there is data showing they’re underrepresented. (Or are we just assuming they’re underrepresented because their representation in Philosophy seem low? )

  12. I think the discussion has become one that’s not just about under-representation. It’s also become a discussion about whether particular groups face unjust obstacles in philosophy (where ‘unjust’ is meant in a very non-technical sense). There are various groups that do face barriers and prejudice in society more broadly, and it’s worth exploring whether they also face barriers and prejudice in philosophy– regardless of issues of under-representation. With women and racial minorities, we actually know there’s under-representation, but as you note we may not have that knowledge with other groups. (I don’t, but some amongst you may!)

  13. I certainly have heard people complain that they haven’t been treated equally because they aren’t native English speakers (though the people in question have excellent English skills). So perhaps thats another group that needs to be considered though under-representation in this case would be a rather difficult concept to work out.

  14. With regard to the matter of disability and philosophy, I think it is more appropriate to refer to specific subdisciplines. The relatively recent field of bioethics is especially notorious for its claims about disabled people and disability, the latter of which is construed under the rubric of the medical model of disability as a natural form of disadvantage, a personal characteristic which must be eliminated through modification or repair of the individual. There has been an upsurge of work on disability by bioethicists in recent years. To many of us, this upsurge seems causally linked to the gains of the disabled people’s movement.

    The work done on disability by most bioethicists breeds contempt for disabled people and fosters condescending, dismissive and patronizing responses to their testimonials and subjective accounts about their own lives. Imagine what it is like to be a disabled undergraduate or graduate student trying to endure a semester of lectures in which you are given the message that your life is not worth living and should be prevented, that you are deluding yourself about the quality of your own life and the extent of your misfortune. I often wonder why more feminist philosophers are not protesting the fact that this blatant bigotry and prejudice is being written and taught in their departments.

    There are other areas of philosophy that rely upon egregious claims about disabled people (for instance, recently on this blog I pointed to much of the work done in cognitive science); however, I and the philosophers with whom I work closely have determined that at this historical moment our focus needs to be on the claims about disability that bioethicists are making. Jender asked for some references… I am currently putting together a guest-edited double issue of The Journal of Bioethical Inquiry which will appear in May 2008. The issue (which promises to be outstanding) is comprised primarily of critical responses to the arguments of a number of bioethicists. One of the contributors, Ron Amundson, who is a philosopher of biology at U of Hawaii at Hilo, has written several other papers critiquing the claims of four prominent bioethicists. These cites can be found on his website. In 2006, I published two papers that might be of interest: a paper on prenatal testing in Hypatia and one on embryonic stem cell research in The Journal of Bioethical Inquiry.

    I haven’t dealt with one or two of the questions that others posed to me. I will put off responding to those at this time (I’ve gone on too long) and will wait to determine whether there is continued interest in this topic.

  15. Jender, thanks, I agree. The groups we should be concerned with are those who face unjust obstacles in Philosophy, even if they may not be under-represented.

  16. I am not sure how helpful this post will be, but I am feeling truly despondent about our discipline right now and I just need to vent!

    I’m currently seeking a tenure-track position and I have not heard a peep from the job market (admittedly some committees are still yet to meet, but not many). I’m lucky in that my current department is woman-friendly (if having a hard time prioritizing feminist philosophy) and eclectic. Recently, I’ve been to a few analytic talks and events (I don’t do analytic philosophy though I have some background in it – yes, I got an A+ in graduate-school logic), and have been increasingly struck by the inward looking, exclusive (and insistently masculinist) nature of the field. (By masculinist I don’t mean necessarily “aggressive, combative” – I’m fine with that… it’s more that kind of masculinity that drifts off into the autism category… let’s not let bodies, emotion, sensation, connectedness, intersubjectivity INFECT the purity of our chess-game.)

    If these are the people who have the hegemonic authority in our discipline, in the APA, no WONDER we’re not getting anywhere.

    The more I think about it, the more it seems like what they do and what many of us do (social/political; ethics; history of phil.; continental; feminist theory) are drawing further and further apart… and maybe this is not all bad.

    It seems to me we’d have a much healthier academy if analytic and logic-based philosophy split off into its own discipline, and the rest of us OTHER kinds of philosophers could exist as an umbrella for the theoretical humanities. Feminist Theory itself is a model for such interdisciplinarity. Maybe we could take some cues from that…

    Thanks for the anonymous space for this; I just needed to say it. (And definitely NO offense intended to the analytic feminists among us! Kudos to you, in fact. Hang in there!)

  17. Thank you for all your thoughtfulness on the subject. Anytime a discussion on minority-related issue comes up it almost always turn into an discussion on women’s exclusion probably because it’s been studied and explored inside out and people think they have better command of the facts around it . But such analyses undermine the possibilities of thorough and careful look at the critical issues and the bigger picture.
    Ok looking at “umbrella” minorities (color and disability) here and women as a different sub-category( just because this is how people prefer to deal with all issues of exclusion!) then i think the contributing factors to the issue of underrepresentation in philosophy could include: choice, bigger underrepresetation in higher learning for racial minorities—not women, and sadly inability for certain disability groups especially some forms of mental illness to engage in philosohical thought and inquiry. The choice question is an economic imperative here…we are in a capitalist system where you acquire the most marketable skills and sell them to the best bidder in the job market. Philosophy falls in the intellectual realm and not the hot-selling professional studies.

    I give affirmative action a break here. For women it may be a combination of choice and other things because they are very well represented in college, but for racial minorities especially black men, hispanics (rarely mentione groups) it could be mostly the underrepresentation in higher ed among other things.

  18. Many thanks for all these references! And, Archimedea, so sorry to hear about the bad time you’re having on the job market. Though not really surprised: it’s a miserable place to be. I would, though, be very sad to see the split that you suggest. I myself am *very* analytic, and trained in very traditional core areas, but I like to think I’ve managed to create a place (this blog) where those with different backgrounds also feel comfortable– and where we can all have productive discussions. It *is* possible to do this, and I think we’re all better for it.

  19. Here are some of my thoughts on why fewer women end up applying (and being admitted) to graduate programs (keep in mind that much of this is anecdotal—I’d be interested if others agree or disagree ):
    1. At least in the continental world, so-called continental feminism (as well as gender and queer theory) are far more regularly taught in English, Comp Lit and Women’s Studies programs than they are in Philosophy departments. What compelling reasons would a smart undergrad have to stay in philosophy at the graduate level (even if they started there)? The same goes for students interested in Disability Studies, Critical Race Theory and Postcolonialism….
    2. From what I’ve heard a fair number of female candidates are told not use ‘feminist’ writing samples and to downplay anything that might be construed as a ‘feminist bias’ in their statements of purpose. While such advice is obviously intended to protect the student from conservative AdCom members, it may also result in such students submitting what is not (in fact) their best work. The same (again) would go for students interested primarily in Critical Race, Postcolonial, Crip, and Queer Theory… Is there any way of taking this into account in the admissions process?
    3. I have heard that certain Letter of Recommendation writers are simply more respected in the field by their peers (on various AdComs). (Such that, for instance, the files of any student with a letter from a given professor would be immediately set aside….) Given that most of these ‘privileged’ writers are probably men, and likely have more ‘traditional’ interests (e.g. Heidegger, Kant, Hegel), doesn’t this again potentially disadvantage female (and other minority) candidates, especially those with interests in non-traditional fields? For instance, at least in my undergrad program, women interested in feminism tended to gravitate toward (and develop the closest working relationships with) female feminist faculty members who were also relatively new (assistant professors) and less well-known in the discipline… Women in such a situation would either be getting ‘less powerful’ letters, or might have to decide to ask for letters from better known faculty members who nevertheless may not know them very well and thus be less willing to vouch for them…
    4. (Outright) sexual harassment and discrimination seem to be a much more significant problem for women than for men (within the discipline). For instance, I cannot think of any case I’ve ever heard of where a male student has been warned against applying to or enrolling in certain programs because he might face sexual harassment from the professor with whom he has the most in common with (academically). And yet the opposite certainly happens… And even if students aren’t personally forewarned of certain possibilities, what about what they themselves might read or hear? For instance, given that Brian Leiter and others have made public part of the “Penn State” story, what effect might this have on women considering graduate school in the discipline? Specifically, how might it make prospective applicants feel to know that one of the best continental philosophy programs supposedly (and I emphasize ‘supposedly’ since I am most worried about how these sorts of stories, even if they are ultimately unfounded, might make prospective applicants feel) collapsed at least in part over allegations concerning the sexual harassment of graduate students by senior faculty members? (See http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2007/03/what_happened_t.html and http://www.kemplog.com/2006/04/27/legal-issue-but-not-local/)

  20. Archimeda, good to read your reflective post. I hope you are surrounded with helpful, truth-telling people. Certainly there are some attractive departments to work in… but for myself I was very naive on the job market and was lured by promises of gingerbread houses at the end (tenure-track jobs) by neglectful grandmothers and grandfathers.

  21. I do some rather hard-core analytic philosophy, and find the atmosphere somewhat worse than it was when I was an undergrad majoring in physics and minoring in math. The biggest problem I face is subtle social sexism from the males around my own level (i.e. other grads and young profs). In a very real sense, these people have something to gain by my not doing as well, since if I fare more poorly, say, on the job market, then they are in some direct sense faring better. Having a bunch of young guys who are willing to, half-consciously, indulge in sexist social power dynamics, and having them also constitute at least 80% of my colleagues, means they can implicitly but jointly agree to just ignore me. I have said things, at conferences and in seminars, that were good points and utterly ignored. Not ten minutes later, a male will raise his hand and say almost precisely the same thing, but now others listen and think it a good point.

    Upshot: there will not be an improvement regarding sexism in philosophy until lots of people recognize that it is not just the older males who were raised in a more biased environment who perpetuate it. The current younger generation of philosophers are developing these habits, also, because that just eliminates a few more people from competition for jobs. We need to explicitly call them on this.

  22. Thanks for all these excellent points. Anon– Interesting point about potential bad effects of junior women mentoring other even more junior women– that hadn’t occurred to me, and it seems right. Hard to know what to do about it though. (Try to make sure the junior women become senior and respected! If only that were easy.) Also important points about harassment. And Sylvie– I think it really is incredibly important to start making everyone (including women) aware of their own likely unconscious biases, and of how perfectly well-intentioned behaviour can have really bad effects. I sometimes wonder if a less judgmental vocabulary– in terms of ‘unconscious biases’ rather than ‘sexism’ could be helpful here. People are very unwilling to admit to sexism but far more willing to admit that they may have unconscious biases. It also seems potentially less misleading. Although ‘sexism’ *can* refer to extremely unconscious, well-intentioned behaviour by people who are deeply committed to feminism, this isn’t what leaps to mind. And we need to tackle this unconscious stuff. For example, the ignoring what women say phenomenon is something that Valian discusses– and it’s something both men and women do, and even those who are committed to fighting sexism. (At least that’s the way I remember Valian.) We need to get people realising that pretty much *everyone* does this stuff, I think.

  23. A few remarks in response to calypso9999…
    I think that the matter of representation with regard to disabled philosophers is in some ways parallel to representation of lesbian, gay, transgendered philosophers. One’s sexuality, sexual orientation or gender orientation is not usually or not always self-evident from one’s c.v. However, what one works on *can be* an indicator. Indeed, all of the disabled philosophers I know work on philosophical topics surrounding disability, though an increasing number of non-disabled philosophers also work on these topics. Though there are exceptions, I think that the majority of philosophers who are “out” about being disabled (in ways that parallel philosophers who are “out” about their sexual orientation or gender) *want* to provide representation, want to open up institutional spaces in the discipline for other disabled philosophers, to open up discursive spaces for conceptual and analytical work on disability. There are of course many reasons why a student/job candidate/employed philosopher might not want to be candid about disability: stigma, uninformed public perceptions, delegitimization, and so on. Those of us who work on disability are trying to subvert these barriers, not just in philosophy but across society in general.

    With respect to affirmative action… I should say, first of all, that I think relatively few people in philosophy (including few feminists) genuinely associate affirmative action with any identity or group other than gender/women (philosophers). While I can certainly empathize with the desire to believe that one’s work and merit are valued, and can relate to why one might be offended if told that she was really only an affirmative action hire, filling a quota, and so on, I think this is the wrong response to such a situation, and one that feminists and our allies should refuse and transform. Taking offense at the remark not only seems to lend credibility to it; that response, I would argue, also supports the myth that the discipline of philosophy is a meritocracy, that jobs are rewarded to those most qualified, those who do the best work, who have the most interesting and important things to say, and so on. We KNOW that this is not the case. Some (maybe many) jobs are rewarded for highly arbitrary and less than honourable or equitable reasons including: one’s gender, the candidate’s work isn’t threatening to anyone on the search committee, the candidate is the student of a committee member’s friend, the candidate’s work doesn’t threaten the status quo, the candidate did a degree at the alma mater of the committee chair, and so on. Furthermore, the notion of “merit” relies upon a host of assumptions that we should probably try to circumvent: elitist notions of desert, hierarchy, exclusiveness, and exclusion.

  24. Sylvie raises a really good point: sexist attitudes are alive and well among the younger generation, and it can be incredibly discouraging to confront them day after day. I was in grad school in the late 90’s, and several of the older male students started what they “jokingly” referred to as a “men’s only club.” They would play poker, talk philosophy, whatever. Once in a while they would invite a woman to attend if she was single and attractive. In my dept. now, I’m the only woman, and I was explicitly told by several people that I was hired for affirmative action reasons. The men here also get together for poker and watching sports, and they invite only other men along, sometimes right in front of me. I feel very alienated much of the time.

  25. Amy– that’s really appalling. (And fits well with the “Totally Blatant Sexism” discussion earlier.) I didn’t mean to underplay the blatant side of sexism by discussing unconscious biases. Sorry if I gave that impression! And *really* sorry about the sexism that you, Sylvie, and all the others writing in have experienced. As well as the prejudices Shelley has called our attention to.

  26. Thanks, Jender! I didn’t think you were downplaying blatant sexism at all; I just wanted to give another example of what sylvie was talking about. But I agree that unconscious bias is incredibly important and difficult to work on. I’ve definitely noticed this phenomenon of ignoring what women have to say, and I’ve caught myself doing it, which I’m embarrassed to admit! Of course, this is a serious problem and not easy to solve, but there is one small thing I’ve seen many women do that can easily be fixed. A lot of women preface their comments with a disclaimer of some kind: “I don’t know if this is relevant to your argument, but…” or “Maybe I’ve misunderstood you, but I was thinking….” Even “In my opinion,…” is a problematic way to start a sentence. It’s much better to start with an impersonal remark: “There is a tension in the argument….” or “Here is a worry:….” And then try not to refer to yourself at all in the rest of your comments; only talk about the ideas themselves. When I started doing this, I noticed that people would pay more attention to what I was saying.

  27. I just read an article in the Guardian about the nasty reviews McGinn and Honderich give each other:


    I think this kind of thing also contributes to discouraging women from continuing in the profession. McGinn and Honderich are extreme, but I’ve received anonymous reviewers’ comments that have been nearly as nasty, and it makes me feel horrible. Why are so many philosophers so cruel to each other?

  28. I totally agree with your revulsion at this sort of behaviour. But I also wouldn’t want to romanticise the behaviour of women or of feminists in philosophy. My nastiest referee report ever was from Hypatia, and my nastiest interviewer was a feminist woman.

  29. Amy,

    I agree, of course. Actually, I think a kind of verbal nastiness permeates much of the profession. Friends outside the discipline remark on how moralistic we are, and that may be part of it.

  30. Hurray for all those people trying to change the oppressive climate of philosophy, like Sally Haslanger and others working more anonymously.

    I am posting a poem below as a commentary on the sexist men (and some sexist women) in philosophy who are not taking responsiblity for ending sexism in the discipline, and are rather making the matter of getting a philosophy job less about merit and more about passing as a “real man.” The result is a macho-tending discipline which discourages personal depth and growth, mature adulthood, and real wisdom.

    Socrates 2

    Socrates, where are you?
    Why are just sitting there
    saying nothing
    while your colleagues
    singe my eyelashes
    with their waves of anger
    Socrates, I am looking at you
    at your face, …and how it has changed!
    The lines on your face
    don’t tell of Truth, Beauty, Wisdom
    but criss-cross, criss-cross
    like on a hot-cross bun
    warrior marks of decoration—
    how easily they come off
    with a tissue!
    Where are your sisters?
    What have you done with them?
    Your face is as white as a marshmallow
    but there is something to see in it
    like in a white cloud
    some form and shape, some eyes
    Perhaps I am reading in too much
    Is your name really “Socrates”?
    The “S” seems right enough
    or is it “Sir”
    or “Sargeant”
    or “Sadman”?

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