Philosophy’s sexism and the Pacific APA

The women are  counting.  We came out of sessions packed with white men invited to speak on topics on which women have a lot to say.  We noticed edited publications which – no surprise here – had a much smaller proportion of women than are actually in the field, even the specific field.  We discussed how many very bright women are at institutions that don’t match their considerable  merits.

The program as a whole merits more attention, though, than I’ve yet been able to give it.  There may have been more women on it than has been usual; there were certainly many more than there would have been 20 years ago.

So have things changed for women in philosophy?  As one wise woman noted, many young women today in fine graduate schools may have a sense of entitlement that simply was not there until recently.  But she had noticed, as others have, that though the realization that there can be very talented women in philosophy appears to have been embraced, it pretty much only applies to young women, not us middle-agers.  I had thought this was one of those quirky failures to generalize.  That is, if the word went out in 1990 that women could do philosophy, the guys mistakenly thought this was about women graduating in 1990 and afterwards.  But she had the better explanation:  We don’t count because we’re not sexy. 

So we’ll see.  It’s been a cliche in the sciences that many young women think they have an equal chance until they get to tenure.  Then reality sets in, possibly along with one’s getting to “a certain age.”  In later discussions at  the APA, women pointed out that so much philosophy is done in liberal arts colleges, and the brightest women may survive happily there, even if research institutions consume the young.

 So:  Interesting hypotheses; it’s a bit like watching the lions and the Christians.  We should do more than hope that young  women have better odds for developing nationally recognized careers than earlier generations of women have had.  Let’s take some action, at least to the point of mentoring where we can.

Readers of this post might find the fuller description of the APA given here interesting.  Thanks, Sharon, for the reference to the Sunday Cats.

12 thoughts on “Philosophy’s sexism and the Pacific APA

  1. Another conference announcement in my inbox, on a topic of concern to women, and about which female philosophers have written (see an edited collection by Margaret Walker on women and aging, and a book by Christine Overall on death that talks quite a bit about women and old age.) with no women on the program. If this was a refereed conference and no women submitted papers that would be one thing but this looks like another by-invitation conference. (I didn’t check this.) This seems to be happening quite a bit lately.

    University of Essex, UK
    Wednesday 25 June – Friday 27 June


    The conference addresses the question: what is a fair distribution of important resources – for example, education, health care, and income support – between different age groups? This question is both of philosophical interest and of great political urgency given the demographic changes taking place within modern democratic states, where declining fertility rates and longer life-expectancy result in ageing populations, and new pressures on standard models of welfare provision.
    The conference papers will fall in two main areas. First, some papers will debate fundamental principles for distributing resources between different age groups. The main research questions in this area are the following. Should the state devote equal amounts of social resources to different age groups – say, on health care for the elderly and the young? Or, perhaps more plausibly, should the state devote unequal amounts of resources to different age-groups, so as to meet equally their unequal needs? The second set of papers will tackle questions of public policy from a principled point of view, including the following: What does a society owe to children with respect to educational provision? Is age-discrimination in the labour market morally defensible? How should the state support the institution of the family given the family’s role in serving the interests of children, parents and third parties? How must the state adjust education and health policy, childcare support, and labour market regulations, so as to facilitate family life?
    The conference is supported by the British Academy, the Mind Association, the Society for Applied Philosophy, and the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex.


    Richard Arneson, University of California, San Diego
    Paul Bou-Habib, University of Essex
    Harry Brighouse, University of Wisconsin-Madison
    Matthew Clayton, University of Warwick
    Norman Daniels, Harvard University
    Axel Gosseries, Université Catholique de Louvain
    Dennis McKerlie, University of Calgary
    Adam Swift, University of Oxford
    Andrew Williams, University of Warwick

    If you are interested in attending the conference, please contact Paul Bou-Habib ( for information about conference fees and booking arrangements. Places can be booked until 15 May 2008. Two graduate student bursaries, sponsored by the Analysis Trust, will be provided on a first-come-first-serve basis.

  2. This post about Philosophy and the Pacific APA seemed quite ageist to me, so I thought it was pretty ironic that Samantha posted an announcement for a conference on justice between age groups. Many women start or return to university/graduate school/early careers as faculty after raising a family, after being employed in another occupation or field, after becoming disabled, and so on. The focus on “young women” (as graduate students) and the juxtaposition with “middle-agers” (as jaded faculty) in this post renders these women insignificant, if not nonexistent, and reinforces the obstacles they confront. This post is not the exception, however. I have heard or read more than one feminist philosopher (1) encourage “young” women graduate students to apply to her department, (2) encourage “young” women to apply for the position her department has advertised, (3) encourage “young” women (and men) to attend a summer institute, and so on. What counts as “young” in these contexts? 20? 21? 25? 35?? And with respect to (2), how many departments are finding ways to get around laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of age? What are these ways? Let’s start a discussion about that, which for the reasons I cite above (and surely there are others) should be regarded as very much a feminist concern. If we are going to talk about making philosophy more welcoming and accessible to women, let’s make it that way for women of all ages, not to mention women of all genders, sexualities, women of colour, disabled women, working-class women, and so on.

  3. Some “young” (meaning more recently hired) women, join the men in departments, thinking of the “older” (meaning senior) women as less than, and simply dream about the day the senior women will retire, never seeing that they will take the place of the departing women in the overall scheme of things.

  4. Shelley has a point. There are a variety of reasons that women may not be on the “standard” professional track and so their age may have little to do with where they are professionally (as Anonymous points out), but to be fair, I think that some of the emphasis on “young” women philosophers had to do with the stunning realization that women coming out of graduate school today are facing pretty much the same sorts of departments and profession that women coming out of graduate school 20 years ago faced. There are only slightly more women in the profession now and apparently not enough to radically change the dynamics in the profession. But the general marginalization of women is the most basic concern I think and this is what we see in the conferences and publications that ignore or actively “disappear” women. Also, let’s watch out for dividing ourselves and this goes for all subgroups withing the ranks of women who might think that that those women who they identify with more closely are somehow immune from this marginalization. The post by anonymous speaks to this issue and the danger of the sexy/non-sexy dichotomy which evokes stereotypical women-in-competition-with-each-other responses is also a worry.

  5. Do you have any advice for young women in philosophy on how to deal with this problem? I don’t want to see my awesome female professors sold short, and I don’t especially want to be judged by my sexiness either.

    Also, how do we detect when this is what’s going on?

  6. I asked if much had changed in philosophy. I heard of one sort of change, and it concerned young women at elite places. The actual facts I heard are staggering – e.g., one woman got 40 interview requests.

    I’m concerned that somehow this fact and its implications for the profession are just getting dismissed here. I think that the conjectured reason why the recognition that women can do philosophy is extended only to certain young women is extremely serious and affects all the rest of us. I certainly don’t think that we are jaded, and I’m puzzled that anyone might think the contrast between young and middle-aged would be view as somehow favoring the young, given any feminist interpretation of the difference I described.

    In fact I do think that such women will need mentoring and I stressed this because I think if one thinks through the problem, there are some unpleasant facts shoring up their sense of entitlement.

  7. On the other hand we could really get into a discussion if we started to discuss older men’s homoerotic attraction to younger men seen as sexy and handsome etc. There’s another story to be told there about young men being desired for the masculinity that older men fear they are losing. Or whatever it is that’s the weird phenomenon going on when the older senior profs want to prove how macho they are by (fill in the blank here) playing handball or tennis or badminton or swimming matches or marathons or beer-drinking or pool or darts or whatever sort of fests they get up to. I’m not making any of this up either. I’ve seen it happen with all the above, where no women (sexy or not, young or not) would be able to follow.

  8. PS I haven’t the foggiest idea of why or how Shelley the self-appointed conscience of all feminist discussion boards could possibly have seen the post above as ageist given that it was pointing out how ‘older’ women are virtually invisible in the profession no matter what their abilities or achievements. Get a grip girl.

  9. Calypso, Exactly right, I think. And one of the tragic facts is that the fixation point for these sexual fantasies is transient, Which means that one’s place in the guy’s attention can be lost by factors which hae absolutely nothing to do with academic merit, though they may well seem to. E.g, I know of at least one case of a woman treated as a potential mega-star until she got pregnant. Then she was dropped totally, completely.

  10. Let’s all try to keep our tone friendly here. We’re all on the same side, even if sometimes we make mistakes (including sometimes mistakes of interpretation).

  11. I’m sorry for my grumpy tone but sometimes it seems as if people are trying to find fault with other people for very nitpicky reasons when the point actually is the very same point the initial person was trying to make, and this seems to me very counter-productive. It’s as if no one dares to speak without being run over by the local thought police. And the fear of thought police will keep people like myself away from this blog just as much as the occasional snappish tone will. But no one is ever willing to take on the resident thought police.

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