The second snort: Philosophy, Women and the Problem

For the first snort, see here.

Some of the recent discussion on this blog has reminded me of an article from the NY Times that was so startling to me at the time that I remembered it well enough to easily retrieve it.  What was so amazing to me at the time was UMichigan’s Mel Hochster’s conversion; he came to see that there are quite pervasive mechanisms operating to exclude women. 

Some of the examples of bias will be familiar to many feminists:

Three years ago, the University of Michigan had 55 departments in the sciences and engineering, only one of them headed by a woman. Today, eight are headed by women. In that time, the university has also tripled the number of tenure track offers to women in science and engineering to 41 percent.

Mel Hochster, a mathematics professor at Michigan, belongs to a committee of senior science professors that gives workshops for heads of departments and search committees highlighting the findings of numerous studies on sex bias in hiring. For example, men are given longer letters of recommendation than women, and their letters are more focused on relevant credentials. Men and women are more likely to vote to hire a male job applicant than a woman with an identical record. Women applying for a postdoctoral fellowship had to be 2.5 times as productive to receive the same competence score as the average male applicant. When orchestras hold blind auditions, in which they cannot see the musician, 30 percent to 55 percent more women are hired.

Professor Hochster said he was not inclined to join the committee until Abigail Stewart, a professor of psychology and women’s studies who is leading Michigan’s effort, made a presentation on sex bias to his department.

“I vastly underestimated the problem,” Professor Hochster said. “People tend to think that if there’s a problem, it’s with a few old-fashioned people with old-fashioned ideas. That’s not true. Everybody has unconscious gender bias. It shows up in every study.”

In the last three years, the mathematics department, regarded as one of the best in the country, has hired two women with tenure and promoted one associate professor to tenure, Professor Hochster said, bringing the number of tenured women to 6, out of a total of 64 tenured and tenure-track professors. Two more women are on a tenure track.

Some universities have put pressure on their search committees to broaden their pools of qualified candidates, especially when it comes to graduate students who could apply for junior faculty positions.

Another range of problems concerns  the network of information and the buddy system for getting work into the public arena:

Some universities have also taken note of the disadvantage that women face in negotiating salaries, laboratory space and money for research, as well as the importance of building a reputation by publishing in high-profile academic journals and getting invitations to speak at prestigious conferences. Men have naturally picked up such crucial information, as well as speaking invitations, from male colleagues and mentors because of their greater numbers and influence. For example, Columbia University is now bringing in retired senior academics to coach women on its faculty in such areas.

And there’s the problem of women the undervalued outsiders:

After reading in a newspaper that a biotech company was awarding grants to M.I.T. scientists, she asked a colleague if he knew how to apply for the money, she said. He told her he knew nothing about the grant, she said, though she later learned that he was urging another man in their department to apply for the money.

Professor Hopkins said she then went to her dean, who submitted her application to the company, asking for $30,000, The company gave her $8 million, which allowed her to expand her cancer research and led to the discovery of a pair of cancer genes.

 Solutions?  The article discusses a number, including very active recruiting at just about all levels.  But completely crucial is that we all become away of our implicit biases and what they are producing.  As I’ve probably mentioned elsewhere, I failed the implicit bias test on women in science, or, more accurately, I showed a significant bias against women.  Grandads, uncles, brothers and calculus?  Fine.  Grandma, aunts, sisters and calculus?  Clang.*!*#!  With that knowledge, it becomes much easier to make decisions based on actual merits.  (Actually, it was pretty evidence to me before the test that I had the bias; people who need to think about taking such tests are those who implausibly think they haven’t internalized the standards of the society around them.)

Who wonders how Michigan’s philosophy department is doing?  Hmmmm.

Abortion: whose debate?

There are probably too many thoughts for one post here, but here goes.

Following on from the discussion about women bloggers (see here here and here), liberal conspiracy brings us this post, which is full of interesting points. In particular, the author makes some observations about the fact that strategies for tackling domestic violence, and provision of services for survivors of domestic violence, are woefully low (if at all) on the list of local council priorities:

  • ‘In terms of the numbers of councils choosing it as a priority, domestic violence services are somewhere on a par with tackling litter, graffiti and fly tipping.’

Also observed is the shocking fact that

  • ‘rape doesn’t appear to be included in targets for tackling serious violent crime (go figure???), and while I found the target I’m still looking for a council, any council, that’s put rape support services up as priority any time in the next three years.’

How does this relate to the abortion debate? Bear with me, I’m getting there…

The author insightfully writes that one of the contributing factors to these distorted local council priorities is that such matters are usually dicated by knee jerk reactions to media attention and public opinion , and that the issue of violence against women just doesn’t get the coverage or the public outrage that would push it up the agenda. Thus the author calls on women and feminist bloggers to do more in raising the profile of such issues:

  • ‘Okay, so this is, and should be, a two-way street in which male bloggers should have no qualms about flagging up news items that are, perhaps likely to be more of interest to female bloggers but, to some extent, I think there’s some justification for the rest of us to look to the feminist sector and say ‘well, how about it?’ simply in recognition of the fact that people are naturally inclined, in following their interests, to pick up on stories that the rest of us might well miss’

In particular, (and I’m getting to the point now!) he prompts writers to start something up with the amendments to the abortion act on the table and up for debate (see here for more details), and writes, addressing feminist bloggers:

  • ‘the lead on this has to come from women and from the feminist sector – this is the point in this debate where women need to take centre stage, not just because its the right thing to do but because we’re at the point at which the key reference points for the debate lies on ground that women, and feminists in particular, are likely to be most comfortable and most effective… on the issue of supporting the liberalising amendments that are shortly to put to parliament, this is unequivocally your show.’

Ok, so here’s my concerns:

Of course, it is right that whether, and when, and how easily women have access to abortion are issues that need to be considered in light of the impact of pregnancy and potential parenthood on women’s lives. And in this respect, right on, women’s experiences and voices in the debate need to be attended to, and heeded.


First, that women and feminist bloggers have had trouble getting their posts and blogs noticed has been mentioned (and experiences on this are still coming in). So the assurance that this is the ground in which feminists and women can be more effective is unclear; this will only be so if their lead is, in fact, taken up.

Second, whilst pregnancy and abortion has obvious and significant impacts on women’s lives, this doesn’t mean that it is an issue that *only* concerns the interests of women. Having an unwanted pregnancy is often the property of *a partner*, and unwanted pregnancies yield children with *fathers*. Perhaps male bloggers who are pro-choice can think a bit about how women’s lack of access to abortion might impact on their lives too, and give voice to that.

Third, and this plugs in to the previous point about flagging attention to violence against women; feminist issues are not just issues of interest to women! Stopping rape, stopping violence against women, stopping enforced pregnancies because women can’t get access to abortion within the prescribed time limit… all of this should be of interest to men as well as women.

Indeed, the author, unity, shows his sensitive eye for catching feminist issues (see top of this post). It has been asked how men might engage with feminist blogs. Here’s some advice for left liberal male bloggers: Notice that feminist issues are your issues too, and start blogging and campaigning on them!

 Final note: LC piece links this pro-choice site. worth flagging up!