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.

11 thoughts on “The second snort: Philosophy, Women and the Problem

  1. A group of philosophers has put together a wiki to collect some of the research and other resources that was originally identified by the ADVANCE team at UM, headed by Abby Stewart, including a bibliography on evaluation bias. Here is the URL:
    https://wikis.mit.edu/confluence/display/philequity/Equity+in+Philosophy+-+Home.
    Note that because it is a wiki, you can add stuff to it.
    Also check out the ADVANCE website, which includes lots of great stuff:
    http://sitemaker.umich.edu/advance/home
    If you have trouble finding the articles included in the evaluation bias bibliography, report that here in the comments and I’ll try to find a way to post them without obviously violating copyright.

  2. sally, thanks so much for this important information. I was looking recently at the UMich advance websites handbook for equitable hiring (not its title). I was struck by the way it appears to assume there’s a search committee that has or at least can agree that diversity is one of its goals. (I may not have this exactly right, but that’s the gist of it.)

    I don’t have much confidence that many philosophy departments have gotten to this place. In fact, I doubt most philosophy profs are not ready to think that there could be any problem with their ability simply to perceive ‘the excellent’.

    One thing the SPP diversity committee might be particularly suited to work on is how one motivates people to consider that they’re biased or, relatedly, that diversity might be a good thing. Or – egad! – change might be desirable!

  3. With the addition of the distinguished philosopher of physics Laura Ruetsche this fall, Michigan will have 3 tenured women (and 0 junior women). 5 years ago Michigan had 1 tenured woman and 3 junior women–all of whom junior women left. I suppose this five-year shift could be interpreted as either an improvement or a decline, depending on how you weigh the various factors: there is clearly a pipeline problem, but on the other hand, having 3 senior women now is probably better than what they had five years ago in terms of value to the grad students.

  4. pilla,

    I’m wondering why you think there is a pipeline problem. There are significantly more female PhD’s than there are women hired, and philosophy in general has more people on the market than are hired.

  5. Sorry, I was actually referring to the pipeline from junior faculty to senior faculty–the tenure pipeline. I was thinking that there can be leaks at any part of the pipeline, from undergrad majors to senior faculty, and that Michigan’s inability to turn three junior faculty into three senior faculty, or to at least replace them with more junior talent, might be interpreted as a pipeline problem. That was misleading though. I should have just said a “retention problem”.

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