Thick Concepts are For Boys

Or so it seems judging from this conference’s speakers. From the description:

The principal aim of this conference is to bring together a number of philosophers so that they can both pursue some of the familiar debates, and raise and discuss new questions and ideas. It is envisaged that the discussions will be of interest to moral philosophers, aestheticians, epistemologists, metaphysicians, and philosophers of language amongst others.

But not to women.

35 thoughts on “Thick Concepts are For Boys

  1. Wouldn’t it be fun to send along a giant inflated plastic dinosaur.

    Except I’m heartsick.

  2. Are you saying they should’ve specifically mentioned ‘women’ in the list? Maybe women are assumed to be included in that list?

  3. We’re saying that there are a lot of speakers, and none of them are women.

  4. can we take a new approach this time? anyone who can think of a woman philosopher who works on thick concepts, can you list her (their) name (names) in comments? let’s make a list that anyone who likes could look at, in case anyone worries that maybe no women work on this topic. yes? (someone tell me if it’s a bad idea. it seems good; but i might not’ve thought of a problem…)

  5. Hmmm, given that thick concepts basically provide the stock for moral philosophy’s soup–you know, the field with a higher concentration of women philosophers than most other fields–you might think this would be a slam-dunk for a gender balance. Hell, I could probably yell down the hall and find at least two women who address the relevant issues. So, WTF gives? Has the UK decided to reassert its status as the premiere philosophy boys’ club?

  6. I’ve written to the conference organisers, using a slightly different approach from the past. Some will find this too non-confrontational, but it’s the one that feels right to me and I’d like to try it out. Here’s what I wrote:


    I’m one of the bloggers at Feminist Philosophers. We’ve got something of a campaign going with respect to conference that have only male speakers, of which yours is one. We’re trying to spread awareness of the harm that this does, by perpetuating the invisibility of women in philosophy and thereby feeding the implicit biases that make it more difficult for women to be taken seriously as philosophers (or to take themselves seriously). We’re writing to those who hold all-male conferences for two reasons:

    (1) To urge you to think seriously about trying to include women in the future.

    (2) To invite you to come join in our discussion of these issues. (Our post on your conference can be found here: We’d like to know how it is that you came to have an all-male collection of speakers. We want to bring it about that there aren’t all-male conferences, but to do that we need a better understanding of how they come to be. You should know, by the way, that it’s perfectly OK to tell us “Oops, we screwed up– I didn’t even notice that.” As I note in one of my comments in a previous discussion of these issues, I did that once myself.

    If you want to know more about implicit bias, you might look at some of the posts we’ve done:

    Best wishes and hope to hear from you soon,


  7. I like it. I think it’s *appropriately* non-confrontational, and leaves room open for all the sorts of muddled and human explanations that we know must be part of the story.

  8. I also like it. Apart from anything else, it seems to me that putting people’s backs up is never the right way to get things done.

  9. I think Jender’s non-confrontational style is spot on. One thing to remember when we’re calling these things out is that there are many forces at work. Conference organisers are often seeking to invite the big names, the stars, the most visible philosophers in the area, etc. And of course, it’s more likely that those will be men than women – that’s part of the problem! But the conference organisers might not be at all to blame for *that* fact – no more so than anyone else in the profession, at least. Of course, it’s a vicious cycle, since not being invited to speak decreases your visibility, etc. But the blame for having an all male lineup might not always – or even often – lie solely with the conference organisers, and I think it’s a good thing to avoid implications to the contrary while doing the important job of drawing attention to these facts.

  10. Many thanks for your support, but I don’t want this to turn into a discussion about the *right* way to write these letters. I think a case can be made for much more confrontational styles as well, as others here have done.

  11. Jender, I think it’s a terrific letter, and I hope it helps us find out how that line up occurred. I do think a number of the speakers are pretty junior, so it probably isn’t just that they wanted highly visible stars.

    I agree that we don’t need a discussion right here of what’s the right thing to do.

    I think part of the reason for disagreements has to do with different ideas about the likely causes, and perhaps also different ideas about the effectiveness of strategies. If that’s so, we’re probably not going to converge on much without more input.

  12. Re 5 & elp, one way to come up with names is to look at the Phil Index and/or a good search engine. It turns out, however, that “thick concepts” calls up few articles either way. The problem with googling is that it can turn up tons of stuff by the men. I’ve sometimes started by adding “feminist” in the search, since then one gets at least some articles by women and they cite other women.

    Interesting, google seems to think that the hottest entry here is Feministphilosophers! Another early entry, I was surprised to see, was myself! All very gratifying.

    However, here are some ideas: There are lots of women doing virtue ethics and a lot of them think about thick concepts, in part because of Rosalind Hursthouse’s work. She is right now hard to get, but she’s a wonderful source for names of women to invite.

    Specific names: Elizabeth Anderson, Jackie Taylor, Catherine Elgin, Julia Driver, Alice Crary.

    My fairly quick whip around some of the literature did reveal a review of a book by Crary, who is something of a Wittgensteinian, by someone quite closely connected to the conference. Skimming through it, it seemed to me that he found it light on analytic rigor in its presentation. I find that sort of judgment really problematic, for reasons probably too complicated to go into now, except to say that some of the very best male philosophers are not models of rigor, including Williams, who started the field off.

  13. Hi Jender and all,

    Thanks for the comments.

    So, for the record:

    (i) I’m the sole conference organiser.
    (ii) I certainly try very hard in my teaching and research not to discriminate on grounds of gender, race, age, etc.

    Ross’s comments are part of the issue here. (Hi Ross!) I was trying to invite big names in the field, and many of them are men. I did invite three female speakers (no names), but they all declined. I did apply for a lot more grant money than I got in the end, so the number of places were limited anyway. I do have some open sessions and had a large number of submissions. Most of these were from men. There are some female speakers in there. No one was chosen on the basis of gender (or country, or….). People were chosen just on the ideas and writing. Hardly any women submitted. The proportion of female speakers is slightly greater than the proportion who submitted.
    I am hoping to hook up with a publisher for conference proceedings. I suspect that there will be spaces for papers in that. I will try hard – not because of this blog, just because of the people I have in mind – to get some female writers in.

    So, the conference is far from perfect, both in terms of gender, and also in racial mix. But I did give it a go.

    As to the Crary review on NDPR…well, if you read it, you’ll see that I liked the book. (See the opening and closing pargraphs.) What criticism of it that I had was not because it lacked academic rigour; or at least saying only that distorts my criticism of it. (You won’t find any bigger fan of Williams than me; but then I think he is as rigorous as he needs to be.) My main worry with Crary’s book was that she did not give enough of a sense of who the opposition was and what she means by a moral concept. (I’m not the only one to have made these comments.) I still stand by my overall comments, though, that it is a decent book which deserves a wide readership.

    I would like to follow up any comment on this blog but, to be frank, I’m swamped with Univ work with exams and the like. Sorry, but you might not hear from me again.

    Best wishes,


  14. Thanks for stopping by, Simon! It’s good to know that you did invite some female speakers. I wonder if female speakers decline invitations at a higher rate than male speakers– it wouldn’t be that unlikely, given common allocations of childcare. Interesting also to know about the low rate of female paper submission– perhaps worth thinking about how to reach women with the CFP. Thanks for raising the race issue also– the number of all-white philosophy conferences is surely far higher than the number of all male conferences. And I know what you mean about being swamped– it’s a crazy time of year for UK academics. (Enough blogging– back to the marking!)

  15. Hi Jender and all

    [I posted once and it didn’t work. Apologies if this appears twice.]

    Thanks for your comments. For the record:

    (i) I am the sole conference organiser; and
    (ii) I try as hard as I can not to discriminate on grounds of gender (and race, age, etc.) in my teaching and research activities.

    Ross’s comments are pretty close here. (Hi Ross!) I was looking to invite some big name speakers and many of them in this field are men. I did invite three women to speak (some before the men who accepted), but all declined for different reasons. As it happens, I didn’t get as much grant money as I was hoping for, so there were not as many places for speakers as I wanted at the start, particularly international speakers. There are some open sessions at the conference: two sets of five sessions. I had many submissions, most were from men. There are four women speaking. The proportion of women speaking is higher than the proportion who submitted. Incidentally, a significant number (can’t remember of the top of my head) are graduate students. No one was selected on the basis of gender (or nationality, or grad status, etc.) All were selected purely on the basis of ideas and writing.
    I am hoping to hook up with a publisher for conference proceedings. I suspect that there might be two or three spaces. The people I have always been inclined to approach to fill these slots are women, not because of their gender but because of the particular writers they are.

    That review of Crary on NDPR. Hmmm. I like the book! Read the opening and closing sentiments. I did criticize it – hell, it’s a philosophy review! – but saying that I criticized it because it lacks academic rigour distorts my comments. (You won’t find any bigger fan than me of Williams; although it is not that he was not rigorous, he was as rigorous as he needed to be.) And note at one point (I recall) I say that I am not immune to the charms of her style of writing. (Give me that over “nth point premises” any day.) My main worry is that she insufficiently articulates who her target is and what a moral concept is, such that she might be attacking a straw man. And, importantly, this detracts from the important points she makes which are good ones. i’m not teh only one to have made these comments; Chris Grau did so in an APA session on the book. (I know because he emailed me; we’re two of only a handful to have reviewed it.) I stand by my comments of the book: it should get a wide readership.

    Last point, then I’ll go. I’m afraid that I’m swamped with Univ work at present, with exams and the like, so I’m unlikely to respond to the blog for a while, if at all. Sorry about that.

    With best wishes,


  16. Well, you wait for a blog post from the organiser, and then two (now three) come along at once. If there are any contradictions between the two, forgive me. I’ve been up early, and am looking forward to a late night.

    Take care, S

  17. simon, just wanted to add my thanks for contributing to the discussion. having a dialog about these conferences with the people who know the details of how they’ve come about will prove, i think, highly useful.

    i wonder about something you say in your comment, tho, about trying hard not to pick people based on gender. my partner (who is male, and an academic) told me recently that his first impulse–as someone committed to avoiding discrimination–is to try as hard as possible not to take gender into account when choosing contributors to anthologies, conferences, and so on. on reflection (and after hearing about/reading the conference-related posts on this blog) he thinks now that there’s legitimate reason to take gender into account; that the dire need of the field to include women is a legitimate one, and that it’s legitimate, therefore, to let that enter into his decision-making, when it comes to planning conferences, anthologies, etc. in other words, that it’s okay to think ‘i should especially invite this person, because she’s good *and she’s a woman*, and we need more women involved.’ to his mind (he tells me), he’s probably liable to to be biased towards the men when he’s trying to be neutral (because we all probably are), so it’s okay to try to consciously act to balance that.

    i know you’ve said you’re swamped, so i understand that you don’t have time to reply. i just thought i’d throw that out there as something to chew on.

    thanks again!

  18. jender: someone needs to start up a push to have creches at conferences. and babysitting pools in departments to help out when mum goes away to a conference. (definitely the latter!)(and make it such that one could also use the pool for eurovision night.)

  19. Simon, Thanks for coming; I meant to indicate in talking about skimming through the review that my ‘account’ of it was very hesitant, but the rhetoric didn’t follow on through the whole comment.

    I’m reminded after reading Simon’s comment of all the recent pamphlets on how to hire women which talk often first about how to find them. I realized of course that they suppose the hiring women is a goal.

    This isn’t really about Simon, but let me say for the record that he says that not discriminating is a goal of his, but I think from what he says that having a diverse conference is not.

    Whether or not one should aim for a representation of women in a conference is one issue, then. And beneath this, of course, there are lots of sub-issues: Some people will want to maintain having women/diversity is necessary for enriching the quality of professional work, others will argue aganst that; some people think that diversity should be an issue in expenditures of public money, others will disagree.

    One thing that has happened in the states is that a number of professional bodies – particularly governmental ones – are insisting on diversity. I think that makes quite a difference.

    I think one of the most difficult things about changing practices in a profession is that one often has to motivate people to change the practices.** Given the fact that women’s presence is the profession is scarcely changing, and given how much all-male conferences and books reinforce factors that keep women’s representation low, we probably should think about this.

    **This is simplistic, of course. Some people get motivated, but don’t know how – hence, the booklets. Others are motivated, but not so much that they’ll put a lot of effort into it. And so on and so forth.

  20. elp, I finished my comment without seeing yours, but they do converge.

    There’s a problem at least here in the states with baby sitting and conferences. I think we’ve discussed it before, and I think someone said that in some larger cities there are professional groups that help out. However, legalities and liabilities are pretty imposing problems.

  21. jj, yes i’m sure it wouldn’t be a simple thing to organize. but it seems like it ought to be possible *somehow*. (ought in the sense of ‘should’. she says, pounding fist on table.)

    in britian, babysitters/childminders register with the state and are monitored by an assessment body, much as a nursery worker would be. so, there isn’t as much of a problem–it would largely just be a matter of gathering names of registered childminders who would like to have an ongoing relationship with a department. but i know that’s not the case in the us. tho, am i right that in the us it’s common to have a nursery/preschool affiliated with the university? i wonder, if childminding was done under the umbrella, as it were, of the existing university nursery, if that would smooth some of the problems with liabilities. so, i wonder could getting university nurseries more directly integrated into the academic goings-on of the university… not for conference creches, of course. i have no good suggestions on that front. but for being available to fill gaps at the home university when mum goes away to a conference. hmm. i can’t help but think ‘we’re a clever bunch; we should be able to think of a plan!’

  22. Another point about deliberately seeking women, at least in the case of submitted papers: it’s not possible if one does anonymous refereeing, which I have frequently advocated as a way of avoiding implicit bias.

  23. anonymous refereeing would be another way to seek to counter the effects, for sure. (and probably it’s the superior way.) but if that’s not the way you’re picking people–and it seems like, for most of these conferences it’s not–then i think it’s at least worth thinking about whether justice is truly served by trying to ignore gender. i don’t know whether it’s right to specifically pick women or not; but i do think it’s important to recognise that fairness might not be as simple as simply thinking about each person individually.

  24. Yes, that’s surely right. If one isn’t refereeing or inviting anonymously (and invitations can’t really be anonymous), the evidence is very clear that simply trying not to be biased is not enough. Then the question is what else to do– I seem to recall Banaji (who’s responsible for much of the implicit bias data) talking about one of the solutions JJ proposed: getting a full listing of all the people in the field and going through it slowly in order to overcome the fact that the people who leap to mind are likely to be of whatever the majority group is in the field. But yes, a very direct approach is to simply look for women and minorities. I think Banaji and Co actually argue somewhere that implicit bias gives a new justification for affirmative action: we need lots of prominent positive exemplars of unrepresentative groups in order to help fight implicit biases. So implicit bias can help to justify seeking out women *both* as a a way of overcoming one’s own biases, and as a way of combatting the biases out there in the broader world.

  25. Much to my regret, I attended the Pacific APA in Vancouver last month. The session on Feminist Philosophy of Language was the most inaccessible session I attended, with the sessions on Human Kinds organized by the What Sorts Network and Nancy Cartwright`s keynote close contenders. In the feminist philosophy of language session, panellists used powerpoint presentations and distributed pages of quotations, none of which were read verbatim or even adequately described. Blind philosophers and philosophers with low vision would have been almost entirely excluded from the discussion.

    How many philosophy conference organizers take accessibility for disabled philosophers into account? Rhetorical question; in fact, I cannot recall when I last saw an announcement for a (feminist) philosophy conference that indicated what, if any, measures the organizers were taking to ensure the involvement (even as audience members, not just speakers) of disabled (feminist) philosophers. While your efforts to ensure the participation of women in philosophy conferences are much appreciated, I would have liked to read some recognition of the fact that disabled philosophers are excluded from virtually every philosophy conference in formal and informal ways, through structural and discursive means.

  26. Before we move on, I’d like also to put in question the contrast between trying to invite women and trying to invite very good speakers, if we understand each properly – e.g., understand the the recommendation isn’t just any female, that our standards of excellence are shaped by all sorts of social factors and applied with all sorts of background biases, that the sort of uniformity the field may be tending toward is hardly a sign of fresh thought, etc. then I think the idea that one should include women can quite easily be seen to be a recommendation in accord with genuine excellence.

  27. Just to follow on for a second, I hope that’s what Obama has realized when he’s recommended action in STEM to get diversity. It is certainly NOT what his critics have seen.

  28. Shelley,

    Thank you for raising these points. You’re absolutely right that such issues are neglected. I don’t think most of us have been taught anything at all about how to make our presentations accessible to those with limited vision. I try to use large fonts and to avoid black/white contrasts on my slides, but that’s probably not enough. I know that I will put complicated definitions, etc on a handout so that people can refer back to them. But that’s not going to help someone who can’t see the handout. Which hadn’t occurred to me, I’m ashamed to say, until I read your comment.

  29. I think the leadership of philosophical associations that organize conferences (and philosophy conference organizers in general) have obligations with respect to social justice, recognition, equal opportunity, and inclusion to institute policies and provide guidelines which will ensure (or at least permit, rather than prevent) the involvement of disabled philosophers in their events, regardless of what any one presenter at a conference knows or doesn’t know about accessibility.

Comments are closed.