Women mattered in prehistoric times!

New York Review of Book, Oct. 22:  Steven Mithen, a professor of prehistory at Reading,  reviews two new books on human evolution:

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humanby Richard WranghamBasic Books, 309 pp., $26.95

 Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Languageby Dean FalkBasic Books, 240 pp., $26.95

 And the  news that we mattered comes as a  relief!  Well, I had been worried; hadn’t you?  I mean, as Steven Mithen says,

There was once a time—not too long ago—when men could wallow with pride in the Stone Age accomplishments of our sex. It was slaying beasts, making tools, and fighting each other that transformed a Stone Age primate, physically and mentally little different from a chimpanzee, into the big-brained language-using primate that strode out of Africa to dominate the world. How lucky for women that their Stone Age menfolk were so brave and clever.

BUT now we realize that a huge factor in human evolution was cooked food.  Cooked food is nutritionally much more dense, requires much less in the way of teeth and colon size, and generally was a big factor in the evolution of our brains. 

AND GUESS WHO DID THE COOKING?!?!  YES, WOMEN.  Believe it or not.

So we can now relax and know that we count too.  Of course, there’s  the nice question of why we were doing the cooking.  One book suggests that we did it in order to get  protection.  Mithen offers another hypothesis:

If cooked food has all of the nutritional benefits that Wrangham describes, then surely a motivation—perhaps the prime one—for cooking by women would have been to feed the kids. Getting them strong and healthy as quickly as possible after weaning would have been reward enough for cooking food; feeding the man in your life would have been an afterthought. But maybe I am too influenced here by my own experience of married life.

Don’t you love it when men interpret things in terms of their own experience with women?

Of course, most feminists are well aware that the official versions of our past that write out women’s contributions are pretty bizarre.  I mean, there is the giving birth/nursing stuff, even if the guys think hunting wild boar was so much harder.  Further, given all the recent work on women in evolution by people like Hrdy, one is puzzled by the excitement over recognizing a role for women.

The review is puzzling.  At times it looks very like scholarship, but at other times it looks like a feminist parody of men’s writing.   Of course, the two are compatible, especially if we understand scholarship in terms of men’s scholarship.   I’m wondering if we’re seeing another one of those cases where men try to joke about  something in which in too many men have been complicit.

Women in Philosophy: What’s Getting Left Out

This is the second of the posts I’m writing here in response to recent discussions of women in philosophy. The other is here.

It’s great to see the gender imbalance getting so much attention.  But it’s a huge shame that so little attention has been devoted to the powerful role very likely played by stereotypes and biases in perpetuating it (mentioned in the original article, but not picked up on in subsequent discussions).  Here’s a brief summary of what we know.

There’s been very little research done on the workings of bias within philosophy.  But there’s been a huge amount of research done on other male-dominated fields, and I have yet to see any convincing reason to think that philosophers would be different (more on this shortly).  One thing we do know about philosophy is that there is still explicit sex discrimination and harassment.  However, very explicit discrimination is relatively rare these days.  People rarely assert publicly that women are just crap at philosophy.  People rarely look at a range of candidates and say “she’s clearly better, but I don’t like women so let’s hire him”.  But there’s a huge body of research showing that we’d be making a big mistake to focus on just these things.  It is by now extremely well-established that human beings are prone to unconscious biases that play a significant role in how we evaluate people, how we evaluate their work, and how we interact with them.  Sometimes these effects are individually small but cumulatively they can have an enormous impact which serves to disadvantage members of certain groups such as women, racial and religious minorities and disabled people– to name just a few.  (An excellent summary of the effects on women in academia can be found in Virgina Valian’s _Why So Slow?_)

One key idea is that of a schema. Schemas are, roughly speaking, unconscious hypotheses about groups of people.  Most academics hold egalitarian explicit beliefs.  Yet we may nonetheless be influenced by unconscious schemas which are not so egalitarian in their effects. We may, for example, associate men more readily than women with competence in maths or logic; or with skill in argumentation (especially if we conflate that with aggression!). More generally, it is likely that in a male-dominated field, the schema for a member of that field may well clash with the schema for *woman*. This affects behaviour, including how members of the field (both men and women) expect women to fare, how they advise women, how they evaluate women’s work, what tasks women are assigned, etc. This has been extensively documented by Valian and others. But a few very clear examples are the following:

1. Women’s journal submissions: Research on anonymous refereeing shows pretty clearly that biases play a role in evaluating work. More women get papers accepted when anonymous refereeing is in use.

2. Women’s CVs: It is well-established that the presence of a male or female name on a CV has a strong effect on how that CV is evaluated. Moreover, this is not just true of non-academics. In fact, those academics most likely to be aware of the existence of unconscious psychological processes– psychologists– exhibit just this bias. (The following is taken from here.

In a national study, 238 academic psychologists (118 male, 120 female) evaluated a curriculum vitae randomly assigned a male or a female name. Both male and female participants gave the male applicant better evaluations for teaching, research, and service experience and were more likely to hire the male than the female applicant.

3. Women grant applicants: One study showed that women applying for a post- doctoral fellowship had to be 2.5 times more productive to receive the same reviewer rating as the average male applicant. (Wenneras and Wold 1997; similar results include NIH Pioneer Awards: Journal of Women’s Health (2005) & Nature (August 2006))

These sorts of effects, combined with the less easily quantifiable effects on behaviour discussed above, add up. Taken together, even small effects can create large disparities. The power of all of this is now coming to be widely accepted in the sciences. The MIT Gender Equity Project, for example, examined the experiences and treatment of women faculty in an effort to understand the gender imbalances at MIT. What they found was an enormous range of small inequities which cumulatively added up to serious barriers for women at MIT. Some were very easily quantifiable, such as less square footage of lab space. Others were less so, such as being left out of informal networks. The President of MIT, Charles M. Vest, concluded: “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

It would be very surprising if philosophers were not subject to the same sorts of biases as scholars in other fields. They are, after all, human beings living in the same cultural environments. I have sometimes heard it suggested that philosophers would not be subject to such biases, due to their focus on objectivity. Research has shown, however, that people systematically overestimate their own ability to be objective and– importantly– that being primed with objectivity (e.g. asked to tick a box rating one’s own objectivity) increases susceptibility to gender bias in job applicant evaluation (Uhlmann and Cohen 2006).

If philosophers are susceptible to these biases, it would be shocking if they did not have an effect on the state of the profession. Some top philosophy journals do not make use of anonymous refereeing. Very very few make articles anonymous to the editor, even though the editor often rejects a huge proportion of papers without sending them to be refereed. Job applications are never read anonymously (indeed, there’s serious question about whether this could feasibly be done). Student work is not read anonymously in the US. In the UK, undergraduate and sometimes MA work is anonymous. But PhD work never is. What does this mean? It means that there’s plenty of room for biases to play a role in evaluating work.

If biases are playing this sort of role, it would be very surprising indeed if this wasn’t contributing to gender inequity in philosophy. I think it would be wonderful if the current interest in women and philosophy led to a discussion about how to minimise the effects of these biases. But recall also that these examples are mere examples of a broader phenomenon: the powerful effects of unconscious biases on behaviour. And these include far less quantifiable behaviours as well, like who gets encouraged to do what, who gets which advice, what informal networks are formed, etc etc. So we need to think about those as well.

For more on barriers to women in philosophy, check out Sally Haslanger’s paper, this blog post by Kieran Healy, and much of the Feminist Philosophers back catalog. If you want to be part of the solution, join the Women in Philosophy Task Force.

(Many thanks to an extremely long list of people who have helped me think through these issues. Hopefully you know who you are!)

Swedes scold Toysrus for gender discrimination

According to an advertising self-regulatory agency in Sweden the company’s catalog, “discriminates based on gender and counteracts positive social behaviour, lifestyles, and attitudes”. Specifically, the committee found that the catalogue feature boys “playing in action filled environments” while girls “are shown sitting or standing in passive poses”. “Taken together, the catalogue portrays children’s games and choice of toys in a narrow-minded way, and this exclusion of boys and girls from different types of toys is, in itself, degrading to both genders.” The full story is here. (Thanks Rob.)

Mars and Venus: A Cautionary Tale and Some Questions

I’ve been given the opportunity to write a couple of posts here about recent discussions of women in philosophy, in which I’ve played a role. 

A few of us women philosophers were interviewed for The Philosophers’ Magazine, for a piece on the low numbers of women in philosophy. We talked about many things: the steady drop-off at various levels in the profession, the strong and unconscious role played by such things as gender stereotypes, and an aggressive style of philosophical discussion that we all felt was bad for philosophy in general (and not just women in philosophy). We carefully distinguished between argumentation– which we were very much in favour of, even critical argumentation– and aggression. I pointed to socialisation as the likely explanation for differences in tolerance of aggression. We saw a draft of the resulting article but only had a very brief window of opportunity for comments. I was pleased to see that all of these bits had made it in. Unfortunately, so had Simon Baron-Cohen’s suggestion that women just aren’t very good at abstraction. With the very small window of opportunity available for comments, I was very pleased to be able to get the author to note just how controversial Baron-Cohen’s claims are and to include a reference to Elizabeth Spelke’s work on the subject. I felt the resulting article was not perfect, but that it did raise some important issues.

What I didn’t reckon on– much to my regret– was the power of the Men are from Mars/Women are from Venus frame. Or how the article would look read from within that frame. Even worse, how it would look when a single quote or two were pulled out of it. (As the NY Times does here.) When that happened, the claim that women may be socialised in a way that gives them a lesser tolerance for counterproductive aggression became the claim that women are naturally unaggressive. And then a slide was made from unaggressive to not able to cope with criticism/not able to argue/weak and pathetic. And then loads of people got indignant. (For examples of the indignation, see Leiter here and the comments at the NY Times here.) I’d be indignant too about an article which argued that the reason for low numbers of women in philosophy is that we’re just not good at arguing.

That’s not of course what we said. But that Mars/Venus thing is powerful… (And so is, apparently, the conflation of argumentation with aggression.)

All this, it seems to me, raises tricky tactical issues, if you think, as I do, (1) that there are a huge range of complex reasons for women’s under-representation in philosophy; (2) that philosophical discussion is often conducted with a counterproductive level of aggression; and (3) that (2) may well be ONE (but just one) of the factors contributing to (1).  A first tactical issue is whether it’s ever a good idea to mention (2) in a discussion of women in philosophy, given people’s tendency to glom onto it and ignore all else.  This worry is heightened by the worry, noted by many Times commentators, that mentioning (2) feeds the stereotype of women as lacking the attributes needed for philosophy.  (It only does so if one wrongly conflates aggression and argumentation, but clearly many do.)  Another tactical issue is whether it’s ever a good idea to mention (2) as a woman in philosophy, regardless of the subject under discussion– because, again, doing so contributes the stereotype of women as not good at philosophy.