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!)