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.