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!)

47 thoughts on “Women in Philosophy: What’s Getting Left Out

  1. I really appreciate this post. I think it is exactly right in suggesting that we need to put explicit focus on non-explicit gender bias. I found this to be a stumbling block in graduate school when trying to express concerns about gender bias: individuals could rightly say that there was not explicit bias, but since that was their only reference point for recognizing bias (in other words, because they weren’t made aware of the degrees of unconscious bias), they wrongly concluded that there was no bias in play. If we could focus the dialogue in the field more explicitly on unconscious bias–be explicit about what’s implicit–we could go a long way to helping people see the deeper issues. And as you say, philosophers love to think they are objective, so emphasizing our fallibility in this regard is essential.

  2. There is no doubt that unconscious biases and stereotypes have a detrimental effect on women in philosophy.

    But it is unclear exactly where they are manifesting themselves:

    1. Contrary to what you propose, some research done by one of the graduate students shows that when one looks at the top best journals in analytic philosophy, there is no correlation between the proportion of articles written by female philosophers and blind reviewing.

    2. The data published by the APA for the job market in 2006 (I believe) and the data published in Canada suggest that the proportion of female philosophers among the hired candidates is larger than the proportion of female philosophers among job applicants.

    1 suggests that *overall* there is no bias against women in the refereeing process (modulo some auxiliary assumptions), 2 that *overall* there is no bias against women in the hiring process (modulo various auxiliary assumptions too).


  3. EM, I’m a bit worried about your conclusions, though it isn’t completely clear what “overall” means. One problem is that many people think the bias varies according to subfield and quality of institution/journal. So, despite overall figures, it may be

    1. Women’s hiring is clustered is less prestigious/non-tenure track jobs in “women’s fields”.

    2. Women have to submit articles more times than men do before they are accepted and they find it more difficult to get meta/epist/phil of language past non-anon reviews.

    It’s also the case that many (most?) journals have an initial sorting out that is done by the editors who see the name of the author.

    I’m not saying (1) or (2) is true, but merely pointing out that they’re compatible with the data you cite. I think they’d also at least raise a question about bias.

  4. PS: EM, could you let us know where your figures come from. There’s been some dismay over how difficult it is to get the data.

  5. Many thanks for this. Do you by any chance have more precise references for NIH Pioneer Awards: Journal of Women’s Health (2005) and Nature (August 2006)? I’m teaching a class on science and research ethics and we’ll be discussing gender issues next week.

  6. Edouard– you may be referring to the data in Sally Haslanger’s paper, which showed Mind being esp bad for women despite having great anonymity procedures. But during that period it was also esp. heavily weighted toward areas in which women were particularly under-represented.

  7. JJ, I agree that there might be some biases in some fields, but not in others. “Overall” was meant to concede this point.

    Jender, this is an unpublished study of 10 journals (Phil Review, Phil Studies, JPhil, PPR, Nous, Mind, and a few others) by a grad student here at Pittsburgh, HPS. He contacted the journals to get estimates of the proportion of papers that are blind reviewed, and look at the ToC to estimate the proportion of papers that are written by female philosophers. It is far from being the last word, but it was striking to see that the correlation coefficient was really zero.


  8. EM, let me just note on this important topic that my scenarios aren’t meant to support what you’ve seen in them when you say “I agree that there might be some biases in some fields, but not in others.” The possibility that women are getting the less good jobs does not mean there isn’t bias even there; rather, what could be the case is that the women left after the better jobs are taken are now so high in the rankings that they can’t really be ignored any longer.

    Similarly, it might be easier for women to publish in ethics or history of philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that they can do so with the same facility as a man. One would want to know what sort of effort women are putting in, how many times they have to submit articles, and so on.

    About the journals: I’ve gone through years of some of those journals looking for people to invite to conferences and, if I am remembering correctly, the number of women publishing in the top journals is extraordinarily below the percentage of professional women philosophers. One thing this might suggest is that women have had bad enough experiences that they are self-selecting out of contributing to the journals. It may also be the case that the numbers are so small that the statistics are not significant. I’m not sure how to put the point rigorously, but this is a problem that has vexed other efforts to quantify problems with relatively small groups in an organization.

  9. Eyja, I got those references from a powerpoint presentation Sally Haslanger sent me, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to contain fuller ones. (I admit to blogging in haste.) You might write her and ask.

    Edouard– When you say “proportion of papers blind refereed” do you mean proportion of those that are received, proportion of those that are refereed at all, or proportion of those that are published in the journal? It matters a lot at what point the anonymity comes in. For example, to take an extreme case: the editor could non-anonymously make pretty much all the decisions, then as a check make sure that every paper that he’s thinking of published gets anonymously refereed. This could lead to a response of “100 percent anonymously refereed” but would clearly not be a good procedure for reducing bias.

    But I should note that I perhaps made a mistake in the post by not coming back to the larger points about the way biases influence less tangible factors like the way people interact. In fact, I think I’ll go back and put that in now.

  10. I write on behalf of women grad students in philosophy that feel (like myself) not quite socially included into the fabric of our largely male departments. The all-male (or nearly so) cohort in my program is very competitive and I’m gently excluded from their group. It is pretty awful surviving it solo.
    What practical advise can you (more seasoned women in philosophy) give us in order not to perish mentally? I’d like to find other like-minded women in philosophy, but does one do that?
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. Sorry, I accidentally sent the above note before I finished writing it. Argh!
    The last paragraph should read: What practical advise can you give us that will help us survive a PhD program without perishing mentally? And also, how does one go about finding other like-minded women in philosophy? Personally, it feels a bit awkward to approach total strangers at conferences *because* they are women. I’m a fairly new grad student, so perhaps women networking at conferences is the norm. Is it?
    Thanks for your help.

  12. In addition to knowing more about potential biases at work on the research side of our profession, it would be very helpful to know more about potential biases that are impacting the assessment of women from a teaching perspective. One often hears anecdotal reports about women, especially younger women, having more difficulty establishing themselves in a position of authority and then dealing more with the associated problems (grade-grubbing, etc.). Dealing with these kinds of issues can be very discouraging for female grad students and junior faculty.

  13. Edouard writes “when one looks at top best journals in analytic philosophy, there is no correlation between the proportion of articles written by female philosophers and blind reviewing” and “this is an unpublished study of 10 journals (Phil Review, Phil Studies, JPhil, PPR, Nous, Mind, and a few others) by a grad student here at Pittsburgh, HPS.”
    Edouard, what exactly is this study on? Of the journals you mention, all except JPhil are blind-reviewed. Are you comparing the percentage of articles written by women in JPhil with the percentage of articles written by women in Phil Review, Phil Studies, PPR, Nous, and Mind? It would be helpful if you could respond to the questions raised by Jenny Saul and jj. In particular, does your grad student take into account the papers that the editor rejects (knowing the gender of the author) before sending the paper out to referees.

  14. In response to Jennifer (J.G)’s question: I would suggest simply getting out and attending conferences–even making connections with other grad students informally at conferences can help you feel connected to the larger philsophical world. I was shy enough as a grad student that I wouldn’t just go up to a stranger and start talking to her, but I found that conversations often happened naturally in the context of conferences (of course, it helps that I was working on feminist theory–many of the people at the conference sessions I attended were women with similar interests/concerns).

  15. Jennifer, I am not that much more seasoned, but here’s my two cents. I second helenschs’ advice about going to conferences! I have had good luck just walking up to people and just saying hi. (“Hey, I noticed you’re a woman” is a terrible opener, but asking someone a question about their talk, or about something they said in a Q & A, works great.)

    Are you in an urban area with more than one university? You could try organizing a “women in philosophy” event across schools. Or if that’s a bit much, you could go to events at other schools as a possible way of finding like-minded women. You could also check what kind of university-wide organizations are already in place: maybe your university has a group for female grad students. (Mine did.)

    Shoot me an e-mail if you want to talk. (My first name dot my last name at usyd dot edu dot au.)

  16. Edouard
    re: job market data.

    It is important to look at patterns of career progress and not just specific points in the pipeline. The data that you point to is consistent with recent data (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12062).

    In the academic science job market, women are under represented as applicants relative to their representation in the potential applicant pool. But, they are slightly over represented in terms of getting interviews and job offers relative to the proportion of women who actually apply and are interviewed. When it comes to tenure, women are more likely to succeed than men. But, we know that significantly more women than men leave before coming up for tenure.

    When I think of the our job market data, it would be very interesting to look at the differences in the proportion of qualified men and women who make it to that point. One hypothesis, based on several assumptions that need testing, is that women are pushed to select themselves out of the pool by a more rigorous set of criteria than men. This could result in the pool containing a higher proportion of excellent women than men. This is consistent with the psychological impacts of being in a minority or being solo, and is also consistent with work on implicit bias, which impacts women’s assessments of themselves as well as others’ assessments of their professional competence.

    What is important is to look carefully at our own culture to find and root out patterns and mechanisms of exclusion.

  17. Jennifer
    Re: finding women

    1) I’m mid career and if a junior women came up to me at a conference and said, “I need some women philosopher friends,” I would be delighted and invite them to join me and my ‘good girl friends’ for a drink.

    2) That group of ‘good girl friends’ came from 2 places: (1) long relationships that started when we were both graduate students at conferences as desperate efforts to overcome the nasty solo phenomenon you describe; and (2) conferences and workshops where the proportion of women is high, in particular FEMMSS and FEAST.

    Good luck! :)

  18. I have experienced a fair amount of outright sexism in the field very recently. I was doing admissions interviewing at an Oxbridge College with a male colleague, and after we were done for the day, he causally remarked “Such a pity that the good-looking female candidates weren’t any good”.

    My experience as a graduate student was that student evaluations may also reflect implicit bias – a member of my cohort received some extremely vitriolic remarks in her evaluations, and she happened to be non-white. I have never seen such comments on student evaluations before, they were of the same kind as what is currently being hurled at Obama. Naturally, such remarks can be extremely discouraging, and even if one refuses to take them seriously evaluations all the same count when you go on the job market. I have no reason to believe that this type of bias doesn’t play a role in evaluations of professional philosophers, in which case they may end up affecting pay and promotion.

  19. Anyone else notice the amazing similarities between the issue of a) the lack of female wikipedia editors and the issue of b) the lack of female philosophers?

    The speculation as to “why” is almost identical.

  20. Re: author-anonymous (“double-blind”) reviewing. It’s not clear that the study by Budden et al shows that the proportion of accepted female authored papers goes up as a result of adopting this. See the responses by Webb, O’Hara and Freckleton: and Enquist and Frommen. The seminal 1991 study by Blank also didn’t show this: acceptance rates went down with author-anonymous reviewing, and more so for men than for women (also, more so for authors who were at mid-level departments). So according to that study, it has the effect of increasing the proportion of female-authored papers, but only by accepting fewer papers (and fewer papers by men than by women). So it’s not helping women authors, it’s just hurting men authors. Marsh and Bormann’s recent meta-analysis of studies on bias in review of grant applications concludes that there is little to no evidence of gender bias.

  21. I’m puzzled by the claims of studies about blind referring in philosophy journals. There are those journals (Jphil, e.g.) that just don’t blind review, and those that claim to, & in some official fashion do. But I’ve been around long enough, and so have many of the commentators here, to know that “blind” reviewing often isn’t very. Sometimes not at all.
    For instance, is a not atypical process at a first or second tier “blind” review journal: Paper is prepared for blind review and submitted. The person on the receiving end of the ms. knows who one is, and even supposing the ms. is then sent “blind” to external referees, it would be naive to suppose that “who one is” (institutionally, gender, otherwise) makes no difference in terms of which persons are chosen as referees. So conscious and subconscious matches are made between author and persons to serve as “blind” referees and the paper is then sent out. Comments, at some point, are received back. Now the editor/editorial board will, for a second time at least, make judgments in light of knowledge of the author’s name– deciding, e.g., how seriously to take the comments received, whether critical comments belong more in the “reject” “revise and resubmit” or “conditional accept” category.
    Blind, in other words, really isn’t blind. And that’s assuming nothing even slightly shady going on (of which I’m sure we can all tell true stories). To be truly blind reviewing, there would have to be a different kind process than that which is employed even by journals that claim to do blind reviewing.
    shorter: I don’t understand why, given these actual facts on the ground, we’d put much of any weight on the claim (EM’s, above) that female authors have equal success in “blind” as opposed to “not blind” journals. To determine whether women benefit from blind reviewing, we’d have to have a set of samples of, well, blind reviewing.

  22. Richard Zack, there’s a substantial paper on the web by one of the authors, Bormann, of the metastudy you site at the end. It greatly clarified the import of the abstract you link to (I couldn’t access the actual article).

    There are two problems so far with the study of gender bias in peer review: (1) the heterogeneity of the results and (2) the lack of experimental evidence. The conclusion that there is little or no evidence of gender bias in the studies may mean not all that much for us beyond the fact that there’s conflicting evidence, and no direct evidence. Clearly, Bormann thinks that gender bias is a live hypothesis, and they in fact report in the abstract that 26 of the 66 parameters they studied indicated gender bias in the awarding of fellowships. It’s also important to stress that the heterogeneity of the results they were studying means that there were conclusions reporting gender bias and ones not reporting gender bias.

    Direct tests are ones where the experimental evidence is manipulated so that gender is the only variable to change. It’s very difficult to do that with acadmic grants, since the grants are awarded in part of what’s been done so far. However, there have been quite a few direct studies of gender and race bias in other contexts. E.g., evaluations of cv’s, where one can just change the name or evaluation of job applications where one might has a ‘white name’ interchanged with a ‘black name’. As far as I know, they all show a shocking amount of bias, even in academic contexts.

    One other feature of their later multilayer analysis is that what might find is that gender as such is, as it were, swallowed up by other factors themselves due to gender bias. E.g., if women are routinely ‘assigned’ to less good institutions, have less prestiguous mentors (and so co-authors), are less likely to get fellowships, then a statistical analysis might correlate the rejections with such factors and gender, as it were, might disappear into the noise.

    I should say that the last paragraph should be taken as a bit tentative. Since I couldn’t get the original paper, I can’t tell what relevant assumptions might or might not be operating.

  23. Coming into this debate rather late, what do others think about a different yet related issue – namely what count as the ‘top journals’ in philosophy. I don’t know whether women do any better in acceptance rates for the journals that aren’t counted as top. They certainly must in some, such as Hypatia. If so, isn’t it equally important to challenge the rankings of journals? (- I suppose it’s a bit the same issue as with entry into Oxford and Cambridge – where I worry that too much focus on their (arguably) exclusive entrance policies distracts us from the fact that there are very many other perfectly good universities, and from asking whether we wouldn’t do better to challenge the assumption that Oxford and Cambridge are so far superior.) None of this intended as a disagreement, but as something else I find important. To me as a philosopher it is more of an irritant endlessly hearing about the ‘top journals’ (most of which I very rarely if ever use) than about those journals being implicitly gender-biased – not to say that the latter isn’t also bad!

  24. I think philosophy is one of the worst subjects for reproducing this imbalance. My first degree was in philosophy, and though there were plenty of women on the course, as well as a couple of female lecturers (albeit in the minority) the material itself entirely excluded women unless you happened to choose the feminism elective, which I didn’t. I think this kind of compartmentalisation meant that most people simply weren’t exposed to female philosophers. After three years of strengthening the association of philosophical theories and male scholars it doesn’t surprise me at all that this leaves a strong unconscious impression that men are the authentic philosophers. It’s difficult to see how to redress the balance when it comes to teaching history of philosophy, but I have since come to the conclusion that feminism perhaps would have been better taught in the first year – it was only the women who were already sensitive and attracted to feminism that (obviously) chose the elective which meant that the distorted picture of philosophy as an exclusively male subject was reproduced for everyone else…. given how suggestible people are it is very difficult to transcend what I guess is psychological conditioning… anyway I think I’ve gone off on one but – interesting blog!

  25. I’m in an all-male department of about 30 tenured faculty members. It’s interesting to see the number of women dwindling, from students (about 50 %) to PhD students (about 40 %) to postdocs, (about 20 %) to faculty (0%).
    When I bring this glaring underrepresentation of women to the attention of my male colleagues, they say ‘hey, it’s tough for everyone, why should we give women an advantage now?’. And indeed some of my male colleagues have excellent publication records that would surely have landed them a lecturing position, whereas now they have even difficulties getting a postdoc. Yet I am wondering if the bad economic climate can really be a sufficient excuse to abandon our aim to reduce sexism and unfair discrimination of women in philosophy.

  26. […] ————————————————————– Background: Psychological research on implicit bias has made it very clear that nearly all of us are subject to unconscious biases, whatever our conscious beliefs. Believing ardently in gender equality does not prevent one from being subject to biases which work against women. Nor does being a woman. (If you want to know more about implicit bias and its likely workings in philosophy, you might start here.) […]

  27. […] The existence of gender studies and similar programmes at universities has been the subject of some controversy. In a way, as some argue, confining one’s intellectual debates to gender might relegate proponents of the discipline. Indeed, some people advise that feminists attempt to avoid talking about feminism all the time and inject the spirit of feminism in other debates. However, the discipline of gender and diversity studies does important work in describing and analysing the realities of many whom other disciplines have traditionally ignored. […]

  28. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this website before but after going through a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m certainly pleased I found it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

  29. Here’s a thought: refereeing is often a matter of personal networks. Men are overrepresented in the profession at large. Men tend to be friends with men rather than women. Paper-submitting women are therefore less likely to be friends with men in the inner circles of refereeing. Therefore women’s papers are overall less likely to be accepted.

  30. Anyone else notice the amazing similarities between the issue of a) the lack of female wikipedia editors and the issue of b) the lack of female philosophers?

    The speculation as to “why” is almost identical.

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