Women in Philosophy and the Elephant in the Room

Professor Manners is reprinting a column of hers below.  It is topical in this season of job seeking, but her primary motive this time is not to address those looking for employment.  Rather, she has been concerned about the extensive discussion on the web about why there are so few women in philosophy.   (See comments on posts herehere and here.)   Not only is much of it being done by philosophers indulging themselves in pretty unexamined speculations, but the elephant is not getting discussed, as Jender’s post today reminded her.   (There are a number of earlier descriptions of the elephant, but Jenny Saul’s post here has a great summary; as she points out, there have been a great deal of research done on the  problem in similar  fields.) 

What is the real problem?   That is that groups of philosophers are capable of engaging in discriminatory,  exclusionary behavior towards women and other outsiders time  and time again, in one context after another.  There is, by the way,  no reason to expect that the unconscious biases producing this behavior are exclusive to men, but since men are in the large majority, one sees it principally there.  (Jender’s post, linked to above, looks at an interestingly more complex situation.)

Below Miss Manners is addressing an actual situation.  Notice what is said about the behavior of the men to the female  colleagues.  The women are not included in the discussion; in fact, they are somewhat edged out.  And what do you think happens when one of the  professors gets together with his students; is his gendered behavior somehow changed?  That really is not psychologically likely.

It’s important to realize that whether or not someone is behaving like this is almost certainly not something they’d be aware of very much or even at all.  To use an analogy:  A lot of black people move through a world whose racism is largely invisible to white people; we don’t see it , even when we are perpetuating it.  Now what’s to like about this for them?  And what’s to like about philosophy for women?  Clearly there’s still philosophy, but for women it comes with extra burdens.

Of course, people internalize discrimination and it can take some political awareness even when it is completely overt.  For example, a grad  student of mine told me that an undergraduate professor told her he could not mentor her they way he did male students.   She’s very attractive, and he felt there would be too much talk.  And she hadn’t realized that she deserved more equal treatment than that.

Enough!  The earlier column:

Dear Professor Manners: 

I’m a pretty hot property on the philosophy job market this year.  I’ve had  three fly-outs and they all went very well.  I had a lot of great discussions with the faculty in each department.  Of course, I understood that the women faculty wouldn’t really be up to a discussion with someone like me, so I pretty much left them to discuss their feminism or whatever among themselves.  One or two tried to break into the guys’ discussion, but I took my cue from the faculty there and didn’t provide them with the opportunity to embarrass themselves.


Since I fit in so well with each department, I am expecting more than one offer.  What I am wondering is what is the right way to turn down an offer I know lots of people would die for?

You may have solved the problem already.  Your profession is noted for being full of people  with  few  or no social graces, and you can no longer assume that the behavior you recount means everyone agrees that women cannot do philosophy.  I understand you may be surprised and even shocked by this news, but the fact of the matter is that you may have thoroughly and visibly insulted people who have the power of deciding whether you deserve a long term job in their department. 

Even if the female professors are generous enough not to let their feelings of personal animosity toward you decide their vote on your candidacy, they may well be worried about your teaching.  It is well recognized, at least among feminist philosophers, that women undergraduates find philosophy classes less appealing than do men, and the sort of exclusionary behavior you indulged in is one of the causes of that.   

Perhaps you should get out that list of VAP’s and think of another round of applications.

Science and the Female Brain

A good column, courtesy of the Jender Parents, which includes a nice discussion of the the way that barriers can remain even in those instances where there isn’t overt or conscious sexism. Here’s what Carol Greider, who just won the Nobel for Biology has to say:

“There doesn’t have to be overt exclusion or putting people down in order for there to be some small bias that does keep one group at the top,” she says. “It could be very small things, such as a man feeling more comfortable introducing male students at a meeting.”