“The future of philosophy of science”

In February, we drew attention to a conference on the future of POS that featured only men.  Katie Plaisance, who was the  only female  philosophy faculty member presenting at the conference, has just returned from it with some reflections and contact information.  If you are interested, go here.

17 thoughts on ““The future of philosophy of science”

  1. Katie Plaisance’s comment startshere. I got confused following the above link, so I thought I’d post a link directly to the comment just in case I am not the only one…

  2. Rachel, Thanks!
    Sam, Indeed! Despite the fact that there are no women in philosophy of science.

  3. I was at the conference too, and gave a talk which (apparently) was well-received. I know Stephan Hartmann (one of the organizers) quite well, and he often jokingly mentions my ‘feminism’; I take this to be a good sign, at least the message is getting across somehow. Perhaps it’s the beginning of something.
    But what I found quite amazing is that women simply do not ask questions at Q&A after talks! Why is that, do they feel inhibited? If we want to become visible in the field and in philosophy generally speaking, we must make sure to make sufficient noise so as to be noticed. At all the talks I have attended at this conference, the only woman asking questions was me… Of course, I did not attend all the talks (there were parallel sessions, and I had to leave one day earlier), but for women to be full-fledged participants in the game, they must play the game in full, including engaging in debates at conferences. It’s not good enough to demand to be taken seriously; we must also show we are up to the task (which we obviously are, of course, but that needs to be made abundantly clear to these guys). We can’t just wait for them to be ‘nice’ to us; we must make sure they can simply not ignore us…

  4. CDN, excellent news about your presenting!

    I think we cannot just exhort women to speak more – not that that is what you were doing. We really need to ask why women don’t participate as much. I expect that there is a whole range of issues behind “our” silence:
    a. socialization.
    b. past bad experiences with ugly put downs or refusals to understand.
    c. past bad experiences with not being called upon, having comments ignored, etc.
    d. more vivid self-doubts. Our friend Eric at The Splintered Mind has some data that suggests most of us are not paying rigorous attention during talks; perhaps women have more reason to fear seeming foolish and so are more deterred by the fact that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

    Or perhaps some are not finding philosophy in the flesh at all pleasant and just haven’t seen this for the warning sign it might be.

    And there must be more reasons. It would be great to hear of them.

  5. Hi jj,

    Oh, I’ve seen that happen so many times: at Q&A all the men who raise their hands get the chance to speak before the women, who only get to ask their questions *if* there is still time left… It’s truly infuriating. One has to be really thick-skinned to put up with all that.

    I don’t know why this happens, but I have the feeling that at least part of the solution might be with the role-model business that is often discussed here at this blog. If more and more women are active participants in such debates, other women will hopefully feel more and more comfortable with the idea of doing the same, and men themselves will also get more used to the idea. As is often pointed out, both men *and* women are prone to implicit biases, and I think one of the things that women have implicitly incorporated is the idea that ‘women just don’t ask questions’. In other words, for this to change, women themselves must evaluate these biases and how they may be applying such biases to themselves. It’s neither easy nor trivial, but I suspect it’s the right place to start.

  6. Yes, I certainly left out the fact that one is often one of the few women or even the only woman at a talk. Also, we don’t have role models, as you remind us. Just doing what the men do doesn’t necessarily give one behavior one is comfortable with exhibiting.

    Asking young women to invent a whole mode for being a woman in philosophy is placing a big burden on them. I suppose I think it would be great if we could start in several places and not just one.

  7. Let me just ask for a clarification: do you think that asking questions and debating at Q&A is “what the men do”? What I’m worried about here (but I may well be misunderstanding your point) is the widely circulated idea that women are a minority in philosophy because they don’t like the confrontational style of debate etc. Then, women who do engage in such debates are often viewed as ‘masculine’, which only perpetuates a dichotomy that does not help anybody (men included). People sometimes say that I am masculine in my academic attitude, and they mean it as a compliment! I find it infuriating…

    I think such debates, when well conducted, are part and parcel of philosophy as an enterprise; they can be fruitful and illuminating, not necessarily aggressive or ‘ego-shows’. So while I agree with you that it may feel like a heavy burden to ask of young women to define a mode of being a woman in philosophy, as you say, I think there is no way around engaging in such debates at least to some extent; that’s at least in part what philosophy is about, why we bother to go to conferences etc. Of course, people have different inclinations and personalities, but this does not explain why women are often so quiet in such circumstances. And while it is very very hard to change what goes on in other people’s minds (but thankfully, this blog has been doing a terrific job at that!), it is slightly easier to ask oneself: why am I not asking questions? Do I want to ask questions? Is there anything I am afraid of? It is in this sense that I suggested that this would be a good place to start.

  8. Quick reply, for which I don’t now have a lot of time to answer your acute question. By “what men do” I meant really to refer merely to style. Not content or occasion or really anything else. I think there’s a combative style in philosophy that I for one tended for a time to imitate. It didn’t suit me or my purposes, but it was at least familiar. It’s a big challenge to find or invent the style that is suitable for one, and a lot to do as one starts out.

    Hope this makes it a bit clearer.

  9. Thanks for the clarification. But I actually see these as two different (though of course not unrelated) problems: one is the aggressive and confrontational style of debate dominating many (but by no means all) philosophical circles, and the other is why women in particular seem to feel uneasy about participating in philosophical debates in general (apparently, not only in these circles). I certainly don’t think that a certain aggressive style of debating is ‘what men do’: it is what *some* men do, and some women too for that matter. I know lots of men who don’t like this aggressive style of arguing; for these men too the dilemma presents itself. Should they shut up and give up, should they conform to this norm even though they don’t feel comfortable with it, or should they try to find their own way of engaging in such debates, a way they feel comfortable with? I of course acknowledge that in the case of women there is yet another layer of complication (if nothing else, because we are such a minority in philosophy), but that doesn’t mean that these two issues should be treated as one.

    Another option is of course to try to avoid, whenever possible, these particular philosophical circles with an aggressive debating style (it’s basically what I do), but I suspect this is more complicated in the US than elsewhere (in particular in continental Europe). (I for one spent 2 months at the NYU philosophy department as a grad student, which was enough time for me to realize that I wanted to stay clear of that kind of atmosphere for as much as possible.) Bottom line is, there are in practice different styles of philosophical debating, and in quite a few circles the atmosphere is sufficiently congenial for women to feel more at ease (certainly the case of the conference in Tilburg), and yet it doesn’t seem to be enough. Maybe the impact of bad experiences elsewhere?

  10. CD,
    I definitely think that the idea that women’s scarcity is to be explained by the combative style is very unattractive. There are two problems that should be distinguished: Supposing there’s a prevailing style in your environment, (1) can you stand being around people employing it? And, (2) is it one you can use yourself? It’s really (2) I was thinking about when I made those comments.

    And it is exceptionally complicated, because verbal interactions are. I’ve certainly been in situations where there’s an agressive style and if one does not employ it, one isn’t recognized as a participant, unless one is very well known. Other situations are much more mixed, in my experience.

    Another factor we haven’t mentioned is the general impact of being in the minority. This phenomenon has been studied in many different contexts, such as medical ones, where its impact has led to under-treatment or mis-treatment. One overall result is that an “under-represented” person’s words count for less and are remembered less well. In medicine, the white person may well get proper pain relief and follow-up; the person of color is less likely to. In philosophy, his comments may lead to others discussing his work afterwards, asking him to go have a drink; it is less likely hers do.

    John Dovidio (Yale, psychology) has done wonderful work on having outsider status and we’ve picked up on it in three pieces:

    So I think that one hypothesis about why women talk less than men in philosophy contexts where they’re in the significant minority might be: for all sorts of subtle reasons, the context is much more inviting for the men.

  11. Just to add some relevant data here… I did hear other women asking questions at the conference. In particular, Anna Leutschner provided a clarification for a speaker and asked a question after a talk on Heather Douglas & Helen Longino’s work. Also, I asked a question after Massimo Pigliucci’s talk. There, I was pleased to see that the chair, Michael Friedman, allowed extra time for me to ask my question even though I had put my hand up later and so was further down the list, such that when it came around to me we were already into the coffee break. That was nice. Furthermore, I brought up a point of discussion during the final panel, and was encouraged to do so by Samir Okasha, who I had an interesting conversation with about the reward structure of our discipline just prior to the panel.

    One thing to keep in mind is that probably only about 10% of the participants were women (possibly slightly more than that). So, was it the case that there were fewer women asking questions just because fewer women were there (but were we, say, asking about 10% of the questions)? Or, was it even less than that? And, even if we were asking a proportional amount of questions, do we think we should have been asking more than that given the low representation of women?

    Certainly, I think there’s a concern about how friendly the atmosphere is to women – though I found this conference to be very friendly and welcoming relative to other conferences in philosophy/POS – but it also comes down to the fact that there just weren’t that many women there.

    Also – let me just throw this out there – from my experience doing a postdoc in Germany, it seemed to me that the percentage of women working in POS was even lower in Europe than in North America (I think Anna Leuschner made a comment about this in the previous thread, regarding women in theoretical philosophy). I wonder, how well advertised was this conference in North America? I was very surprised not to see people like Helen Longino, Janet Kourany, Sandy Mitchell, Heather Douglas, etc. (see Carla Fehr’s list) at the conference, but I also wonder if they knew about it. (Though, of course, that doesn’t address the problem of the lack of women invited speakers, as they wouldn’t have had to have seen an advertisement for the conference to be invited!) It just seems to me that there might be further work to be done to pinpoint all the factors that played a role, and it would be great if some empirical work was done to find these things out.

    This might be a good thing to raise at the PSA Women’s Caucus in November. I’d be curious to find out the reaction of other women there (especially given that there were several women whose work was discussed – e.g., Longino, Douglas, Mitchell, Shrader-Frechette, Cartwright – but who weren’t there). Did they not know about it? Did they know about it but not want to attend for some reason? I’d be curious to know…

    In the meantime, the IAPh in London, ON should prove to be a very different type of conference in this respect. I can’t wait!

  12. Hi Katie,

    Thanks for the extra data; as I said, there were many talks I did not attend, including the whole last day.
    I think you raise a very important point: “And, even if we were asking a proportional amount of questions, do we think we should have been asking more than that given the low representation of women?” I would say YES, we should at least be trying to ask more questions than the proportion of male/female participants, so to say. I firmly believe that making ourselves more visible in the community is an important step towards redressing gender imbalance, and the whole business of ensuring that there are more female keynote speakers at conferences generally speaking is part of the larger project of making ourselves more visible. I suspect that jj worries about this becoming too much of a burden on (especially young) female philosophers who have enough of a hard time as it is, and I think this is something to be taken into account too. Still, for those of us who feel comfortable with the role, I think it would be important to make ourselves ostensibly visible, in an elegant and yet firm way.

    Other than this, I think the minority factor pointed out by jj is probably very significant. I suspect the same would apply to people who are minorities vis-a-vis e.g. nationality or ethnicity (even though ethnic groups other than white Caucasians are *so* underrepresented at philosophy conferences in Europe or the US that it might not even be possible to identify something of a recurring pattern here).

  13. Hi again,

    Talking with my boss (Martin Stokhof) about these matters just after I wrote the previous comment, he remarked that, within formal semantics (a field where he has done a lot of interesting work), the gender balance has been very good from the very start (it is a rather recent subfield of philosophy). He says that it’s always been pretty much 50-50%, and that many of the ‘big’ names from the start were women (Barbara Partee, Irene Heim, Angelika Kratzer etc.). Now, it is also a highly ‘technical’ field, so the usual observation that there are fewer women in technical fields does not apply. What happened with formal semantics? Why has it always had and still has such a good gender balance? Is it its proximity with linguistics? It may be, but the effect did not carry over to philosophy of language for example.

    Anyway, I am under the impression that the fact that the field has been dominated by strong female figures from the start may at least explain why it is such a success story. Any other thoughts? It may be an interesting case study to try to understand what factors positively influence the presence of women in a given (sub-)field.

  14. CDN: I am concerned about it’s being a burden on young women, but I’m probably even more concerned that it gets put into the category of “why the low number of women in philosophy is mostly their fault” or some such. E.g., they don’t want to argue, don’t try to participate when at conferences, etc.

    I think you are right that it is to women’s benefit to increase their visibility, but I honestly don’t think we can easily predict its results and they may not be entirely positive. It might depend on the biases that are operating, and what some of the background suppositions there are.

  15. CDN, I totally agree that linguistics and formal semantics are interesting cases. Perhaps part of it is due to role models and mentoring.

  16. jj, I see your worries, and I think there is something to them. But let me illustrate what I think is wrong with this kind of reasoning by means of an analogy (btw, it’s perfectly clear to me that it’s not *your* reasoning but rather how this kind of statement could be perceived generally speaking). Let’s take a situation of racial imbalance, say the situation of African-Americans in the US. It is widely acknowledged that making ‘good’ noise and increasing visibility, more generally participating for as much as possible in all layers of society, on the part of African-Americans has the positive effect of fostering inclusion. But I think no one with a bit of sense would conclude that the still current racial imbalance in many circles (alas, reversed racial imbalance in contexts such as prison population…) is ‘their fault’, their failure to engage appropriately in different layers of society. Of course, it is a result of very long and complex historical processes, not entirely unlike those which seem to be behind the fact that women in general seem to shy away from asking questions at Q&A.

    By suggesting that women should make a conscious effort to participate even more actively in philosophical debates, there is of course the risk of being misinterpreted, but really, the risk is there all along anyway. Such a misinterpretation would be something of a cause-effect confusion: women’s shyness to engage in philosophical debates (which isn’t even that widespread, as Katie suggests) is the *effect* of long and complex historical processes, but working towards countering this effect has proved in some sufficiently analogous situations to be beneficial. But I agree with you, there is no way of being sure that the outcome would be positive.

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