is philosophy Ageist?

I think been thinking for a while about references to age in philosophy blogs and web documents, but this particular post is a reaction to a comment by maenad on this post.**  I think the comment is important and it can focus our attention on a possible trend that might be significant and unfortunate.

First, though, let’s note that with any of the “isms” that label as discriminatory acts or attitudes, there is often some controversy over how conscious and intentional the phenomena have to be to get the label.  However, if we are talking about practical outcomes, rather than assigning blame, we might try to put the issues surrounding awareness to one side.  So this post is not about conscious ageism.

Some time in the mid to late 80’s it seemed to me that the philosophy profession had started to recognize that women might be able to do philosophy.  Before that it could be close to impossible to get called on at a meeting or to find people willing to engage one in a discussion that did not simply end up with one being lectured.  Then rather suddenly one started to hear female voices in non-feminist meetings.

There was a rub about the change, though.  It seemed to be assumed that what was really going on was that women who started philosophy around then could be called on.  Not so for the old hands. 

In this context it is very noticeable that now that members of the profession seem able and prepared to do something about the very considerable lack of justice for women in our profession, there is some Significant focus on young mwomen.  This reference to age is often completely explicit, and can come from both men and women.  And there may well be some good reasons for it.  The young are our future, young people are struggling, etc.  At the same it, this view leaves us with a profession that continues very considerable inequities for many women.

It may leave untouched many of the problems younger women will encounter further down the road. If I remember correctly, the STEM figures suggest that there’s a continous loss both of women and of opportunities for women as they age.  

Interestingly, the NSF Advance program, which has been a big factor in improving the representationof women in STEM fields,  has highlighted recovering the talented women who have for one reason or another been sidelined in  scientific research.   I am not sure what the reason for this move was, but it makes sense for any profession that has been unfriendly to women for so long.

** do note that the reference to young members of the profession was in a report being discussed. It is also not referring specificaly to women.

4 thoughts on “is philosophy Ageist?

  1. I think a reason for this is that people perceive a pipeline problem.

    In science and engineering fields where the representation of women is still particularly low people tend to see efforts to improve diversity as a hopeless waste of time because of a “lack of qualified candidates”. So, people of goodwill like to focus on graduate students and post docs as a place where change is possible.

    This was a reason for focusing on k-12 science and math education for girls.

    But, as has been throughly demonstrated, the pipeline leaks.

    The pipeline analogy is problematic because it implies a single set career path and there is the idea that once one leaks out, that is it. Filling it up at the beginning doesn’t plug leaks later on.

    ADVANCE has educated many folks about retention and advancement issues, and hence drawn attention to things like non traditional career paths, on ramps and off ramps from full time work in the academy, and helping women advance, not only through tenure but up to full and into administration. Because of attention to career advancement beyond tenure, there is a focus on more senior women.

    Your attention to the plight of these young women over time is important. One thing that came out of the MIT report more than a decade ago, is that the senior women who were raising concerns, were generally _very_ happy early in their careers. The culture of our discipline and the academy is important.

    It takes a lot of work to convince the science and engineering folks to do more than focus on graduate education and recruitment, or in other words, to look beyond the young people.

  2. Alpha, thanks for the many comments.

    I think I was thinking of the post-PhD women, and since that isn’t where one would start on the pipeline problem, that didn’t exactly occur to me. But there is leaking there too.

    Though I am not sure of the numbers, there seem to me to be many very bright and productive women in not such good positions; it may be that they are adjuncts, but this also goes for tenured women in non-Leiter ranked departments. One gets the sense that they’ve way too often just faded from the view of those who want to make the profession less discriminatory. But then we end up bringing women into a field where they have little in the way of mentors, role models, and so on. And undergraduates enter a field full of old white men and eerily lacking older women.

    Your comments about MIT is important. In fact, I seem to remember that report saying that many newly appointed women did not think they were facing discrimination. Then the tenure process or post tenure experience change many minds. I am trying to remember Valian’s nice phrase for the accumulative effects of small discrimination. It doesn’t take that many years before he has a much stronger record than she does, though often each time she misses may seem small.

    There is another point that I’m a bit concerned to bring up, but I’ve already mentioned it in another context. At a regional APA recently there was a lot of talk among the women about how it seemed to be a male APA, with the males decidedly not interesting in talking to the women. One very distinguished female philosopher remarked to me that she thought it was because we were no longer sexy. Could a very sexist profession end up espousing the case of young women for, let us say, somewhat mixed motives? Not necessarily conscious or predatory at all, but perhaps just because socially engaging with the young women fits some schema they have of desirable relationships? I do have the sense that race theorists would have quite a bit to say about comparable situations. Since I don’t want this discussion to go up in flames, I better not say anything.

    I did a Sunday cat on that APA. Unfortunately, the wonderful music it has originally was removed.

  3. Valian’s phrase is something like, ‘enough molehills can make a mountain.’ An other phrase kicking around is ‘death by a thousand cuts.” And yet another is, “there is lots of equality at the bottom.” It makes sense that a junior women would be happy with their position, not only because the molehills have not added to much yet, but also because these days, simply getting a position is freaking delightful. I remember lecturing to my first class and being amazed that 120 people were taking notes on what I had to say, and looking at my first sofa, and thinking, ‘someone gave me money, for my ideas, that I used to buy this.”

    I think that there are likely many reasons why more senior women fade from view, even if they remain in the profession.
    1) if women philosophers are more highly represented that men among adjunct faculty, or in less prestigious departments, as one finds in the sciences, then they start out with higher teaching loads and less time for research and travel.
    2) If women tend to focus more than men on teaching and ‘institutional housekeeping’ type service work, research and travel can again suffer.
    3) Once one has children, again, travel and hence exposure can suffer.
    4) In my experience, being older and not so ‘traditionally sexy’ is correlated with less friendly chatty time with senior men. I am not referring to untoward behaviour (although there is lots of that out there) but rather to being a comfortable object of attention.
    5) I think that junior women are not very threatening and can be the object of well meaning and patronizing attention (although one may not perceive being patronized). A more advance woman scholar on the other hand, presents a stark contrast with gender norms.
    6) Perhaps more junior women are more deferential, than more senior women. I know that I do much less deference than I used to. Compare, “I have a new project that I would like your help with,” to “Here is my developed position,” or “Here is my developed position that is a viable alternative to yours.” Suddenly one is challenging gender norms, and people get punished for that.

    I think that 4-6 can deflect men’s (and perhaps women’s) away from more senior women scholars.

  4. One more thing. I am reminded of Marilyn’s Frye’s characterization of women as a group who performs sexual, personal and ego service for men. Perhaps younger women fit the category better.

    OK, one more, one can think of this in terms of the epistemology of ignorance. Frye also talks about the active sense of the verb ‘ignore’ in creating ignorance, and claims that we are responsible for who and what we pay attention to.

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