Quantifying the Gender Gap

Hypatia‘ s most recent issue [UPDATED: This article is now available for free online in “early view”] includes research on women in philosophy conducted by Molly Paxton, Carrie Figdor and Valerie Tiberius, whose work I’ve heard presented at conferences here and there, and whom I am eager to cite! I have already begun refering in recent work to the “intro-major cliff,” as they characterize it.  From their abstract:

Our study looks at gender representation in philosophy among undergraduate students, undergraduate majors, graduate students, and faculty. Our findings are consistent with what other studies have found about women faculty in philosophy, but we were able to add two pieces of new information. First, the biggest drop in the proportion of women in philosophy occurs between students enrolled in introductory philosophy classes and philosophy majors. Second, this drop is mitigated by the presence of more women philosophy faculty.

20 thoughts on “Quantifying the Gender Gap

  1. Thanks for posting. The pipeline research definitely confirms the impression I’ve had. The intro courses I have taught/TA’d for have tended to be close to 50/50 on gender, while upper division courses seem to be much closer to 20/80 (and sometimes even 10/90 or 0/100).

    The link between more women faculty and more majors/grad students is interesting, and I think goes beyond just confirming impressions. The department where I did my Ph.D. (which is also the department where Carrie teaches) is in a great position to confirm/benefit from this research, as it has greatly (dramatically, really) improved its gender ratio among philosophy faculty in the last 5 years.

  2. Hate to say it, but I’m reluctant to encourage anyone, especially women, to major in philosophy given the job prospects. Moreover, in my experience, while males with good degrees in “worthless” humanities disciplines can occasionally get hired for decent jobs, women can’t. Women have to have good, technical specialties to avoid being shunted off into pink-collar shit work.

  3. Harriet’s claim is an interesting one. If correct, it points to a tension between what is good for philosophy and what is good for individual women students. Is there any data to back it up? We are often told that philosophy majors do (relatively) well on the job market, but I have never seen any data that broke this down by gender.

  4. I share Harriet’s reluctance to encourage the profession as a choice. But I regularly encourage majoring in philosophy, which is entirely compatible with, and even enhances understanding of, other majors and professions. Some of my most successful students were majors or double-majors, or simply switched into more lucrative career-training fields when they decided it was time. Come to think of it, not one of the hundreds of majors I’ve taught has become a philosophy professor, but most of them are successful. (Or should I say ‘and’.)

  5. I’m going on anecdotal evidence, admittedly, and thinking of the case of a (male) adjunct we had a few years back who was deliberating about whether to finish up his PhD. He’d gotten a job in the Real World, doing menial clerical work. I called him up to see if he wanted to come back to teach a couple of logic sections. He didn’t.

    It seems that he was in the Xerox room feeding paper into the machine when one of the (male) managers, seeing that he was a middle class white guy, stopped by to chat, saying “you must be pretty bored doing that.” The Adjunct told him his situation, and the manager offered him an entry level management job. So he didn’t want to come back to teach logic for us.

    Now the fact is that women are just not going to get such offers. No one bats an eyelash at women xeroxing or worries that they might be bored. A woman xeroxing is just a secretary, and that’s where she stays. Women cannot get onto the first rung of these informal career ladders, which is why it’s much more important for women to get formal credentials.

  6. That sounds plausible, Harriet, but lot’s of things that sound plausible turn out to be false (or, more likely in this case, not an important factor in deciding where people end up). We should take the worry seriously, I agree, but that makes real data all the more urgent.

  7. Well, I’ve been nominated for a position on the APA committee on the status of women in the profession. And if I get on I will look into the prospects for women philosophy majors which I think should be in the purview of the committee’s charge. There is lots of data about the situation of women in the labor force at the Bureau of Labor Statistics but I’m not sure whether there’s data about the fate of individuals with particular majors. I agree though it’s very much worth looking into.

  8. Great! I’m not a member (not being American) but I hope that those with voting rights take note.

  9. Hey, interesting positions for women philosophers reminds me: do any of you FPs know anything about Natalia Juarez? She is a philosopher (HoD, I think) at Guadalajara, and making some noise as a candidate for Congress in Mexico. Admittedly some of the noise she is making is due to her controversial campaign poster

  10. I have spent a fair amount of energy over the past decade talking with students both male and female about the value of their undergraduate degree in Philosophy. The fact of the matter is that even a B student in philosophy has a whole bunch of skills that will serve her or him well in a competitive work environment. One thing we do incredibly poorly as a profession is help students to see how what they do in a philosophy class translates to non-academic jobs, and to give them the language to go into a job interview and explain that. One way of putting this point is to say that we do a really bad job giving students both male and female a confidence in their degree. It might be that a woman in a xerox room isn’t going to be given a management job, but it might be that a woman with confidence in what she has to offer can translate a clerical position into a management track position by having conversations with the people she works with. We should be helping students to see that just because their arguments admit of objections doesn’t mean that they don’t have what it takes to analyze and think strategically in a work environment.

    More philosophy majors/minors is a good thing for philosophy, and more women philosophy majors/minors is an even better thing for philosophy. We simply need to be sure we do well by our majors and minors.

  11. Lisa, there are two independent questions: (1) does philosophy teach a set of skills that are valuable in the job market; (2) is philosophy seen as a valuable major by employers. I take it that Harriet’s concern is with (2), and more specifically that is not seen as a relevant set of skills for women.

  12. Exactly so. When I was working at various clerical temp jobs I fantasized about ways in which the APA could sell philosophy majors–e.g. taking out a full page ad in Forbes showing the statue of the Thinker with the headline “You need a philosopher!” And explaining why.

    One of those temp jobs was in the personnel office at International Paper. I was wondering whether I should go back to grad school and wanted to see if there were any prospects in the Real World. So I asked the boss whether with an MA in philosophy from a name school, being willing to work hard, there was anything other than secretarial world I could get. And he said no–you majored in philosophy to “find yourself” instead of learning a useful skill. There’s nothing for you.

    Admittedly anecdotal but I sometimes think that when it comes to popular perceptions by employers a philosophy degree is worse than a degree in other humanities or social sciences disciplines because the general public, including employers, think philosophy is all about Feng Shui and Tarot, about fuzzy thinking, “spirituality” and flakiness.

  13. Well again, it would be good to have data. There was a discussion on Leiter years ago about funny things people would say on discovering they were talking to a philosopher (like “what are some of your favorited sayings?”) Without data, we’ve just got impressions on both sides, and we know from 5 decades of psychological research that impressions are often wrong.

  14. According to multiple sources, philosophy majors consistently outperform other majors on the GMAT (necessary for many MBA programs), LSAT, and GREs.

    Click to access WSPFordham.pdf


    According to this site, the VP of J.P.Morgan says you can do absolutely anything you want (bah) with a philosophy major: http://www.kutztown.edu/academics/liberal_arts/philosophy/whystudy.asp

    And although it’s dated, since the Guardian article pre-depression, http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/nov/20/choosingadegree.highereducation,

    it’s become pretty consistently the case that employers in the media vary with respect to philosophy just as they do with all Humanities: Some value it, some thing all the Hums are silly.

    By the way, I updated the original post: “Quantifying the Gender Gap” is now available in its entirety for free in “Early View,” yay! Highly recommended reading.

  15. I find the results of the study by Paxton, et. al. intriguing. One question I have this this: they find a correlation between the presence of women on the faculty at an institution and a larger number of female philosophy majors. This suggests that the drop in the number of women between intro courses and majors is mitigated by the presence of women faculty. But what we don’t know is whether this result is from “merely” women faculty being around and women faculty teaching intro courses. I’m wondering if that makes a difference. In my department we have loads of women compared to most Ph.D. granting institutions, yet it occurred to me when I read the article that virtually no women teach our big intro to philosophy course. Ideas?

  16. Yes, I thought about that too, Cindy! I strongly suspect that women faculty have to be present and visible to the students for it to make a difference. It is possible for a first-year student to take one class in my department, get no sense of who’s “on faculty,” and leave after intro discouraged by a prof/syllabus. So I’d think the metaphysics of the department gender are not sufficient. :-)

Comments are closed.