Desperately Seeking Strategies

By now we are all aware of the “problem that has no name” that plagues philosophy: philosophers are committed egalitarians and philosophers pride themselves on their objectivity, yet philosophy is the least diverse and least gender equitable of all disciplines in the humanities, rivaling those in the STEM areas.  Here at Feminist Philosophers we’ve spent a great deal of time analyzing different aspects and nuances of this issue.  Our efforts towards remedying the problem include the Gendered Conference Campaign (GCC) with which readers are surely familiar by now.  The GCC has led to considerable success and many conference organizers have responded with gratitude and action.

It is our hope that we might make a similar positive impact by attended to another symptom (or cause – or both – who knows!?) of “the woman problem” in philosophy:  all-male philosophy departments (which are usually also all white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis male departments).  Too many all-male departments persist in philosophy, despite alleged efforts to counter this problem.  How many times have I heard “We really wanted a woman for this position, but there just weren’t any strong female applicants.”  Really?  Wow.

It’s time to consider strategies for making all-male philosophy departments a thing of the past, or at least a rarity.  Obviously, the same strategies we suggest in the GCC will not work here.  Departments are not in control of faculty lines.  Are there, however, any exemplars we might highlight – strategies that have successfully diversified departments?  Are there any effective and/or ingenious strategies in use or in potentia?  Tell us, dear readers, if you know of any.

19 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Strategies

  1. I agree that “We really wanted a woman for this position, but there just weren’t any strong female applicants” seems really implausible. But I wonder if what they mean by that is that the women they considered strong and thus limited themselves to in their final stages turned out to seem less strong to them on careful consideration, which is consistent with there being other women who applied who, if they’d gotten to the interview/campus visit stage would have seemed stronger than the ones who did make it that far.

    I’m not saying this to make an excuse. And there’s certainly no reason to rule out implicit bias in most cases, and maybe even explicit bias in some cases, both at the earlier stages of selection and at the final stages. But I’m wondering if part of the problem is not so much bias-related in any direct way. Is it possible that the process of sifting through candidates and picking finalists to interview and then later to bring to campus somehow is not paying as much attention to strong-making features in women candidates but to other things that are often seen as good proxies but that don’t work as well as such proxies with women as they do with men? I have no particular suggestions about what that might be, but if something like this is going on it would leave search committees with women at the final states who aren’t as strong as other women who applied would have been, and they might be left thinking there weren’t any strong women who applied. I’m just speculating here. This is not based on any evidence. But it seems possible to me that something like this is part of the explanation for why they’d come away with such an impression.

  2. Hi Jeremy: This is based on very limited experience, but may count for something. I (woman and ethnic minority, with a name that sounds ethnic too) have been on the market for some years now, and I notice that if a department is all-male or almost all-male, the chance of me getting invited for an interview is very small. You would think that all-male, all-white etc faculty would do an extra effort to recruit women and other minorities, but I think that biases like preference for someone like themselves is more important.

    For instance, being part of an almost all-male faculty that has done several hires over the last couple of years, I do note that the faculty there (not all of them, but the senior who have a lot to say) often show strong preference for a male shortlisted candidate, and no-one shows preference for a female shortlisted candidate (the SC is entirely composed of male, white philosophers)
    What happened in several cases is this: one of the male candidate is described in lyrical terms “He’s up and coming, a golden boy, he shows great potential etc etc,” whereas no SC member has these warm feelings for any of the female candidates. As a result, the job gets offered to a man (as it has been in the past hires), even if there are women in the shortlist.

    The faculty then expresses its deep regrets that they didn’t find qualified women but this is simply not true – they had plenty of highly qualified women in the pool. A strong preference for a candidate by one or two SC members can tip the balance in favor of a candidate, and with all-male SCs this is going to be someone who is a man, white, heterosexual, non-disabled, etc etc. I’m not saying they are being insincere when they say they really wanted a woman, but apparently, they didn’t want her bad enough to argue her case in the decision process.

  3. If that’s the trend, then it seems there are much “lower” standards (which are much less biased) for getting to the final stages but incredibly “high” (and highly biased) standards for getting the job offer. The extreme standouts tend to have certain traits, even if there are plenty of very strong candidates who don’t, in the minds of the biased SC members, reach those heights.

    It would be interesting if the worst biases occur only at that final stage. It would surprise me, actually. But I suppose the answer to that empirical question could turn out that way, and it would explain things. I think we may need more empirical study of where biases occur and how biased we are at different stages of different processes. Given how difficult it is to apply remedies (and to get other people to apply them), I think it would be best if we focus our energies on the ones that would compensate for the worst biases and lead to the most noticeable and significant effects. That means locating much more precisely where the worst biases are.

  4. Anecdotal, from a couple of hires I’ve been involved in. First, if the department has a woman already, it’s likely that some of her colleagues will feel as though they’ve done enough for diversity; we have our token, so the dean can’t complain.

    More difficult, however, is a case like this. A department (say a SLAC or non-top department) is open to hiring a woman, and several make the first round cut. But there’s a difference between the men and women that make the campus cut. To make the campus cut, the woman has to be a bonafide up-and-coming rockstar. Top program, shortish time to degree, prestigious pubs, glowing letters. The man has to be good — maybe top 10-15 program, ABD but not a rockstar, a good publication or maybe just the promise of one, good letters. They want to hire the woman, but they’ve interviewed someone out of their league. She takes a good job elsewhere. They’ve made an offer to a woman, so the dean is happy, and now they hire the man, who is a good philosopher and deserving of a good job as much as anyone can be said to.

    But on the rest of the list are women who just didn’t “sparkle” enough in the first round interview. Their projects aren’t as interesting, or they won’t get tenure fast enough (not clear what this one actually meant). Yet profile-wise, they’re the equivalent of the man who has hired.

    So I suspect that even well-intentioned departments may have a problem like this: to seem like a golden fit for the department, the woman has to be a superstar. The man just has to remind them of their younger selves. I wonder if more precise guidelines hammered out by departments rather like tenure guidelines might help get well-intentioned departments past this hump.

  5. Well… how about starting by taking seriously the CV studies, and requesting “blind” versions of CVs (with attendant commitment on the part of hiring committees not to guess or seek to find out the identity of the candidate). This “blindness” could actually come in degrees: blind to candidate, to referees, to degree-granting school… which “blindness” could then be lifted one by one in reverse order as the short lists are produced… This would first eliminate those candidates who impress hiring committees due to their formal credentials rather than their actual work, those candidates who impress hiring committees due to the reputation of their referees, and so on (which, given everything we know about the accumulation of slight advantages, should level the playing field somewhat) .

    Then, for the on-campus interview… Short of having people deliver a paper behind a curtain with voice disguising devices, I guess we have everybody watch Forrest Gump and Thelma & Louise before the interview to prime them away from left-over implicit biases… ;-)

    Really, it’s not rocket science. All that is required is an acknowledgment of the problem (and holding blameworthy those who continue to refuse to acknowledge the problem in light of all the now-available evidence) and a bit of good faith to solve it. If Ulysses was able to handle it with the sirens, so should a bunch of well-meaning philosophers.

    BTW: I also think we generally should tone down the (sexist) rhetoric about women fearing or not liking aggressive argumentation. I’m sure there are as many women philosophers who enjoy it as there are men philosophers who don’t.

  6. A problem, as I see it, is that member of all male departments, much more so than people putting together conferences, know that an all-male department is kind of frowned upon. So you do have to suppose that members of such departments are not all that highly motivated to change things. That means that solutions that in one way or another encourage such department members to behave in gender blind ways aren’t going to work, because they are not going to really do it. They have been paying lip service for years without any penalty for not following through. Unless maintaining an all male department can be seen to be a negative for the members of that department (shaming for example is one way although not what I am recommending) I don’t see that there are helpful suggestions that would really be helpful

  7. I have seen *exactly* what anonymous at 2:27pm reports, and I have seen it over and over again in search committees over the years. The “golden boy” lyrical attribution is precisely where implicit bias comes in–such attribution is often ascribing “potential” based on a gut feeling or intuition (helped along by letters by letter writers with the very same bias).

  8. One possibility is for male philosophers to refuse to give talks at Departments with all-male faculty.

  9. I wonder what special issues “all-male” department present that extremely imbalanced (say, 95% male) departments do not. How many 100% male departments are there? Perhaps more pertinently, how many 100% male departments are there with more than, say, 2 or 3 members?

    In order to figure how how to address the issue of the all-male department, it seems that we first need to know what sort of departments these are. Are they departments associated with a specific perspective or religious denomination? Questions like these seem important.

  10. In the last section on this post, I put a couple of links that are relevant to improving things at the department level. One of the things that Oklahoma said they’re doing in one of those links is to establish some criteria for evaluating job applicants in order to reduce the effects of bias. I know of a couple of other academic programs/departments that already have been doing this for some time, and it turns out they’re pretty diverse bunches. It’s kind of amazing how much really little things like that can improve the evaluation process.

  11. I suppose I should suggest here what I did elsewhere: if I were chairing a search committee, I’d request writing samples and statements of research and teaching that could be blinded, and have the committee make the initial evaluation (and the first cut) based on those alone.

  12. Can anyone make it stop snowing on this website? I find it very visually disturbing. You are concerned about disability access, well, for someone with my sort of eye problems this is an example, I honestly can’t read down very far here without terrific eye strain and focusing problems.

  13. I think that those of us in departments with grad students need to be more aware of how our own letters of recommendation (for grads on the job market) may reflect implicit biases. I’ve read letters from both male and female (including feminist) faculty members that describe their male students in terms of their brilliance (effectively describing them as “rising stars”) and female students in terms of their diligence (suggesting they work hard but may not be as bright).

    Perhaps we could do more to educate ourselves and our colleagues about our own implicit biases in the letter-writing aspect of this process. And maybe if faculty on hiring committees (and throughout the profession) are more aware of the ways that they themselves may exhibit unintentional biases, they/we will become better able to interpret letters of rec (and perhaps take less seriously descriptions of the brilliance of young white male “rising stars”)

  14. I agree with #12 above. The “snow” is more than a litle distracting and annoying and makes it much more difficult to read what’s written here. Thanks.

  15. I’m really glad to see this blogpost, and many of the remarks. With regard to Margaret Atherton’s comment “They have been paying lip service for years without any penalty for not following through.”: Exactly.

    To add to that: is there any oversight on hiring? When a department says it is enthusiastically seeking qualified women, is there anything, anything at all, that prevents, say, the events related above in #2 in the second paragraph (“Up and Coming Golden Boy” syndrome) from occurring? I don’t think there is. Shouldn’t there be?

    What training of faculty is there on evaluation of a pool of candidates is done? And what oversight of search activities exists? It’s amazing, considering discrimination is supposed to be illegal.

    (I’ve posed questions rather than giving answers because I think these questions need to be answered in order to come up with effective strategies. )

  16. I’ve noticed that in the list of 15 Senior Offers Declined on Leiter’s blog, 14 out of the 15 were men, and the woman was at the junior end of the spectrum. Now, that is not an inclusive list, as it doesn’t include declined offers that those involved chose to keep private. Yet, it seems part of a pervasive overall pattern. The other info publicly available is the list senior offers accepted, and these are overwhelmingly male, too.

    Such info seems to give the lie to the story I’ve heard so often that all the philosophy departments are out there in the marketplace trying to outbid each other making tenured offers to senior women. That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening.

    The situation does make one think: if people can’t seem to figure out where on the path to making yet another senior offer to a tenured man things are going wrong, then, might just before making the offer be a good place to pause and ask: OK, what women are qualified for this line? Actually have some third party make a list, and advise the department on whether in fact the male they have chosen is really preferable to all of the women on that list or not? Is this a service that we could figure out how to provide? After all, there are external reviews of departments, why not external reviews to deal with this otherwise intractable problem?

  17. Anecdotal evidence only here from a very small sample, but the problem might even start at the undergraduate level. Where I am (a Cambridge college), in the years that there were two men interviewing for undergraduate admissions in Philosophy, there were several all-male year groups. When two women conducted interviews last year, the incoming group of freshers were predominantly women. It would be interesting to see if that trend holds, and if the same would apply to hiring academic staff. And of course, if you have fewer women as undergraduates, you’ll have fewer women going into academia.

  18. Is this too mad an idea?

    Why not blind interview?
    Just as an experiment, if social relationships don’t matter–and why would they? and how would all male depts. evaluate the likely social success of a women in their club- the technical part of the interview, intially, could be conducted via on- site, supervised e-mail.

    The results could be easily evaluated if you had a thorough- going matrix at the onset of job specification items, and each candidate be given a numerical outcome.
    Thereafter, the successful interviewees at stage one could be brought into the room for whatever conversational items thought necessary.

    it is no more a false scenario than any ‘normal” interview”

    Orchestras have blind- interviewed musicians, resulting in many more successful female candidates.
    if there are technicalities to be discussed, why not ? I think interviews are more about social issues anyway. Are these important in in a philososopher?

  19. May I add

    Endless studies have shown that both males and females underrate female responses and academic essays. In the UK, i believe all students are given a number ,to shield girls and women from this bias in public exams. And they are now doing better than the males!

    Another element that would be stripped out initially, is track record, because philosophy is a small world (and from what i hear here, subject to gender bias inter alia) . People would be assessed on their ability! Would that not do wonders for women! It could give rise to some philosophers with what we call in the UK, real cop -on!
    i look forward to that!

    Interviews are very psychologically artifical situations and have no predictive vaue (Im a Psych.) Pummel the menz wth logic if they don’t like it!

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