Other fields retain women. Therefore…

Maybe it’s just that spring awakens my optimism, but I am renewed in my conviction that we can improve philosophy for everyone.  Let us proceed with an explicit commitment to holding that retaining and recruiting women and minorities is not a mystery, or rocket science, or magic.

I say this partly because a colleague in philosophy recently asked for “anything useful to a department looking for best practices for recruiting and retaining women undergrads to a major – any major.”  I liked the way she put that, because why would we look to philosophy, right?  Scholars in other departments have already done what philosophers still struggle to do.  So I sent her examples from Physics, from Computer Science, and from Dartmouth’s Women in Science program (involving science, math, and engineering). There are more like these, many sources to show that whenever a field or department really commits to doing something, they succeed.  What doesn’t work is waiting for improvement to happen on its own.

There are clear patterns in all the success stories.  The bulk of a department has to agree that recruitment is necessary and desirable, and there has to be a wide and deep cultural commitment to it.  Outreach has to occur before the students get to higher education.  And the intro class comes up in EVERY study. Philosophers can do this.  We don’t have to have an “intro-major cliff.”  Faculty commitment.  Early outreach.  Intro class.

7 thoughts on “Other fields retain women. Therefore…

  1. Yes, seriously, as Kate Norlock has said: “We know what works.”

    We really do, but we have to look to others who’ve been successful and learn from them. The solutions are out there in the open, we just have to *implement* solutions.

    And I pound the table on this one, and I’m glad you mentioned it: INTRO CLASS! This has to start from day one. We’re losing women from their first experiences with philosophy.

  2. And if you look at any publishers array of intro texts, the number of women authors is routinely pitiful.

  3. In Philosophy we still experience the “ivory tower” stigma, I believe. Much of this is due to patriarchal values and influences in the history of our great discipline. In part this is why I prefer a historical approach in Intro to Phil courses, in which I intentionally draw attention to patriarchal values, subtle as they may be, appearing from era to era. If and when we employ genuine and thorough critical thought and feeling not only towards our logic, but in our cultural awareness, we will catch at least the glaring unsustainable beliefs that we have learned and to which we cling, not the least of which are Gender related. I believe that we still have much to explore and learn about Thinking, Feeling, and Criticism. This is the great value of our discipline (as socially active), not the clever construction of yet more systems (which go unexamined). Thanks, Nick

  4. Margaret Atherton at #2 is right. It’s very, very easy for a new tenure-track professor to arrive on the job, write a syllabus, order a standard text, prep for class, and end up with a syllabus containing practically no women authors. When I first taught Intro as a grad student, I took a look at the anthologies my department had used and the main anthologies out there on the market. It’s dismal. The same is true for Intro to Ethics. I’d imagine that the reason a “wide and deep cultural commitment” is needed is because the default is to perform poorly. We don’t need a research project in explicit or implicit bias to explain why no women are on the syllabus [note: of course, such a project has its uses]. It’s because the activity of putting together a syllabus, done innocently and by taking all the default steps one takes as a philosopher in most departments, results in a syllabus that’s embarrassingly male-centric. It’s that inertia that folks have to counter.

    Since she has posted in the thread, it’s also worth pointing folks to Atherton’s “Women Philosophers in the Early Modern Period.” That book was extremely valuable to me in writing a better Early Modern syllabus. We might need something analogous for Intro to Phil. and Intro to Ethics (or perhaps we already have one, of which I’m unaware…).

  5. Thanks for your kind words, Matt. There are some historically minded intro texts that put women in conversation with the dead men. But I think most intro instructors prefer a problem oriented approach. What I would like to see is some intro texts that leave the kinds of problems that are typically included do that people aren’t challenged unduly but include signicant numbers of women. I haven’t myself taught I tro in a long time, but isn’t there anyone who would like to give it a try?

  6. I’ve thought more than once of giving it a try, editing an intro text with diverse offerings, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the text is dead. My students don’t buy books. They read online. Therefore, I don’t buy any of those crummy textbooks anymore and pathetically “supplement” the text with women’s works. We just read primary and free sources all electronically. This is better in a lot of ways. I don’t give publishers money to teach a problematic canon, and my students assume that all the electronic readings are equally important. Of course we read both Socrates and Claudia Card, they conclude. It’s a good result!

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