Philosophy 101 and the underrepresentation of women in philosophy

Tania Lombrozo has a great post at NPR about the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. She focuses on recent work by Toni Adleburg, Morgan Thompson, and Eddy Nahmias that surveys the affect of gender on responses to intro philosophy courses (since, statistically, the biggest drop off in women’s participation in philosophy comes between intro-level courses and declaring a philosophy major – at least in the US).

Overall, female students found the course less enjoyable and the material less interesting and relevant to their lives than male students. Compared to male students, they also felt that they had less in common with typical philosophy majors or with their instructors, reported feeling less able and likely to succeed in philosophy, were less comfortable participating in class discussions and were less inclined to take a second philosophy course or to major in philosophy. (Interestingly, however, they didn’t anticipate receiving lower grades.)

18 thoughts on “Philosophy 101 and the underrepresentation of women in philosophy

  1. “The researchers also considered how students’ experiences differed as a function of race. In an email, Nahmias told me:

    I was a little surprised to see that there were so many parallels in the different patterns of responses to our survey between men and women and between white and black students.”

    If this is true (and I have no doubt that it is), why do we continue to frame these sorts of articles and research mainly (and often solely) in terms of the underrepresentation of women rather than the underrepresentation of women and minorities? It seems that by choosing to keep women as the main focus of our equity concerns we are actively ignoring (and may actually be contributing to) the persistent marginalization of other underrepresented groups in philosophy.

  2. Question: I’m wondering whether the sex or race of the instructor in the intro class has any impact. Anyone know? (I don’t know what “having less in common” with one’s instructor or with philosophy majors includes, but might it not include something as simple as sex or race?) If there is an impact, one easy way to help improve the situation would be to have more men and women of color teach intro classes.

  3. I’d like to highlight another part of the article, which describes what we’re doing in response to their research:

    Contrary to some speculation in the field, female students did not perceive classroom discussions as overly aggressive, and they were no more likely to say that students in the class failed to treat each other with respect.


    Notably, the differences in men’s and women’s responses were equivalent when the course was taught by male and female instructors, but in both cases female students were more likely to disagree with the claim that the syllabus included a “fair proportion” of readings authored by women. In fact, the readings on the syllabus were overwhelmingly by men (over 89 percent).


    Do some of these features of women’s experiences make them less likely to pursue philosophy? Some additional analyses suggested that they do: the researchers found that the perception of the gender ratio on the syllabus and the perception of philosophy’s usefulness for getting a job were both partial mediators of the relationship between gender and an intent to persist in philosophy.


    Nonetheless, the findings from Adleberg, Thompson and Nahmias suggest some simple recommendations that could have important effects. With the support of the Georgia State Department of Philosophy, for example, the researchers will test out one strategy for attracting more women to the major: this fall, graduate student instructors will use course syllabi with 20 percent or more female authors, at least doubling the current proportions.

    We actually instituted this policy starting this summer, and I reviewed folks’ syllabi and reminded them to make sure to have at least 20% female authors. (Supervising the graduate student instructors of intro to philosophy at Georgia State is one of my jobs.)

    My impressions are that this wasn’t a terribly difficult policy for people to implement, and that they were able to find female authors that fit naturally into the topics they wanted to teach–the schedules of readings were quite interesting. But if we didn’t have the explicit requirement, people would probably have simply drawn up reading lists without having gender representation in mind at all, and we would have ended up with about 90% male authors again.

  4. Oops. Scratch my question. Just read the whole article. It is interesting that the male students thought that syllabi listing almost exclusively male authors had a “fair proportion” of female authors! I am glad that we can make fairly simple adjustments to our syllabi to try and deal with this problem.

  5. Cindy, the gender of the instructor didn’t make a difference. But keep in mind that, while the number of students surveyed was pretty large (~700), it was from a single semester of instruction at a single institution, and in that semester there were 3 female instructors of Intro (1 tenured faculty member and 2 grad students) out of 17 total.

  6. One potential word of caution about gender balance on the syllabus: the mere fact that your syllabus is more gender-balanced does not necessarily mean the students will realize it. I – and I’m sure plenty of others – can report students, both male and female, who repeatedly gender female authors as “he” both in class and on papers. It might be worth using the full name of authors on the syllabus and (gently/politely) correcting students when they make this mistake.

  7. What Matt said. Last semester, I had a female student who would *repeatedly* say “him”, “his”, “he”, with respect to every female philosopher assigned. She did this both in speech and in writing. I was totally baffled by this, despite the fact that my syllabus was close to 40% female authors, whose first and last names were on the syllabus and the writings, etc. She even called “Mary Calkins” “he” after a discussion of how she was the first woman president of the APA. I found this just totally baffling.

  8. I want to clarify that both men and women disagreed with the statement: “Of the authors we read in this class, a fair proportion were women authors.” However, we found a statistically significant difference between the responses of women and the responses of men. Women were even less likely to agree with the statement than men. The good news is that increasing the proportion of women on intro syllabi would likely improve the course for all students.

    In addition to asking whether women authors made up a “fair proportion” of those authors read in class, we also asked whether non-white authors made up a “fair proportion.” There was also a significant difference between responses to these questions by white students and by black students; so, for example, although all students disagreed that non-white authors made up a fair proportion, black students were less likely to agree that non-white authors made up a fair proportion than white students.

    Finally, on Matt Drabek’s concern that merely adding women authors to course syllabi may not change students’ perceptions of whether or not there is a “fair proportion” of women authors, we’re concerned about these issues too. Sometimes a gentle reminder of the author’s gender may be required. One might also try more subtle ways of pointing out that an author is a woman by, for example, watching a video in class of the female philosopher arguing for her own position. We also worried a little about the effects of students being corrected in class when they think a male author is female, which may happen while discussing the work of Hilary Putnam or Rene Descartes. It might reinforce the stereotype that philosophers are men!

  9. I am concerned that most disciplines that teach “core courses” will have their biggest drop of women between the first course and signing up for the major. Has anyone looked at other core disciplines? Has anyone looked at what the droppers do major in?

    I wonder how deeply the association of being a philosopher and being male is. There might be a similar thing with doctors/dentists. I do know many people persist in referring to a cat as female, even when corrected. Presumably there is some strong association between feline and female stereotypical traits.

  10. About TL’s remark about the course not addressing female interests. Did anyone give or see any indication of whether this means the courses should change their content? I’ve written about a similar problem in computer science. I am reminded of what Putnam wrote about Gareth Evans, which I quoted in my 3am interview:

    Something else was happening to philosophy in the early 70’’s that led me to feel some disenchanted with it.  I was extremely surprised to rediscover recently Hilary Putnam’s review of Gareth Evans’ posthumous book and to see his remark, “One thing a review cannot convey is the relentless technicality of the book. … It is a book addressed to Evans’s fellow specialists, and only to them. Philosophy, as Evans pictures it, is as esoteric as quantum mechanics.”

    I wonder if some shadow of this change has affected how Intro courses are taught. E.g., is skepticism introduced as a problem arising from the human condition? Or is the topic treated as a ‘spot the mistakes in these arguments’ exercise?

  11. Kudos to institutions like GSU who are paying attention to gender distribution on their syllabi.

    In describing their efforts, Tim O’Keefe remarks above: “But if we didn’t have the explicit requirement, people would probably have simply drawn up reading lists without having gender representation in mind at all, and we would have ended up with about 90% male authors again.” The fact that this is the case — still the case — is what strikes me as a deep problem. It’s hard to believe that this basic (implicit) attitude isn’t in some way being communicated to the class, and perhaps it’s this too that helps serve to discourage women from continuing philosophical study.

    Another point. I think it’s super important to make sure that, when women are included on the syllabus, that they play so-to-speak a “starring” role. Not just as commenters on others’ work, but as people whose arguments are the focus of discussion in and of themself. We should be talking about “HER argument”, “HER view,” and not just “HER criticism of HIS important work.”

  12. Great comments, Balk. I particularly like the first. Whom the prof refers to might also be very telling.

  13. Getting faculty to reflect on inclusiveness in their syllabi is of course a good idea. But it’s not clear to me that this will move the needle much with regard to women in the profession.

    annejjacobson’s comment on other disciplines’ core courses got me thinking about my taking of an “Intro to Psychology” course as an undergraduate. If I recall correctly, just about everyone we discussed was male, and I suspect most such intro courses were and probably still are focused on the usual suspects. Yet, psychology doesn’t seem to have as great a problem with recruiting and retaining women in the profession. Makes me think that something else is at work with regard to philosophy.

  14. One interesting possibility is that when instructors make an effort to find and include more women authors, it impacts their own perception of the discipline and of the stereotype of what philosophy is and what philosophers are like. And that impact may then change the way they teach philosophy and present the authors. Some of these changes may be explicit but many may be implicit. They may affect male instructors more than females, but perhaps not. The same effects may occur if instructors find and include more non-whites on the syllabi. These effects will likely be greater to the extent that people teach the women and minorities as ‘stars’ (as Balk puts it), rather than ‘commentators’ or (worse) fringe figures.

    I should point out that we went into this project (which is ongoing) looking for answers to the question of why women leave philosophy after their initial classes, in part because we had data from the SPP study by Paxton, Tiberius, and Figdor showing this dropoff and thought it needed some attention (e.g., relative to the focus on under-representation at the grad student and prof levels), and in part because we had tested Buckwalter and Stich’s data and found that it looked like they are mistaken about women having different intuitions about philosophical thought experiments, so other explanations needed to be explored.

    But when we started our climate survey research, we first found that, at GSU, there is a drop-off from intro to majors in black students similar to the one we’d found in female students. So, we looked at differences in response to the survey by race as well as gender and found many similar patterns. I agree with CB that we should pay more attention to disparities in representation by race as well as gender in philosophy.

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