How do we know bias is keeping women out of philosophy?

I agree with Beta and others in earlier discussions that this week’s NY Times Stone series has been a joy.   And no one would want to have the authors to respond to all the comments before the series is finished. Unfortunately, that has meant some quite questionable views appear with out any challenge, and so look stronger and more plausible than they are.

One such view often appears just as the rhetorical question in this post’s title.   I think, though, we can put it more fully into something that looks like a proof; in fact, some people did this.The proof (or argument) goes something like this:

i. : Women are prevented from going into philosophy by some discriminatory OR they do not want to go into philosophy (because of caring more about their families, lucrative and secure jobs, a peaceful workplace, and so on).

2.  All the information we have about the dearth of women in philosophy is compatible each of these very different explanations.

3.  Everything else is mere anecdote.

Therefore, we do not know that bias is a major factor.

However, not all the evidence is equal.  Very recently work has been done to study the science faculty generally.  So the charge made against feminists should be changed.   If we have good reason to think  that philosophers are much like STEM researchers, then we have good reason to think they are biased too.  Therefore, the burden of proof has shifted.   Those raising the first question should now consider whether they know that philosophers are immune to the biases pervasive in STEM fields.

The following article is open source, so you can get a copy of it @

Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 9;109(41):16474-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109. Epub 2012 Sep 17.

Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.
Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J.
Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.
Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student-who was randomly assigned either a male or female name-for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent. We also assessed faculty participants’ preexisting subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.

16 thoughts on “How do we know bias is keeping women out of philosophy?

  1. I don’t think I see the point about shifting the burden of proof.

    Clearly, hiring philosophy faculty is like hiring a laboratory manager in some ways, and quite different in other ways. Clearly (I hope), philosophers are very likely to have the sorts of implicit biases that non-philosophers (including scientists) have; but it is not at all clear why these biases affect philosophy in ways they do not affect, for example, linguistics (or to be more careful: why they would affect philosophy to a much greater degree than they affect linguistics).
    I think we are in this position: we have some suggestive evidence, but we are still in the early stages of understanding. The idea that now one view or another has a burden of proof seems unhelpful.

  2. Yes, I agree, I don’t see this as a burden of proof issue.

    The argument given is a pretty good one, but I suspect it’s wrong for the same reason as the original poster: The evidence simply is not equal. I suspect that there is evidence of bias against women that refutes the view that the dearth of women in philosophy is completely, or almost completely, due to free choice.

    Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find these data. I thought there were some studies on implicit bias in hiring, but if so I cannot find them. In another thread I asked for some links but got none (in fact, I got jumped on for asking).

    So there are two steps as I see it. (1) We have to produce persuasive data that show that the dearth of women in philosophy is in fact a result of bias/discrimination/whatever and not free choice. (2) We have to show that the situation is unusually bad in philosophy; the discipline is simply not suffering from a general climate of bias. (2) seems necessary because if this were not the case then the remedy would likely have to be implemented on a broader social level, and not within the community.

  3. Was there something in the STEM study that indicated that bias was a major factor? It seemed geared toward answering the question of whether some degree of bias was present, not the question of whether the presence of such bias constituted a significant factor in keeping women out of science.

  4. Anon: the ONLY difference between the candidates was gender. There was nothing else to account for the faculty differences.

    Logicfan, I’m pretty sure no general study has been done for women phils. The Techique used is very standard, and its been used to show bias against female med students andblacks in hiring, for example. Similar studies have gender the gender, with the gender disguised disguised or hidden.

    There was a lot of discussion about thisissue here about two years ago. I’ll see if I can find it.

  5. Regarding the STEM study from the OP, I understand that the only difference between the job applications was whether they were assigned a masculine or a feminine name. But again, the result simply goes towards confirming the author’s hypothesis that, as the study’s title suggests, subtle sex-based biases favor male students, which is distinct from the question of whether that is a small, medium, or large factor in accounting for sex-distribution differences in the field. The way the link to the study was presented, I was expecting the study to address the latter (and probably much more complex) question, but that wasn’t the question the experiment was designed to address.

  6. So, Anonymous agrees that the study demonstrates widespread subtle bias in favor of male applicants. And I presume they also agree with the study’s findings that this bias had a statistically significant effect on a) assessment of competence, b) assessments about who should be hired; c) how much pay to offer; and d) offers of career mentoring. And all parties agree that there is substantial gender disparity in the studied fields. So are we awaiting empirical confirmation about whether widespread advantages with respect to a-d have a substantial effect on who is likely to pursue and be successful in a given field? And is the claim seriously that, until we get such empirical confirmation, the reasonable course is to suspend judgment, shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s a mystery, we just have no idea?”

  7. If the belief in question is, “There is gender bias in philosophy”, we obviously shouldn’t suspend belief. I believe Anon’s question goes to the belief, “The gender bias in philosophy is not just a reason, but the primary reason for the under-representation of women there”.

    Derek, there is some reason to believe that the greatest loss of women in philosophy happens at the Intro level. Your b-d wouldn’t apply there at all. Assessments of competence may. If first-year women leave their intro course thinking they can’t do philosophy because of bias-induced negative feedback from faculty, that would explain a lot. But the STEM study doesn’t speak directly to that.

    There are, I believe, studies hat suggest that papers written by students with recognizably female or minority names are rated less highly. But that seemed to be a generic phenomenon, and wouldn’t explain why the problem is worse in philosophy.

  8. I confess to being a bit baffled by discussions like this. If what we care about is blame, it would surely matter how to apportion it, but if we care about amelioration, then I don’t see the relevance. So long as we know–as it seems clear that we do–that the low numbers of women (and people of color and people with disabilities) in philosophy are affected (to whatever extent, whether or not other, non-problematic factors are involved) by features of the field that are not good (implicit bias, hostile climate, . . .), features that it would be good to change not just to get the numbers up, but to make the field better for everyone, what difference does it make if some (even a huge) part of the reason for the low numbers is something either nonproblematic or something beyond our control? It’s not as though the things we might do to make the field more attractive to and more welcoming of variously diverse folks are in the category of bitter medicine we’d only employ if we were sure we were targeting the right cause of the ills–they’re things we ought to do anyway–and then we can see what part of the statistical discrepancy goes away….

  9. I don’t think anyone would deny that (I certainly wouldn’t). Making the discipline more welcoming, egalitarian, etc. is a good idea even if there is no effect at all on participation numbers.

    But, I don’t see how this makes the question of whether doing those things will also largely resolve problems of recruitment and retainment irrelevant.

  10. Gosh, how about we just try it and find out? Seriously, what’s the real cost here of creating better processes less likely to be affected by implicit and explicit biases? Why do we need proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that x will help with that? The standards of evidence required by some people in these debates is absurd. No wonder privilege persists and perpetuates so strongly.

  11. Hm, did someone say we need proof beyond reasonable doubt? Did someone say we shouldn’t create better processes less likely to be affected by implicit and explicit biases?

  12. Oh, just to be clear:
    I certainly didn’t say we need proof beyond reasonable doubt, no. And I’m all for better processes.

    Personally, I was only responding to the point in the OP about shifting the burden of proof. I *think* that was already clear, but I want to be sure.

  13. The direction the discussion has gone is: well, but we don’t have any proof that *this* has anything to do with the problem.

    Maybe not, but I actually don’t care at this point. That it’s reasonable to think it may be involved is more than enough to start implementing policies in light of the *concern* that it might have something to do with it.

  14. OP said that the evidence in the article shifts the burden of proof. I disagreed. You just think it’s irrelevant, if I understand.

    LogicFan asked where to find certain evidence, but pretty plainly not to suggest that nobody should act until decisive evidence is found.

    Some Anon asked whether anything in the STEM study suggested whether bias is a *major factor* in explaining the lack of women in STEM areas; apparently the answer is no.

    The only people in this thread who have said anything about ‘proof’ are (A) the OP, (B) you, and (C) comments (1) and (2) which deny that there is any ‘burden of proof’ issue at all.

    I don’t think it’s at all helpful to mischaracterize the comments and then ridicule the mischaracterization.

  15. Just to be clear: I wasn’t trying to prove that gender bias has an impact, still less the decisive impact. As I remember, I was trying to find a problem with what looked to be a proof. It is also the case that I didn’t mean proof in some strict sense, but I think my effort to avoid the confusing “argument” didn’t work.

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