Sexism in Philosophy in the Guardian

An article by Jo Wolff, here.

I like his analysis of why there were so many good women philosophers in the Anscombe, Foot cohort – fewer men so they got the attention they deserved.

I’m not sure about his description of the bullying nature of philosophy as it is practiced, and its effect on the number of women. It’s a bit too close to the view that states that women are ‘gentler’ or as he says ‘lady-like’ than men, and can’t take the pressure. (He is right, of course, that a more constructive approach to arguing is better, but I’m not sure that has anything to do with women numbers).

14 thoughts on “Sexism in Philosophy in the Guardian

  1. As I read it, he’s saying that women have less encouragement to excel in philosophy, hence they have less self-confidence, hence they are more deterred from doing philosophy by the belligerent style he describes.

  2. What Anca said. I agree that the idea that women just can’t do the belligerent style seems sexist and not entirely plausible, but there seems to be something going on, and perhaps it’s that the belligerent style facilitates defensiveness and hostility to outsiders of all kinds. Philosophy has some issues with minorities as well, and presumably this isn’t because minorities are in general “gentler.”

  3. I think you can claim that the bullying nature of philosophy is off-putting to women without committing yourself to any gendered nonsense about women being more delicate and by nature not as aggressive as men. I don’t like engaging in debate that is overly aggressive; philosophy as blood-sport is not the philosophy I want to engage in. But I feel perfectly able to just not engage in such conversations, or to assert my influence over how the conversation is happening so that it doesn’t happen like that – and I can do this and not feel worried about people judging me as not being able to handle the ‘rigour’ of philosophy. Whereas given the extant sexism in our profession, women might not be as secure in resisting overly-aggressive styles, should they wish to. Because of that, that style might be more off-putting to women than men: not because of innate gender differences, but as a result of the power imbalance caused by the extant sexism in the profession.

  4. OMG. I’ve just been reading the comments on that piece in The Guardian, and feel sick.

    It might be that I’m in a state of panic, but on the basis of those comments it might be that the biggest mistake of the article is assuming that the level of debate is way more advanced than what it actually is.

  5. Lately my research has taken me into sociolinguistics and gender in discourse. There is some evidence that women are more likely to treat communication as cooperative rather than competitive. This would lend some support that the adversariality of philosophical discourse could be disproportionately turning women off of the discipline (I’d say at the undergrad and grad levels). However, women aren’t essentially more cooperative in discourse: that’s a consequence of gender norms and socialization, and a nexus of complicated causes, none of which assumes gender essentialism.

  6. I think Mary Warnock already said that about the Anscombe/Foote cohort, in the introduction to her Women Philosophers–FWIW

  7. I feel that Wolff has really missed an opportunity to call attention to the fact that philosophy doesn’t only have a problem with sexism, but with racism as well. Women are underrepresented, to be sure, but the numbers are nowhere as abysmal as those for women of color specifically. I find this a striking omission given that Wolff’s column was book-ended with two obvious opportunities to broaden the discussion. First, Wolff begins with Mill’s mention of “the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex” (Wolff deliberately glosses over the two first “aristocracies”, mentioning only the “aristocracy of sex” [without even an ellipsis to mark the omission]). Second, Wolff ends with some praise and admiration for Ishiguro, and even mentions that she “broke through many barriers” but does not even take the opportunity to mention the fact that some of the significant barriers would have been related to race.

    It is quite unfortunate that such omissions in discussing diversity and inclusion in philosophy does not make Wolff much of an outlier.

  8. My experience as an undergraduate never involved aggressivity. My tutors, though not perhaps as special as Ishiguro, did try to bring out the philosophy in what we were saying. I definitely did notice some aggressivity later on – mostly among my peers – but the only suggestions I ever came across that women couldn’t deal with it was from the aggressive males themselves. Also, note that in ‘What is it like to be Woman in Philosophy?’ there aren’t many complaints about the style in which philosophy is conducted, but mostly about the ways in which men (and sometimes women) treat women differently. It seems to me that things would be better – if not perfect – if male colleagues condescended to treat us with the same agressivity they treat each other, rather than as ‘others’ who need to be protected, ignored, or pushed out. Then we can address the aggressivity problem.

  9. Also, I agree with M-R-I. It’s almost as if Wolff had intended to write about both race and gender, and then edited out the stuff about race. Could that be an editorial decision?

  10. axiothea, I’m sure everyone’s experiences of philosophy are somewhat different. But I know that there are definitely *some* women out there who both have encountered aggressive behavior – and by ‘aggressive’ I don’t mean forceful or assertive or passionate or anything like that, I mean *mean and rude* – in philosophy discussions and have felt put off the discipline by that behavior. (I know because I’m one of them.)

  11. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that was not Wolff, but an editorial decision. The ‘big’ story at the moment is women in philosophy (thanks in part to the you-know-who debacle). In my admittedly not very large experience of journalism, editors like stories that fit the dominant narrative.

  12. I agree with axiothea and komarine that it might be an editorial decision that accounts for the silence. But given that the “dominant narrative” that the real problem (and, given the framing of these things, those outside the profession might well think it was the only problem) in philosophy is sexism is not simply a journalistic trope but also very much the dominant narrative within philosophy itself, I would think the most likely explanation is that Wolff simply overlooked the issue of race and racism. This is, of course, admittedly speculative.

  13. About the belligerent discussion style: I think the problem often isn’t that women are not willing to use this style of discussion, but that it isn’t socially accepted for them to do so. If I get too aggressive, I’m way more likely to be interrupted or get weird looks than my male counterparts. The aggressive style just isn’t as accessible to me because its likely result is to make me less well-liked by my peers, but I would not hesitate to use that style if that weren’t the case. To be honest I get mad when people say that I discuss things more gently than others because I’m a woman – no I don’t, I just know how to play by the rules of socially accepted behavior in women! That said, I do agree with Wolff that a less aggressive, more constructive style is better for everyone. It’s just wrong to assume that women must be the champions of that style. Let the men start the ‘being gentle’ revolution.

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