Your Philosophy Paper: Got Women?

Dear Professor Manners,


Suppose a colleague shares a paper with you in an area of philosophy you don’t work in.  And suppose the bibliography contains no citations to women.  You’d like to point this out, politely, but since this is not your area, you don’t know the literature and thus can’t point the paper author to particular articles written by women that might be consulted/cited.  (And it would be a non-trivial and time-consuming matter to do the literature review yourself.)  You really don’t want to stay silent about this, but you are feeling somewhat vulnerable for various reasons.  What is the best way to proceed?



Timid but troubled


Dear Timid but Troubled,

I think there are several polite ways one might point this out and deciding how best to approach this likely depends on your own temperament and comfort, as well as how directly you would like to make the relevant point. 


First, I think there absolutely should not be any expectation that you should research literature by women in an area not your specialty.  While knowing the literature would make this sort of situation much easier, enabling you simply to point out relevant works, philosophy as a discipline is not so far beyond the gender pale that it still contains areas in which there are no women scholars producing work.  I.e., I don’t think we need to justify or defend wanting women’s work cited by having ready-to-hand a list of materials to offer those who fail to cite it.  (I realize that some might claim there remain pockets of philosophy bereft of women producing “high quality” or “top notch” work, but these evaluative terms themselves provoke in me such despair at the absence of philosophical imagination that I won’t digress into speaking of them beyond noting that these hackneyed, vacuous expressions and the confidence with which they are typically deployed make me long for strong drink.  Even my shampoo bottle displays a richer evaluative vocabulary!)


To bring this up, then, can go several ways, but let me stick to ones that I think best answer to feeling some timidity and discomfort. 


One approach is simply to adopt a guileless curiosity.  One might say, e.g., “I notice that your bibliography does not contain any women scholars.  This made me curious: Does your specialty have a greater gender imbalance than philosophy as a whole?”   This approach is of course coming at the point via indirection and might succeed by simply alerting the writer to the way his work suggests an absence of women in the specialty.  Whether he will then do anything about his blinkered bibliography may depend on his sensitivity to subtext and his own commitments.  Philosophers can be tin-eared when it comes to subtle correction so he may miss the point or (sigh) regale you with an account of how there aren’t women writing good work in his field.  But if it’s the former, his response to the question may create a route to address the issue and if it’s the latter, you’ll know he’s presently likely a lost cause and unreceptive to altering his old boys network approach to his topic.


A somewhat bolder approach that still preserves a measure of indirection would be to rhetorically assign your concern to others.  E.g., you might say:  “I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the profession about the lower citations rates of works by women and notice you don’t have any women on your bibliography.  Given that citing work by women is becoming a more prominent issue in the profession, are there works by women you might include to forestall objections on this point?”  In this case, you’re adopting an approach akin to the way a political advisor might steer the emperor, a kind of “I have heard it said…” prelude that doesn’t directly associate you with the point being made.  The point gets made but you have a kind of softener that might ease your own discomfort.  This also might be an effective way to plant a seed of self-doubt in the writer by suggesting that he may not be as alert to issues in the profession as he should be or as alert to the variety of objections his work might generate. 


Finally, a more casual reply might be:  “I notice there aren’t any women on your bibliography.  What’s up with that?”  In this case, you’re lodging a very general question in an offhand way, a question he can take in a variety of ways but that observes the fundamental issue.  This approach is the most direct, but it may have some virtue in its very informality, allowing a kind of cover for those feeling timid by appearing to be “just a thought” that arose spontaneously rather than a “position” on the work you’re self-consciously adopting.  It conceals the gravity of your concern while assuming an ostensibly chummy collegial banter style that might simultaneously provoke him to make a change while protecting you from appearing to have a developed critique of his limited citation practices.


All of the above are, to emphasize, calibrated in accord with feeling timid and/or uncomfortable with raising the issue in more direct fashion.  They all also aim at allowing some face-saving on the part of the writer, something I think strategically useful given how often such omissions are likely to be unconscious.


Good luck!

Prof. Manners


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3 thoughts on “Your Philosophy Paper: Got Women?

  1. I think variations on the above could do the trick with syllabi too. There may be some important differences, at least in terms of discomfort, depending on one’s position (e.g., student, junior colleague, peer) and on how one came to see the syllabus.

    If one is a student who was given the syllabus in a course, asking about the state of play in the sub-field under the appearance of curiosity might suffice. After all, if one is a student, getting to know the lay of the land in the sub-field one is studying in class is pertinent.

    If one is a colleague and has been shown the syllabus by its author, I think more direct approaches apt. In that case, it is quite analogous to being shown a piece of research and asked for feedback. So any of the above could suffice.

    If one is a colleague who acquired the syllabus by some means other than being invited to view it by its author, it’s trickier. It may be in that case hard to avoid the appearance of having checked up on an colleague’s teaching, something that can easily make people defensive and less receptive. You could try avoiding that appearance by saying you sought out the syllabus for inspiration, found x, y, and z useful, but were puzzled that there aren’t more women working in the field and included in the readings. This is a kind of variation on the first response in the original posting.

    More generally, I think it useful if one has the power and position within a department to raise representation on syllabi as a departmental concern. Few departments nowadays can afford to be cavalier about recruiting and retaining majors so discussions of diversity on syllabi can be brought in at a general level.

  2. I tend to go for #3, but that’s what people expect from me in this context. In fact, I basically did exactly this a couple weeks ago in responding to the reading list for a reading group being put together by a grad student. I wanted to be helpful, so I turned to friends and Facebook for some suggestions.

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