Why are there so few women in philosophy?

    The data on doctorates is telling. According to recent research the number of women receiving doctorates in philosophy is very near the bottom of the academic barrel.

    This blog has been looking at many facets of this problem. See our discussions of research here and here, for example. Or search our site for posts on implicit bias and stereotype threat.

    New research is opening up our understanding of another factor, which resides in the beliefs about one’s ability to succeed in a career:

    The decision to pursue a career rests in part on how we judge the following inequality:



    If we believe this inequality to be true, we might proceed; if we decide it’s false, we might look elsewhere. Importantly, however, neither side of this inequality is easy to evaluate. Abilities are nebulous, context-sensitive things that are notoriously problematic to pin down. As a result, we often look to others for clues, leaving the door open for substantial social and cultural influences on career choices. A symposium at the 2014 SPSP conference in Austin highlighted a number of recent findings that link sociocultural influences on people’s assessment of the inequality above to the presence of gender gaps.

    How do we get from sociocultural influences on this formula all the way to gender gaps? First, and most obviously, contemporary culture is rife with stereotypes about differences in men’s and women’s cognitive profiles; these stereotypes shape people’s beliefs about the quantity on the left-hand side (that is, the abilities they are likely to possess). Second, and less often discussed, practitioners of different careers may send different messages about the abilities that are required to reach the highest levels of achievement in their particular field; these messages shape people’s beliefs about the quantity on the right-hand side (that is, the abilities required for success). Putting these two elements together, we might make the following claim: One circumstance that gives rise to a gender gap in a career or discipline is when a gender group is stereotyped to lack an ability that the people in that discipline believe is essential for success.

    The post from which the quote above comes comes is full of interesting ideas and results. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the questions concerning access and opportunity.

    Here are some snippets:

    In some disciplines success may be seen as depending on sustained effort and dedication, whereas in others it may be seen as requiring a “gift” or brilliance that cannot be taught. Because women are stereotyped as being less likely than men to possess innate intellectual talent, they may find the academic fields that emphasize brilliance as the key to success to be unwelcoming. [note that the claim here is that the fields themselves may seem less welcoming. This seems different from the conclusions of Carol Dweck that we discuss in our Psychology of Philosophy section.]

    – Regardless of the purported cognitive differences men and women, or of the abilities purportedly required to become a physicist vs. a psychologist vs. an anthropologist, the mere presence of (1) different societal beliefs about the intellectual abilities of men and women, and (2) different societal beliefs about the intellectual abilities required for success in different fields will be sufficient to give rise to (or at least exacerbate) gender gaps.

    Stereotypes may have many different sources. To the extent that they contain messages about ability, this research says they may quite significantly affect career choices. Though the research is specifically about gender, we should keep it in mind as we think about issues such as the incredibly low representation of blacks in higher education in The Uk. Or the abled body whiteness of US philosophy.

    (Thanks to BL.)

8 thoughts on “Why are there so few women in philosophy?

  1. So true.
    But let’s remind us of this fact (it seems to me to be a fact on the basis of widespread experiences, at least): just as someone may decide to leave an academic pathway because of only one impressive comment on her/his abilities abeing inadequate with respect to those required, someone may decide to proceed on the grounds of encouragement and recognition of her/his abilities as e.g. a philosopher by senior colleagues, mentors or anyway just other researchers that once accessed her/his work. Perhaps only one positive comment is not enough, but many such observations help strenghtening self-confidence.
    Give feedback, give it again and again! Encourage students and young researchers that are capable dedicated, and interested, regardless your impression that they don’t have the “gift” – the chances are you or someone else are just missing their value beacuse of their self-understatement.

  2. I think the lesson that Leslie, Cimpian et al are going to draw is that we should stop valuing, or at the very least exhibit the valuing in our teaching of “smartness” and “brilliance” over “hard working” and “effort.” The primary underlying values through our teaching of content is that long hard work through thinking and writing is eventually the way through the discipline, not just being some genius. Either that or we just stop the society-wide socialization of girls that make them not want to play the “this is for smart people” game.

  3. Just wanted to put in a quick plug for the important work that Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian and their colleagues have done on this topic. The empirical work they have conducted is extraordinarily impressive. They looked at a whole range of different fields, some of which show a tragic underrepresentation of women (e.g., philosophy) and others of which are doing far better in this regard (e.g., molecular biology). They then measured various different aspects of each of these fields and checked to see which of them best predicted underrepresentation.

    Just as BL says, the key finding is that the underrepresentation of women in philosophy is due in part to something pernicious in the way people have understood philosophical work. There has been a tendency to portray success in philosophy as being the product of some kind of almost innate ‘gift’ and then to assume that the best way to assess philosophers is to try to figure out whether they have this gift or not. To the extent that we can eliminate this way of understanding the matter and focus instead on concrete accomplishment — the degree to which people actually succeed in doing something of value — it appears that we would be able to do a great deal to address the problem now facing our discipline.

  4. Joshua Knobe: thanks for bringing this out. In fact, their work is described in the article cited.

  5. Re 2 and 3: i think we need to distinguish between short term help and long term solutions. Trying to separate beliefs about ability from ones about gender is a very long term goal. i think short term help can be given by emphasizing that hard work is necessary and that the society has a number of myths that can lead one to devalue one’s work, self, etc.

    I don’t mean to make that last part sound easy.

  6. Josh, your comment is so interesting and it fits with my own desire to know how people have/are experiencing academic philosophy now. Would you mind if I quoted you in a post on this topic? I’d say something like: the research raises interesting questions..josh K registers the sense that there’s been a change. What do you think?

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