Problems with ‘Problems with the Discrimination Hypothesis’

Via Daily Nous, philosophers Neven Sesardic and Rafael de Clercq have written a paper called ‘Women in Philosophy: Problems with the Discrimination Hypothesis’. The paper is broad in scope – covering, among other things, problems with the empirical science behind the ideas of implicit bias, IAT tests, and stereotype threat and the possibility both of pro-feminist bias in which papers on these topics get accepted for publication and which papers in philosophy get accepted for publication (discrimination hypotheses to which the authors seem to apply rather more lax standards for evidence). It’s quite a list of topics for a relatively short paper.

I don’t have the time or the knowledge base to adequately discuss all the issues brought up in the paper. So in this post I’m just going to focus on two bits of it. (Hopefully our readers can weigh in in the comments.) First, this passage:

In her 2008 article “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone),” MIT professor of linguistics and philosophy Sally Haslanger provides a table with percentages of women among the faculty of the top twenty graduate programs in philosophy in the U.S., ranging from 4 percent to 36 percent, and concludes that “the data mostly speak for themselves.”[5] But again, the data don’t speak for themselves at all. Without additional information, it is impossible to draw any conclusion.

To establish even a prima facie case for anti-woman hiring bias, it would be necessary to first compare the percentage of women among the job applicants with the percentage of women among job recipients. Only if the latter percentage is lower than the former is there prima facie evidence for hiring discrimination against women.

University of British Columbia professor of philosophy Andrew Irvine compared exactly these percentages in the Canadian academic job market over a twenty-year period ending in 1996.[6] According to his estimations, the percentage of female job recipients was on the whole higher than the percentage of female job applicants, which led him to conclude that “if systemic discrimination is occurring within contemporary university hiring, it is more likely to be occurring in favor of, rather than against, women.”[7]

To begin with, when Haslanger says that ‘the data mostly speak for themselves’, she isn’t referring merely to the employment data. I encourage everyone to refer back to her paper to see just how much data she compiled. Secondly, she’s focusing on the number of women employed in ‘top’ PhD granting philosophy departments in the US. In response, Sesardic and de Clercq refer to this paper which looks at employment information across all academic disciplines and all universities in Canada. How the information in the latter speaks to the former is unclear – especially since no philosophy-specific information whatever is given in the latter. Moreover, the paper in question doesn’t actually do what the authors suggest, which is to “compare the percentage of women among the job applicants with the percentage of women among job recipients”. The paper has no data – from philosophy or anywhere else – about the actual numbers of women and men applying for jobs. It estimates those numbers, based on the assumption that these percentages will (again, across all disciplines) exactly mirror the number of PhDs awarded. That’s a pretty big assumption. The authors go on to discuss a few more studies in a similar vein, but again none of these give any philosophy-specific, or indeed any non-Canadian, information (and some are specifically focused on the sciences).

What’s striking is that we do have quite a lot of – much more recent – philosophy-specific data courtesy of the hard work of Carolyn Dicey Jennings that’s directly relevant to the issue the authors are discussing. (Jennings data suggests that women get jobs in philosophy at roughly the same rate they get PhDs in philosophy.) The authors, however, do not discuss this data.

Now I’m going to turn my attention to this passage:

“Isms” Found in Article Titles

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Number of Times Used

Feminism, feminist


Empiricism, empiricist


Materialism, materialist


Idealism, idealist


Rationalism, rationalist


Naturalism, naturalist


The number of SEP articles that contain “feminism” (or “feminist”) in the title is more than four times higher than the number of all articles combined whose titles mention empiricism, materialism, idealism, rationalism, or naturalism.

These numbers suggest that, far from sidelining feminism, philosophers make extra efforts to dedicate an inordinate amount of space to feminism, and precisely in those all-important publications that are focused on presenting the state of the art in philosophy to its practitioners as well as to the wider public.

Furthermore, even top philosophy journals have occasionally relaxed their standards to make place for feminist articles.

For authors very concerned that feminists are being careless in what the data suggests, that’s a relatively strong claim for what these numbers suggest. Suppose, for example, that we turned our attention from how often words appear in the titles of papers to how often they appear in the SEP in general. We get a rather different picture. A quick googling suggests the following. ‘Feminism’ appears 385 times in the SEP. In contrast, ’empiricism’ appears 573 times, ‘naturalism’ 569 times, ‘idealism’ 505 times, ‘materialism’ 431 times. (Some other ‘ism’s, if you’re curious: ‘realism’ 1050 times, ‘consequentialism’ 303 times, ‘pluralism’ 492 times, ‘dualism’ 435 times. For whatever that’s worth.)

Whether the occasional admission of feminist philosophy to top philosophy journals is evidence of those journals ‘relaxing their standards’ is, it’s fair to say, not a a hypothesis fully supported by the evidence. The authors – despite their strong objection, within the paper, to claims of bias based on anecdote alone – give only one purported example (of a paper published in AJP, which they don’t like.)

I want to leave aside the question of whether Sesardic and de Clercq are correct in their assessment of what the standards of evidence should be for establishing gender bias in philosophy. The simple point I am making here is that their paper doesn’t meet their own standards of evidence.