“Fair numbers” and women in philosophy: Ergo

The first time I observed in a public discussion that women are a minority of employed Philosophy professors in the U.S., I was challenged to prove it. The challenge sent me on a long and interesting hunt. I believed that if enough compelling data was presented, then its recipients would earnestly gather around discussion of what, if anything, to do. So I was a bit stumped when I pointed early readers and audience members to the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, and the worth of that data was challenged as well. Locating sources of evidence hadn’t answered the challenge, just moved the goal-posts. I redoubled my data-searching efforts for even better numbers.

But now I am persuaded that data is not sufficient — or always necessary — to motivate conversations about improving the discipline. Goal-posts can always be moved if enough challengers want to move them. The work that iced it for me is now in publication in the latest issue of Ergo, which includes an article I’ve really been looking forward to seeing available to all: “Fair Numbers: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy,” by Yann Benétreau-Dupin (Western) and Guillaume Beaulac (Yale). I invited them to give a short preview here, and this is their response:

Underrepresentation in philosophy: no need for new or better data to enact fairer practices
Yann Benétreau-Dupin & Guillaume Beaulac

It’s important to quantify the gender gap and the underrepresentation of other minority groups in philosophy. It allows us to raise awareness about that underrepresentation and to track the impact of actions taken to offset the imbalances. But data can only tell us so much. Inclusiveness and fairness can’t be defined only in terms of relative representation of different groups; an increased number of women and minorities in philosophy would not necessarily be the sign of healthier climates.

Moreover, we don’t know how much or what kind of data would be needed to convince people invoking innate differences in interest or ability to justify the underrepresentation of women and minorities. Though in principle it might be possible to determine the root cause of this underrepresentation and to decisively refute the controversial arguments of those who defend the status quo, this would likely be very time consuming and our limited resources would be better spent enacting fair and efficient practices in the profession without delay.

We need not wait for new or better data to ensure that fairer practices are enacted. Framing the need for action in terms not of numbered goals but rather fair practices would result in a redefinition of priorities. Philosophy could follow ideas that have been tried elsewhere, in other fields known for their chilly climates, fields where things have been improving in recent decades. Many effective actions can be implemented easily and their merits are difficult to deny—whatever one’s take on why there are few women and minorities in philosophy. For instance, it’s difficult to deny that anonymizing peer-review and grading is a fair practice, whether or not we think that the underrepresentation of women is a sign that the profession has gendered biases.

We’re not denying that such biases exist. But we can advocate the implementation of fairer practices (editorial practices, hiring, grading, curricula, conference organizations, etc.) without referring explicitly to the chilly climate for underrepresented groups in the profession. In a paper that just came out in Ergo (link TBD), we detail arguments for fair practices that short-circuit objections to the virtue of diversity or to the need to make philosophy a more welcoming place to women and minorities. We think that they would help change the climate for the better and have very positive outcomes for everyone in the profession.

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