Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Why There Aren't Many Women in Philosophy

While I am recommending some interesting papers for MMF readers to take a look at, I thought I would mention Sally Haslanger's paper, "Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)," which you can access in pdf format from her website. I have certainly discussed the difficulties of women in Philosophy before on this blog, but I think I was not as brave as Haslanger in pointing out the bullshit. I have often remarked to my colleagues that I think the climate in Philosophy is more hostile to women than the hard sciences. I think that this sort of sexism is particularly bad in Analytic Philosophy circles. There is plenty of crap in Continental circles, which is my specialty, but for whatever reason it seems that Continental departments have done a better job incorporating women and people of color than the leading Analytic departments have.

Moreover, Continental Philosophy is better at embracing Feminist and Race theory than Analytic. The most overtly sexist comments that I ever received from other Philosophers were always from Analytics. One, which I have talked about before, came from my Metaphysics professor in college who claimed that women were not well-suited for Philosophy. Many others I endured from an ex-boyfriend (before I wised up!), who was a student a UPenn. He spent hours pointing out to me how Feminist theory (my field) was quite simply not Philosophy and he said that only one woman out of all the women who ever presented at his grad program was capable of making an argument, even though it was not a compelling one.

Haslanger writes:

The situation for women in philosophy has been changing over the past several decades and every woman’s experience is different. I was in graduate school at Berkeley between 1979-1985. I have held tenure-track or tenured positions in five schools. I am now a full professor. But the rank of full professors is broad and there are many women, such as my wonderful colleague Judith Thomson, who came through in an era in which the situation was very different from and, to my mind, much worse than mine. So there has been progress. However, that there are trends that have continued throughout my time in the profession, because I see evidence of them today.

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination. I think a lot of philosophers aren’t aware of what women in the profession deal with, so let me give some examples. In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.

I mention these anecdotes (and there are many more) not in order to gain sympathy, or because they are especially egregious, but because this sort of thing still happens all the time. When I was at the University of Michigan in the mid-90’s there were three consecutive graduate student classes with no women. When this was raised as an issue, the majority of faculty hadn’t even noticed it. In many departments women find themselves solos on faculties or in graduate school cohorts. Virtually all minorities in philosophy find themselves solos. Surviving as a solo is a painful and difficult process I’ll discuss more below.

Moreover, blatant discrimination has not disappeared. I’ve witnessed plenty of occasions when a woman’s status in graduate school was questioned because she was married, or had a child (or took time off to have a child so was returning to philosophy as a “mature” student), or was in a long-distance relationship. For some reason, this never seems to be an issue for men. I know many women who have interests and talents in M&E who have been encouraged to do ethics or history of philosophy. I’ve been contacted as recently as this year by graduate student women’s groups and individual women to help them strategize about problems they are facing as women in their programs, problems that include alleged sexual harassment, hostile or chilly climate, and various sorts of unfairness. I am contacted by Deans who are reevaluating tenure decisions of women (and minorities) to comment on norms and practices in philosophy that seem to have disadvantaged the tenure candidate in question. And I never cease to be amazed.
My point here is that I don’t think we need to scratch our heads and wonder what on earth is going on that keeps women out of philosophy. In my experience it is very hard to find a place in philosophy that isn’t actively hostile towards women and minorities, or at least assumes that a successful philosopher should look and act like a (traditional, white) man. And most women and minorities who are sufficiently qualified to get into grad school in philosophy have choices. They don’t have to put up with this mistreatment. Many who recognize that something about choices is relevant have explained to me that women choose not to go into philosophy because they have other options that pay better or have more prestige. This may be true for some, but this doesn’t sound like the women I know who have quit philosophy (and it sounds a lot more like the men I know who have quit). Women, I believe, want a good working environment with mutual respect. And philosophy, mostly, doesn’t offer that.
Haslanger then proceeds to give an account for why this overt and more subtle sexism and racism remains in place in Philosophy by turning to the work of Virginia Valian, specifically her book Why So Slow?:The Advancement of Women. Valian introduces the notion of gender schemas (which works for race as well) that operate as powerful unconscious biases. They are not as overt as stereotypes. Valian defines schemas as:

a mental construct that, as the name suggests, contains in a schematic or abbreviated form someone’s concept about an individual or event, or a group of people or events. It includes the person’s or group’s main characteristics, from the perceiver’s point of view, and the relationship among those features.” (Valian 1998, 104).
When we use schemas, we tend to interpret the actions, behaviors of other or make predictions about others in ways that are consistent with our schemas. The schemas of women and minorities in Philosophy are exceptionally damaging. The only way to overcome this kind of deep bias is to make these schemas explicit and change them.

I think the insight that I like best in Haslanger's paper is how combative and aggressive the atmosphere in Philosophy is. She writes:

As feminist philosophers have been arguing for decades, the familiar dichotomies with which Anglophone philosophy defines itself map neatly onto gender dichotomies, e.g., rational/emotional, objective/subjective, mind/body; ideals of philosophy, e.g. penetrating, seminal, rigorous, and what we do, e.g., attack, target, demolish an opponent, frame it as masculine and in opposition to the feminine (my emphasis).
I highlighted the words that really resonate with my experience and what I have never loved the way many male philosophers behave. Giving a paper at the APA, especially if the room is packed with Analytic philosophers, is like a death match. I have only had to endure this once when I was sharing the panel with a well-known Analytic Philosopher. The goal is not to help make sense of the argument, explore the argument, and see if it helps us get closer to understanding about some phenomena. The goal, for the audience, is to leave you bloody and eviscerated. Look for the weaknesses of the argument and bring the whole thing down, rather than help the author shore up those weaknesses. Professional philosophy is a "winner-take-all" contest.

I don't know how effectively or quickly one can change these social norms, but I am all for it. I have never understood what added value this behavior has. Some philosophers consider it "rigor," but I just think their assholes.