Jennifer Saul on the psychological biases adversely affecting philosophy – and what we can do about it.
In the UK, women are 46% of undergraduate students in philosophy, but only 24% of permanent staff. Women are approximately 21% of professional philosophers in the US, but only 17% of those employed full-time. These figures are very unlike those for most fields of the humanities, in which women tend to be near or above parity with men. Indeed, they more closely resemble mathematics and physical sciences (biological sciences are much closer to parity). One recent study by Kieran Healy showed philosophy to bemore male than mathematics, with only computer science, physics and engineering showing lower percentages of women.
What’s the explanation for this? It used to be thought that women were simply unsuited to philosophy. As Hegel puts it: “Women can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts …. The difference between man and woman is the same as between animal and plant.”
This view is, for obvious reasons, less popular now. However, quite a few people, both feminist philosophers and philosophers of psychology, have drawn on the importantly distinct idea that women approach things differently, and that philosophy is the poorer for not fitting well with women’s ways of thinking. One version of this idea can be found in Carol Gilligan and another in very recent work by Wesley Buckwalter and Steve Stich. These claims of women’s difference, however, have never held up well empirically, as Louise Antony argues eloquently in her “Different Voices or Perfect Storm”.
Another commonly floated explanation is that women’s family commitments make it more difficult for them to progress professionally. This may well be true (studies do show that women continue to do the majority of housework and childcare). But it fails to explain why philosophy should show such a different profile than other fields of the arts and humanities, which have achieved (or surpassed) parity. If anything, one would expect it to be easier to thrive as a mother and philosopher than as a mother and scholar of French literature, who is far more likely to need to travel to archives and the like.
I am firmly convinced that there are multiple factors involved in causing the under-representation of women, factors that interact with and compound each other. One important one is the likelihood that women in philosophy experience an unusually high level of sexual harassment. It is very hard to get good data, comparative or otherwise on prevalence of sexual harassment due to very low rates of official reporting. However, many have been shocked by the stories reported at What is it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy (beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com). As the editor of this blog, I have been even more shocked by the large number of cases I have been contacted about which never appeared on the blog due to fear of identification.
Here, however, my main focus will be on implicit bias and stereotype threat, two well-established psychological phenomena. In the cases of implicit bias most relevant to this topic, people are found to hold unconscious biases against members of those groups that are negatively stigmatised in their culture. The biases take the form of, for example, a tendency to associate men rather than women more strongly with leadership. These biases are extremely widespread, and found both in members of the stigmatised groups and in those who are consciously highly egalitarian. Importantly, these biases are also very likely to be part of the explanation for the under-representation of other groups as well. We lack good data on the racial, class, sexual orientation or disability makeup of philosophy, but surely it is difficult to doubt that philosophy is overwhelmingly white, middle class, straight and non-disabled (and to a far greater degree, in fact, than it is male). These issues will not be my focus here, but it bears remembering that part of the reason there is so much discussion of women in philosophy these days is that there are now enough women in prominent positions to put this topic on the agenda. This is less so for other groups.
The implicit biases of philosophers have not yet been studied (although I’m working on it). However, there are widespread unconscious biases in our culture which bring it about that the same CV is considered less strong with a typically female or black name at the top of it, and that (for example) women having trouble being taken seriously as leaders. Women are also likely to receive weaker letters of reference and, when not marked anonymously, lower marks.
Now on to stereotype threat. This manifests itself when members of a group that is negatively stigmatised at some task are made aware of their group membership in a high stakes situation where they care about doing well. In such situations, we see underperformance from groups as diverse as white men at Princeton doing sports, girls doing mathematics and black students engaging in a test of academic ability. The reminder of group membership can come from many sources – ticking a box indicating gender, engaging in a stereotyped task (colouring in a picture of a girl holding a doll, for example) or simply being one of very few women in the room. When this happens, people who normally perform just as well as those from positively stereotyped groups see their performance decline precipitously.
Although we don’t yet have studies of philosophers, there is good reason to suppose that both implicit biases and stereotype threat play a role in perpetuating the under-representation of women in the field. In addition to biases against women that are widespread in the culture, it seems likely that philosophy as a field is stereotyped as male. Feminist philosophers have argued this point for decades (as in Sally Haslanger’s landmark “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy”). But it’s frankly what one would expect in a field that is nearly 80% male – it would be very surprising, given these demographics, if philosophy wasn’t associated with maleness. Add to this the fact that philosophy makes heavy use of logic (often requiring it for an undergraduate degree) and the well-established fact that mathematics isstereotyped, quite strongly, as male.