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That’s a funny place to keep your reasoning ability

October 7, 2009, 12:14 am

Via Leiter, an article on why philosophy lags behind the other humanities’ disciplines in gender parity.   Overall, the discipline is about 75% male, and so it’s quite possible to be the only woman in one’s cohort (or one’s program) or department.  This gives philosophy a reputation as a  bit of a boys’ club, and it’s not one that’s entirely undeserved. Let me riff.

Mention that philosophy is more like math and physics in terms of gender distribution, and a certain sort of philosopher will puff up with pride, metaphysical thumbs tucked behind metaphorical suspenders.  We’re not soft, and womanish, after all, like English or those boylovers in Athens, comparative literature.  Our discipline is tough, with rigor and verbal sparring.  Our aim is to make the speaker cry! It’s no wonder some women can’t hack it; some men can’t either!   Perhaps the male brain is just naturally more suited to this tough discipline; women are best off flower-arranging or using their natural female gifts to think about people.  Maybe they just don’t like philosophy, because as Adeimantus noted, if you continue with it beyond early adulthood, at worst you end up a crank, and at best you end up useless.  We see these sorts of explanations offered in the article as reasons that women are underrepresented in philosophy.

If women do decide to pursue a Ph.D., they’re better off in feminist philosophy, or ethics, or aesthetics, or maybe ancient philosophy (well, someone has to learn ancient Greek…), or one of the soft-and-less-prestigious subdisciplines.

To my mind,  we have to be careful to distinguish rigor and aggressive argument from institutional culture.  Women flourish in law and linguistics and many of the hard sciences, and I wouldn’t want to have to defend the claim that there are no aggressive arguments in plush cuddly courtrooms or no technical prowess required in linguistics, because it is hard to defend false claims.   Kieran’s old but excellent post puts it well:

[...]the key problem with stereotypes is that they are too flexible. Aren’t women also supposed to be endless talkers, complainers, nit-pickers and more detail-oriented than men? Sounds like a perfect background for philosophy to me.

I think the stereotype that contemporary analytic philosophy is just too tough for most women has more to do with how philosophers would like to see themselves rather than anything particular about women’s aptitude.  Really, you should just read Kieran’s whole post.  Assuming that the gender distribution can be explained easily as due to women’s choices (made of course in a vacuum) strikes me as far too quick; at least, I know which way I’d bet.

(Moreover, three generations ago I’m sure the same argument could be made about why women simply didn’t choose to become English professors or lawyers or biologists.)

Part of the problem with nailing down the cause of the unequal distribution is that these days overt discrimination is relatively rare, though you get the odd old jerk now and then.  Female philosophers of a certain age can tell you stories that would curl your hair (or uncurl it, depending on your hair.)  Philosophy, however, does strike me as having an institutional culture that skews masculine, and one that could make it hard for a woman to flourish, but the culture itself is hard to root out.

An example: I know a couple of groups of philosophers, at different institutions, get together to play basketball.  And in at least some of these cases, philosophers being philosophers, talk turns to philosophy and someone will suggest a reading group, or co-authoring a paper, or just getting together to talk over a paper over a beer.  Simple networking.  Nothing bad.

Now imagine you’re a short petite klutzy woman who was invited to play, but chose not to, because in a department full of men twice your size you’re not quite comfortable with a full-contact sport.   You haven’t done anything wrong — this wasn’t a required activity — but now you just haven’t heard about the reading group.  They didn’t mean to exclude you, and you didn’t mean to ignore them, but now they’ve got a little network and you’re on the outside.  It’s nothing you can complain about, because there’s truly nothing wrong with playing basketball with fellow philosophers.

Add to this small subtle slights (having objections to arguments ignored until someone male re-presents them is classic) as well as typical institutional sexism (“we don’t need a maternity policy because for some reason, with our faculty having stay-at-home-wives, it’s always just worked out when we play it by ear”), and philosophy looks less and less attractive.  I think the sociologist-types call it a tipping point problem or something like that; once there’s enough women in the profession, many of these problems tend to solve themselves because the culture changes, plus there are successful female role models.  It’s hard to know what to do to get to that point, but I think we move in the wrong direction when we suggest that it’s merely a problem of individual interest in pursuing philosophy.

I’d recommend Sally Haslanger’s paper on women in the profession.  In closing, I note without much comment that philosophy has even fewer minorities than it has women; it’s a very pale male profession, and it’s hard to believe that everyone else is just naturally less inclined to philosophize.

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