Philosophy and Sexism

Essay prompts debate over paucity of women in top departments and in the pages of top journals.
September 10, 2007

Sally Haslanger's latest paper won't appear until next year, in the journal Hypatia, but a version she posted online is attracting considerable attention by pointing out the limits of progress for women in philosophy.

Haslanger studied the gender breakdowns in the top 20 departments (based on The Philosophical Gourmet Report) and found that the percentage of women in tenure track positions was 18.7 percent, with two departments under 10 percent. She also looked at who published in top philosophy journals for the last five years and found that only 12.36 percent of articles were by women. Figures like that might not shock in some disciplines, but they stand out in the humanities. In history, for examples, a 2005 report found women making up 18 percent of full professors and 39 percent of assistant professors.

A full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Haslanger acknowledges in the paper that she and others have achieved success, and she praises MIT (which in the past has studied its treatment of women in the sciences) for its equitable environment. But Haslanger recounts numerous examples in her paper of "blatant discrimination" that she has encountered, as deans from various colleges call to ask about tenure recommendations they have received, as professors have shared stories with her, and that she personally experienced as she rose through the philosophy ranks at several highly regarded departments.

"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 she was returning to philosophy as a 'mature' student), or was in a long distance relationship," she writes. "For some reason, this never seems to be an issue with men."

Many graduate programs have few women as students, suggesting the problem could get worse. Haslanger writes that when she taught at the University of Michigan in the 1990s, three consecutive cohorts of grad students had no women. Haslanger earned her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1985. Because she was the only woman in her class, and the only women in the classes two years ahead and behind her dropped out, she ended up as the only woman in five years of cohorts.

"I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest that 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," she writes.

To judge from comments posted about her essay on Crooked Timber and other blogs, many women in graduate school today remain the only women in their programs -- and experience variations on what Haslanger described.

In her essay, Haslanger also discusses other issues, such as a general skepticism about feminist approaches to philosophy and an ingrained -- and sometimes unknowing -- bias of many professors. She also writes that the discipline is losing women to related fields, especially cognitive sciences, where women feel more welcome. "Most women and minorities who are sufficiently qualified to get into grad school have choices," she writes. "They don't have to put up with this mistreatment."

And the treatment extends to professors like Haslanger. She recently published an article in Noûs, a top philosophy journal, that dealt in part with issues of gender and race. A male philosopher sent the journal an e-mail, copying Haslanger, that said "why are you publishing this kind of junk?" and going on to make "demeaning and belittling comments."

Does philosophy have a gender problem that is worse than other disciplines?

Among those who think so is David Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association. While he said he didn't want to overgeneralize, he said that "clearly we have some significant enclaves of chauvinism." The association is currently planning to collect data on women and employment in the discipline.

"I suspect philosophy is in many respects different from other humanities," he said. "Obviously none of this should justify sexism in any sense. But the culture of philosophy is halfway between the culture of humanities and the culture of mathematics." He also said that there "are quarters in the profession where feminist philosophy is not highly regarded."

He said that while analytic feminism and feminist philosophy of science are well respected, many philosophers are skeptical of postmodern feminism. Journals like Hypatia that publish important feminist work are not always considered important in tenure decisions, he said.

Miriam Solomon, a professor of philosophy at Temple University who has served on the philosophy association's committee on the status of women, said Haslanger's article was on target and important. In part, it is the discipline that creates the tension, she said. Abstraction and formalism, which are major approaches to the field, "are associated with masculine forms of thinking." Then, she said, because women have not reached a critical mass, sexist remarks are made and go unchallenged -- in ways that would not be socially acceptable in other fields.

She also said that all feminist work seems to be questioned. As to Schrader's distinction between analytic and postmodern feminist thought, she said that "a lot of feminists would say 'I'm neither analytic nor postmodern.' "

Haslanger considers her work very much in the analytic model, but noted that hasn't stopped her from experiencing sexism. She said that one theory she has is that so much emphasis is placed on argument in the field that there is a culture that rewards the belittling of others, especially women. This may make philosophy more difficult than many other disciplines for women -- at least as long as there are many sexists around, she said.

"In science, you have the data. In literature you have the text. In history, you have archives, and in mathematics you have the proof. In all of these areas, you have some external basis," she said "In philosophy of science and history of philosophy, women tend to do better because you can show the text and prove your interlocutor wrong. In metaphysics and epistemology, there is nothing except the argument, and a lot of it comes down to the bravado of the person."

While Haslanger hasn't made formal proposals for reform, in her essay and in the interview, she spoke of the importance of ensuring that women receive equal treatment through blind review of journal submissions and that "efforts ought to be made to make sure women aren't solo in graduate programs."

Commentary online about Haslanger's piece has generally been positive (she said in the interview that she had been expecting a backlash), although there have been some disagreements about what to do about the situation. In the Crooked Timber discussion, some worried about different standards that might be used by graduate departments to admit more women. In a posting on the philosophy blog Thoughts, Arguments and Rants, Brian Weatherson, a philosopher at Cornell University, praised Haslanger for raising the issues, but said he wasn't sure about blind reviewing. He wrote that he thinks non-anonymous review journals have been doing a better job at publishing women than those with blind reviews.

"I suspect unconscious discrimination is more of an issue at this time than conscious discrimination," Weatherson writes. "I mean, I can’t imagine thinking 'I’m not going to publish this because it’s by a woman.' But I can imagine thinking 'I’m not going to publish this because it doesn’t have features X, Y or Z that I regard as key virtues of a philosophy paper,' where, in practice, virtues X, Y or Z are virtues that are more commonly found in papers written by men than by women."

Weatherson also noted -- as did Haslanger -- that good data do not exist on submission rates of women to these journals. (Several journal editors declined to comment or did not respond to messages seeking their views.)

Haslanger said that while she doesn't have a precise plan of action, it was important "to hold journals and departments accountable" for their decisions, and to encourage more discussion. Two tables from her study follow. As for discussion, it appears that she has succeeded.

Percentage of Female Authors in Leading Philosophy Journals, 2002-7

Journal Female Authors
Ethics 19.3%
Journal of Philosophy 13.3%
Mind 6.4%
Noûs 11.6%
Philosophical Review 11.1%
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12.3%
Philosophy and Public Affairs 14.0%
Total 12.4%

Percentage of Tenured and Tenure-Track Positions Held by Women in Top Philosophy Departments, 2006

1. New York U. 11%
2. Rutgers U. 13%
3. Princeton U. 19%
4. U. of Michigan 4%
5. U. of Pittsburgh 15%
6. Stanford U. 25%
7. Harvard U. 25%
8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 18%
9. U. of California at Los Angeles 17%
10. Columbia U. 36%
11. U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 13%
12. U. of California at Berkeley 18%
13. U. of Arizona 28%
14. U. of Notre Dame 12%
15. U. of Texas at Austin 7%
16. Brown U. 23%
17. Cornell U. 21%
18. U. of Southern California 15%
19. Yale U. 35%
20. U. of California at Irvine 19%


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