Adventures in Ethics and Science

Via Twitter, PalMD wondered if I’d seen this brief item on the New York Times Idea of the Day blog.

Writing in The Philosophers’ Magazine, Brooke Lewis says tallies of full-time faculty at top American and British colleges show women make up less than a fifth of philosophy departments in Britain and little more than that in the United States. This suggests “that gender representation is far less balanced in philosophy than it is in many other humanities subjects.”

Indeed, on quick examination, the gender balance among faculty in philosophy departments looks an awful lot like the gender balance among faculty in some typical science departments. This is not a new finding, and it’s certainly something those of us in academic philosophy have known about for some time.

The piece floats an idea for where this gender disparity might be coming from:

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level. “I can remember being a Ph.D. student and giving seminar papers and just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience,” she says. “I can easily imagine someone thinking, ‘This is just ridiculous. Why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?’ ”

There is a good bit of philosophical discourse that resembles gladiatorial combat. Some people (including some women) dig it. Other people (including some men) don’t. And certainly there are plenty of other models of philosophical engagement on display that do not make a virtue of aggression, yet still manage to focus on strengths and weakness of competing arguments.

All of which is to say: maybe the picture of “how real philosophers do philosophy” that people pick up in their graduate programs turns some of them off to philosophy as a profession, but given both the heterogeneity of Ph.D. programs in philosophy and the other sorts of societal and institutional issues that are likely to impact the leakage of women from the “philosophy pipeline”, I think it’s unlikely that a culture of aggressive argument is sufficient to explain faculty gender imbalance here.

On the other hand, to the extent that engaging in rough-and-tumble argumentation may be seen as an important competence for budding philosophers to develop, maybe philosophy graduate programs should be encouraging more of their students — especially the women — to write blogs.

Finally, a question to the New York Times Idea of the Day blog authors: Why on earth illustrate the piece with a photo of Ayn Rand rather than one of the many imminent woman philosophers currently active in philosophy or widely read in philosophy classes? Could you not think of any famous women in philosophy? If stuck, could you have maybe asked a philosopher for help with this?

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To the nitpickers in the audience: Of course, I know “science” is not a single academic field but rather an umbrella encompassing many disciplines which make up quite a number of academic fields. I smushed them all together in the interests of a punchier post title.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex
    October 6, 2009

    To the nitpickers in the audience: Of course, I know “science” is not a single academic field but rather an umbrella encompassing many disciplines which make up quite a number of academic fields.

    Sounds like somebody is used to a culture of aggressive argument with people who like to examine fine detail! :)

  2. #2 Gerardo Camilo
    October 6, 2009

    So, the majority of PhD philosophers are men, same in science, engineering, economics, geography and a whole other bunch of areas?
    So, where ARE the women???

  3. #3 andrew lorence
    October 6, 2009

    I’m confused as to what the point of this blog is about. Yes there a deficit of women in philosophy, but there are plenty of other studies, such as psychology where women outnumber men as much as 6 to 1, where women excel at. Is this supposed to reveal some kind of sexism in philosophy?

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    October 6, 2009

    All of which is to say: maybe the picture of “how real philosophers do philosophy” that people pick up in their graduate programs turns some of them off to philosophy as a profession, but given both the heterogeneity of Ph.D. programs in philosophy and the other sorts of societal and institutional issues that are likely to impact the leakage of women from the “philosophy pipeline”, I think it’s unlikely that a culture of aggressive argument is sufficient to explain faculty gender imbalance here.

    Wouldn’t that show up primarily show up in more-or-less balanced numbers of incoming grad students, with the majority of women dropping out?

    In physics, engineering, and some of the other physical science fields the biggest disparities seem to be rooted before high school — the university freshman classes are already heavily slanted. Is this true in philosophy? (I confess that my own philosophy classes were long enough ago that I don’t recall any their makeups.)

  5. #5 stripey_cat
    October 6, 2009

    If women seriously outnumber men in certain fields, we also need to consider why, and what we can do to try to encourage men into female-dominated fields.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    October 6, 2009

    If women seriously outnumber men in certain fields, we also need to consider why, and what we can do to try to encourage men into female-dominated fields.

    No safe havens?

  7. #7 Super Sally
    October 6, 2009

    Maybe growing up with 3 XY siblings had some benefits. Maybe also the legal profession leanings in the family???

    You are the sum of your experiences.

  8. #8 Vince Whirlwind
    October 6, 2009

    I used to do work for a large Maternity hospital – it was absolutely stunning to see the disparity between sexes in the occupants of the beds.
    I say we introduce a quota system to ensure that by 2020 50% of maternity hospital beds are occupied by men.

    BTW, how could Brooke Lewis have spent half a lifetime at University and still be confusing “sex” with “gender”?

  9. #9 Pat Cahalan
    October 7, 2009

    > There is a good bit of philosophical discourse
    > that resembles gladiatorial combat.

    That’s my new .sig file for the month.

  10. #10 MikeP
    October 12, 2009

    #3 Andrew wins the prize for “thank you for reinforcing the original point,” I think.

    No, it’s supposed to point out that perhaps the style of argumentation turns some (many) women off, but that might not be (probably is not) the full explanation for why the XY:XX ratio is as imbalanced as it is. It could be sexism, sure. There’s no question in other fields that’s what keeps women out (or keeps men out of certain other professions, although maybe it’s worth noting that those other professions also tend not to be as highly paid).

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