Women and Philosophy

In our podcast “Women Are Not Men,” we explored why Wikipedia has such a low percentage of female editors. John Riedl, the researcher who studied the Wikipedia gender gap (and who passed away this summer), had this to say:

RIEDL: We know from a bunch of psychology studies that women tend to be made more uncomfortable by conflict than men are made uncomfortable by conflict. And so one of the ideas is maybe in Wikipedia where the fundamental nature of the site is that if you want to correct what someone else has done, the way you do that is you delete it and write them a really mean message. Well, maybe that’s creating a culture of conflict that is driving women away. They just don’t find it a place they enjoy being, and so they go places where they’re happier.

An op-ed by Linda Martín Alcoff in The New York Times reports a similar discussion in the field of philosophy, where only 16.6 percent of professors are women, and none are women of color:

Why is philosophy so far behind every other humanities department in the diversity of its faculty? Why are its percentages of women and people of color (an intersecting set) so out of tune with the country, even with higher education? What is wrong with philosophy?…

The issue is not debate, simpliciter, but how it is done. Too many philosophers accept the idea that truth is best achieved by a marketplace of ideas conducted in the fashion of ultimate fighting. But aggressive styles that seek easy victories by harping on arcane counterexamples do not maximize truth. Nor does making use of the social advantages one might have by virtue of one’s gender, ethnicity or seniority. Nor does stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the real world contexts, rife with implicit bias and power distortions, in which even philosophical debates always occur.

Sometimes, interestingly, the aim of truth is enhanced less by adversarial argument than by a receptivity that holds back on disagreement long enough to try out the new ideas on offer, push them further, see where they might go. Sometimes pedagogy works best not by challenging but by getting on board a student’s own agenda. Sometimes understanding is best reached when we expend our skeptical faculties, as Montaigne did, on our own beliefs, our own opinions. If debate is meant to be a means to truth — an idea we philosophers like to believe — the best forms turn out to be a variegated rather than uniform set.

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  1. Jeff says:

    I always thought it was because women do not have a high tolerance for bullshit, and to get through philosophy classes, you have to wade through a lot before you get to anything worthwhile.

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    • James says:

      Do you ever actually get to anything worthwhile, or do you just keep on wading ’til it’s over your head?

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    • Tarrou says:

      Women do not have high tolerance for bullshit you say? Explain sociology, a field with a lot of female professors, and chock full of bullshit top to bottom.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2
  2. bob says:

    Maybe the reason why there are so few women philosophers is because philosophy is just not as compelling a field of study as the hard sciences.

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    • Tarrou says:

      Except there are even fewer female profs in most of the hard sciences. It is not women’s desire for concrete facts that drives this disparity.

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  3. J1 says:

    “where only 16.6 percent of professors are women, and none are women of color”

    The linked article does not say that.

    “Nor does stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the real world contexts, rife with implicit bias and power distortions, in which even philosophical debates always occur.”

    A little unfair to the kettle, but true enough I suppose.

    1. What’s wrong with seeking easy victory?

    2. Is truth objective?

    3. If so, why does diversity matter?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2
    • Steve Cebalt says:

      J1 asks “Is truth objective? If so, why does diversity matter.”

      Diversity matters because there is usually more than one layer of truth. As a white man, I look at the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of my ancestors who arrived in the U.S. “yearning to be free,” giving me the good fortune to be born an American citizen. A black person might look at the statue and think about his or her ancestors and how they got here; and the reaction might be very different from mine. Both views are valid, and both perspectives add a valuable dimension.

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      • timb says:

        While it is perfectly reasonable that two people would see a specific symbol from different historical (and emotional) perspectives, this example does seem to rely on a subjective truth rather than an objective truth. It therefore appears that you are stating that diversity matters when truth is subjective.

        Does this indicate that you believe that all truths are subjective?

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      • Steve Cebalt says:

        Hi Timb: Good question: “Are all truths subjective?” I’ll answer the way that I wish more philosophers would answer:

        I have no idea.

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      • J1 says:

        The examples you give are “layers” of opinion, not truth. The truth in your example would be “people have varying opinions of what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes” or “the Statue of Liberty is a copper plated steel statue on Liberty Island”. You don’t need diversity to figure that out.

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      • Steve Cebalt says:

        Hi J1. I agree with your observations; they are objective; they are empirical. And yet I would not wish to inhabit such a sterile world of truths limited to static statements of the obvious. Perceptions are truths. Just because something is subject to more than one true interpretation does not make it untrue.

        “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
        Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” — Shakespeare

        “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

        – John Keats

        So I am not disagreeing with you; I just define things differently; I approach things from a different perspective. To your original point, that’s diversity. I never feel like I am the only one who can be right or true.

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    • Phil Persinger says:

      J1–

      Please read the fifth paragraph of the article:

      …the Digest of Education Statistics reports that in 2003 (the most recent data compiled for philosophy), the percentage of women in full-time instructional post-secondary positions was a mere 16.6 percent of the total 13,000 philosophers, a year when 27.1 percent of the doctorates went to women.

      And in the next paragraph:

      The numbers of philosophers of color, especially women of color, is even more appalling. The 2003 number quoted above of 16.6 percent full-time women philosophy instructors includes zero women of color. Apparently there was insufficient data for any racial group of women other than white women to report. The A.P.A. Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers and the Society of Young Black Philosophers reports that currently in the United States there are 156 blacks in philosophy, including doctoral students and philosophy Ph.D.’s in academic positions; this includes a total of 55 black women, 31 of whom hold tenured or tenure-track positions.

      Too often, the easy victory is achieved by a sit-com-style put-down.

      Truth, objective or not, is hidden from us mortals in its full horror— and that’s a good thing.

      Diversity matters because in the past there was little acknowledgment of its existence– and look where that got us.

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      • J1 says:

        Phil

        Please read the fourth paragraph of your post.

        “this includes a total of 55 black women, 31 of whom hold tenured or tenure-track positions.”

        The term “black women” is typically understood to describe of women of color. Tenure track positions are generally (maybe exclusively) full time. Even with the ten year old DES report the author cites, she acknowledges the possibility of insufficient data. The article does not say there are no women of color in the ranks of our philosophy professors.

        A statement of fact is not a “sitcom style put down”, though I’m not certain you’re saying it is.

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        J1–

        Thanks for your reply.

        I copied enough of the article to show that there were indeed two readings of the numbers. One reading (2003) says “zero” and the other (APA) says “55″– which is not zero, to be sure, but nevertheless is a vanishingly small percentage of the total of 13,000 or so. I assumed everyone could do the math. The question of which figure is “true” is beside the point; these are statistics, after all.

        To your larger point, though: more conscientious editing might have resulted in both numbers’ being included in the article without diminishing the argument.

        My sit-com comment is simply an observation that very often an assertion of fact is packaged and delivered as a statement of fact. You are perhaps too optimistic that the two categories are readily distinguished– even upon opening and inspection.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 13
    • David says:

      Generalizing “men” and “women” as if the gender determines the person is sexism. As a matter of fact, “women (and only women, strongly implied by your post) create society” is not a matter of fact. Where did you find this “fact”?

      Even if you believe you are being “fair” by saying women are constructive, you are actually not. Your statement implies that you agree there are fundamental differences divided by the gender, just like the misogynistic people who believe all women should cook and clean.

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      • Eric M. Jones says:

        David,

        >>Generalizing “men” and “women” as if the gender determines the person is sexism.

        Generalizing “men” and “women” as if the sex (not gender) determines the person was not my intent. Every species on Earth has differences. Men and women have many differences in skills and functions. Dogs, cats, birds, and people all have differences often strongly correlated to sex. To deny that is foolish.

        >>As a matter of fact, “women (and only women, strongly implied by your post) create society” is not a matter of fact. Where did you find this “fact”?

        Don’t read in implication to support your predjudices. Historically, pregnancy and child rearing kept women near home and hearth. Men went out and hunted. Women became more social and men more solitary. Men plowed fields and women winnowed the grain. Certainly it’s not definitive.

        >>Even if you believe you are being “fair” by saying women are constructive, you are actually not. Your statement implies that you agree there are fundamental differences divided by the gender, just like the misogynistic people who believe all women should cook and clean.

        There are fundamental differences divided by the sex (not gender). Most autistics, crazy people, criminals and geniuses are male. Most patents, most art, most engineering works are by males. It doesn’t matter where you are.

        Does this imply I am am one of those “misogynistic people who believe all women should cook and clean”? Naw. We need everyone to bring whatever skills and abilities they have to the table. I’m not interested in some pointless “which sex is superior” debate.

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    • James says:

      “In a world created without the influence of men, there wouldn’t be any skyscrapers…”

      But there would be lots of $25K handbags and $1000 high-heeled shoes.

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    • Charles Arnoud says:

      Actually, women tend to care more about tradition than men. Hence marriage still being a thing…
      In a world were women dominate maybe we would never have revolutions and, yes, the violence needed to change the establishment.

      So we probably would have even more inequality.

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  5. Joshua Wooderson says:

    ‘Nor does stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the real world contexts, rife with implicit bias and power distortions, in which even philosophical debates always occur… a receptivity that holds back on disagreement long enough to try out the new ideas on offer, push them further, see where they might go’

    This seems like a call to turn philosophy into a session of post-modernist wishy-washiness. What good does trying out the idea on offer do if it’s hopelessly implausible or simply incoherent? And is it wise to abandon the dialectical approach that has characterised philosophy for thousands of years for the sake of diversity? One gets the feeling that Ms. Alcoff is motivated more by egalitarianism than the pursuit of truth.

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  6. Amanda says:

    I used to be in philosophy and associated with philosophers. One major issue is that it operates like a cult in many circles and is not very inclusive. Cultural influences often times strong effect the way that people reach agreement. Outsiders may have a hard time being recognized because less people are keyed into their language, their modes of argument, their wider values. Frequently, you also get people who are just not as nice in philosophy departments and who honestly do not care about things like diversity. Generally I think that nicer people tend to be more apt to try to include outsider voices. Also, philosophy is still thought to be transcendental in many departments so people don’t think it is an academic obligation to think about anything that has not occupied philosophers of the past thousand years or more.

    I find a lot of philosophers to be pretty obnoxious and I do think that cultural differences and very unorthodox stances on some seminal issues made it hard for me to continue my studies. It would have been a lot easier if I were a white woman from a historical town in the east coast or some place in Ohio. Things like this are not supposed to matter but what you’re getting in most philosophy departments is heavy insider language and very mediocre work. They’re not necessarily rewarding brains and innovation but cohesion and conformity. Do I miss it? No.

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    • J1 says:

      “They’re not necessarily rewarding brains and innovation but cohesion and conformity”

      That’s not unique to the philosophy department, alas, but philosophy thrives outside the academic realm. The two greatest philosophers that ever lived, Jack Handey and E.L. Kersten, are not academics.

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      • Amanda says:

        One of my favorite philosophers is George Bataille. He is rarely read in philosophy classrooms, in which disciplined argumentation is usually the focal point. I agree that philosophy can thrive outside of academia, Wittgenstein while a part of the academy encouraged people to leave the academy. He did a lot of what people would think of as more menial jobs. i.e. grammar school instructor. He actually even published a book to help students learn spelling. Some of his fans did things like drop out of Oxford to go and become mechanics.

        Frequently, journalists do a great job of writing interesting intellectual books. It’s not so much that they are generalists, it’s also that they have to sell books to sustain themselves. My vote for best philosopher that ever lived is Foucault. I don’t know that academia is doing much to encourage a great generation of philosophical thinkers, most of what I read is pretty dumb when you get past the technical lingo.

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        Amanda–

        J1 is not taking your post seriously.

        Jack Handey

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Handey

        and E.L. Kersten

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Despair,_Inc.

        are parodist/humorists. If you think H.L. Mencken or Ambrose Bierce did philosophy, then Handey and Kersten are indeed right up there with Bataille and Wittgenstein.

        On the other hand, maybe J1′s philosophy bar is set quite low. I wonder where Paula Poundstone and Wanda Sykes fit into his schema…

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      • Amanda says:

        Hi Phil,

        Thanks for clarifying. I don’t follow comedians very much. Lots of people call themselves philosophers, the most important tools of the trade are lots of time and an ability to make nonsense arguments out of nothing. I think for me, what set me back was that I didn’t have the right personality for it.

        First of all, there are a lot of racist people in departments like philosophy, and not having any role-models who have been through it, was not helpful. People seemed to think I was very conservative and followed orders well. Not true at all. I found that others with less talent did better because they appealed better to the interests of the professor and really plied them with sweet talk.

        If I had someone like Foucault teaching and providing mentor advice, who knows, I might have made it. However, a lot of departments were as free as Sparta, and I had to deal with a lot of bullies because I was often the most precocious person in the class and could answer the majority of the questions. What happened sometimes was that a professor would give me a hard time and start asking me impossible questions that could not be answered with 5 seconds to think about it in front of a whole class.

        Not fair. After dealing with so many jerks, why would I want to be poor my whole life writing essays that only get me an adjunct position shuttling between 5 schools and teaching 7 classes a semester? I am rational enough to recognize that I want health care and would like to own some property.

        I don’t see why so many people claim to teach philosophy when they are just rigid control freaks who are at best, rhetoricians. I don’t think philosophers as they stand today have much value to offer, Plato banished the poets in his perfect state, maybe I’d banish ‘philosophers’ in mine.

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        Amanda–

        With a tip o’ the hat to J1, here’s where comedy and philosophy (excepting Kierkegaard) overlap on their Venn diagram:

        http://snltranscripts.jt.org/78/78hcochise.phtml

        Sounds like you may have had a similar experience– except perhaps for the presence of at least three women in the classroom.

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    • Amanda says:

      Phil–

      Thanks for the snl link, it’s nice however to see that they’re hiring less beacons of WASPishness from Harvard/Princeton/Yale to staff. I can’t see how it is possible to make a funny joke about Thomas Hardy. People can try, but I doubt the possibility of success. I grew up listening to Adam Carolla on”loveline.” Best radio show ever! My sense of humor derives from poking fun with a kind of sarcastic something, something. The something, something hopefully contains wit, but wit is not necessary.
      More Rabelaisian and absurd, than pedantically parodic.

      If I lived in France before the revolution I’d be writing lots of little pamphlets making fun of people.
      I like snarky humor.

      As for philosophers in the classroom. It’s kind of a men are from mars women are from venus situation. Men like to gather and debate things that are philosophical, women tend to spend more time gathering together to discuss arsenic in apple sauce or talk about yoga. I work with a lot of women, and all I hear is yoga this yoga that. There are apparently many ways to involve yoga in conversation.

      For women in the past who wanted to go beyond being child making machines and domestic managers, well, there was being a courtesan. Martha Nussbaum got really offended when a classicist referred to her as a hetaira. Basically, a greek courtesan. I don’t think she should have been that offended. For most of human history a woman is valued based on good looks, health to have children, and not much else. In many countries, beauty is the greatest gift you can be born with. If there were no pretty women in philosophy, pretty as Martha was when she was younger, I think all philosophers would just drink beer and exchange ideas in a homo-erotic environment. Yes, they’d be married, with kids, but they’d find their soul mates in each other and rely on professional women to worship them, birth babies, and not complain about their bad style and poor manners.

      Anyways, in my philosophy classes I usually liked the girls more, and not based on what they said. In one class I was standing for a long time, and a girl gave me her spot. In another class, as I presented on Rousseau, a girl started crying! She was so emotionally moved she cried. I barely cared that random guys argued against me, or by the end, just didn’t even try and kind of talked amongst themselves and were happy when I was too lazy to read the books.

      Philosophy is pretty pointless, in many respects. I would choose an ex-sex worker who could write great essays on Derrida than mr. perfect from Oxford who has published a boring article on “The Apology” Sorry, but I want to hear what a pretty woman has to say on philosophy more than absorbing more of the boring conformist assertions that are too..mild.

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  7. meanonsunday says:

    First, if you make your reference point hard sciences rather than humanities (and I think most philosophers would) then philosophy is not unusual in attracting a low percentage of women. While I can well believe the op-ed in it’s description of the faculty of a philosophy department this does not fit at all with the many math or physics professors of my aquaintance and so as a fundamental reason for the lack of women it just isn’t credible.

    Second, one of the driving forces behind the increasing number of women obtaining PhDs in the sciences is the influx of top students from overseas (primarily India and China). Philosophy is less attractive to foreign students, partially due to a larger language barrier than with the sciences, but also because foreign students are strongly motivated by financial incentives. A PhD in math or physics brings a large premium with many highly paid jobs and low competition from US natives (who legally have first right to those jobs). The market for philosophers is weaker, and the competition is more often an American.

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  8. MaryAnne says:

    To me, question 1 was not relevant. Question 2 and 3 were quite good when put together. But you know that everyone is going to get stuck on question 2. Nice analytical construct. Thanks for the provocation.

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    • Sally says:

      I too studied philosophy in one of the top departments in the nation. Was very disappointed to find a group of men with huge egos essentially sparing. Truth was not the goal as much as “winning” through semantic posturing. I really felt at the time that philosophy would be all the richer by bringing in the more intuitive, cooperative methods of pursuing truth that in my experience tend to be more characteristic of women. And that’s why I ended up leaving the field. Nothing inherently wrong with the discipline of philosophy but with how it has progressed in a male dominated academy. A vivacious cycle, yes.

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