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. Shane L says:

    Diversity could be useful if it meant a larger number of ideas were being contributed to debate. It’s plausible that people of similar backgrounds could arrive with similar preconceptions that might lead them to miss alternative explanations. Whether sex and ethnicity are the types of diversity that matter most (rather than socio-economic class, urban/rural background, nationality, language, etc.) in the development of alternative ideas is open to question of course.

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  2. Sumati M says:

    This seems a bit weird. But yes though women may not be comfortable with conflict, women are not uncomfortable reading about conflicts without expressing an opinion and women tend to read philosophy as much as men especially as they age.

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  3. Elsebet Jegstrup says:

    Too bad that most think philosophy is not for women or for other ethnic men or women. The problem is that most philosophy in this country is concentrated on logic and analytical analysis. But this is empty and says nothing about human experience. But there is a whole other kind of philosophy that brings so much more that would be important to anyone. This is Continental Philosophy which follows the Platonic understanding of philosophy: “a meaningful representation of human existence in the world.” Surely that is worth while for anyone!

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    • James says:

      “The problem is that most philosophy in this country is concentrated on logic and analytical analysis. But this is empty and says nothing about human experience.”

      Logic is what makes philosophy…philosophy, and it’s all about having a meaningful, clear and comprehensible discussion about questions like the “purpose of human existence in the world”. Imagine reading a philosophy paper full of contradictions where the writer says one thing over here but in the next sentence denies it completely. The paper would be, by definition, unintelligible because the reader would not be reading anything definite. The reader would be reading a paper without “meaning”, and until logic is introduced, then no meaning can legitimately be derived from that paper.

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  4. ringsofsaturn says:

    http://freakonomics.com/2013/09/12/women-and-philosophy/#comments

    I’m female and I’ve always loved philosophy and theory – and also leaned towards more science orientated philosophy. I’ve also embraced analytical philosophy as much as humanist, etc.

    I agree and have heard in many other discussions in other fields where there aren’t as many women, that for a large part the environment, ‘structure’ and the general way people interact in said fields are still built on a very masculine model of behaving. (not to get too into gender stereotyping which i also believe is part of the problem anyways – too much us or them versus acknowledgement of a complex mixture of both)

    But yes, I’m not particularly into conflict or aggressive bullying behaviour as a way to communicate – I’d rather have cooperation and discussion versus aggressive confrontation. Although I don’t want to label it male or female as I know a fair few women that are quite aggressive themselves. If we could get the actual statistics on this type of comfort with this interaction versus going by generalisations of male/female behaviour it would be very interesting, particularly if we could chart the changes over time also. If we could reach some middle ground where we could accommodate the full spectrum of human interaction that would really be ideal – as like or lump it women are half the population.

    I have a theory that women have as much if not more aggressive tendencies as some men – but we have learned to repress this and have been socialised to do so also over history – we are the ‘repositories’ of ethical/moral behaviour (that is a descriptive statement, not a proscriptive one) – see the uproar on women drinking more and becoming more ‘laddish’ – all the negative things about them drinking could equally apply to men but it doesn’t get anywhere near as much media attention – that leaves this behaviour to be unaccountable in men – or the old ‘boys will be boys’…

    On a side note, I’ve had the phenomenon also in person when engaged in discussion, critique, etc. of saying something and not being heard and then a man saying the same thing a bit later and him being acknowledged for it. Makes it a bit more discouraging to want to stay in that environment, of not being heard. I’m a quiet-ish asian female of demure stature, but with strong opinions and intellect. One might argue I may need to become louder and more aggressive, but you could equally say that others should learn to listen more considerately to everyone – including the less aggressive ones…

    Another argument could be that society is aggressive/competitive only responds to the loud aggressive people to get on – so you have to acquire those skills – ‘a man’s world’ (I can’t believe I’m still using that term now even!) But is this inherent and unchangeable, again descriptive versus proscriptive? Can we not question things can be different? I wonder about the idea of ‘soft power’…

    I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water – the world is also made up of half men – we have to understand the complexity of including both realities and tendencies – this requires empathy though, a trait not necessarily championed in today’s society.

    (to confuse things even further i’ve often been accused by men of ‘thinking like a man’ … usually said in a disparaging way – I think it must be the way I look versus the way I think, feels quite limiting in itself )

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  5. vigocha says:

    Why are there so few women philosophers?

    Ironically, that might just be the very question that provides enough motivation for more women to break all those gender barriers and get into philosophy big time.

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  6. James says:

    It’s amazing how this has bothered so many female columnists/writers. The Philosopher is the “wise thinker”, which is an ideal that women simply cannot identify with, and that fact infuriates them. They make excuses like blaming it on the ‘academic environment’, but is that really the reason? Or is it that they are generally too close-minded and don’t like to be criticized because they can’t handle the fact that they may be wrong about some of the big questions in life? This is a wake-up call for women. If you don’t like philosophy, then get out and don’t degrade philosophy by imposing diversity… in a discipline that discusses/analyzes the very notion and moral worth of “diversity” and “progress”. So, don’t tell the philosophy department that they haven’t “progressed” before you have defined “progress” and rigorously argue why it would be counter-productive to “social justice” to not address the gender imbalance that exists in the discipline.

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