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.


Jeff

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.

James

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

bob

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.

J1

"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?

Steve Cebalt

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.

timb

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?

Eric M. Jones

Men and women have different motivations and play different parts in society. (As a matter of fact women create society, and men...well they do something too.)

In a world created without the influence of men, there wouldn't be any skyscrapers, or Bugatti Veyrons, or supersonic airplanes, but there would be far less poverty and better health care, schools, etc.

David

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.

Eric M. Jones

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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Joshua Wooderson

'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.

Amanda

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

"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.

Amanda

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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meanonsunday

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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MaryAnne

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.

Sally

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.