More on Being a Woman in a Male-dominated Field
I was never quite sure about what might be the cause of the extreme disparity of males to females in philosophy. Women make up 21% of professional philosophers. This is nowhere near their representation in other fields of the humanities. But the issue has been on my mind for a couple of reasons. First, I’m looking for a job and am unlikely to get one (glut of PhDs, horrible market). And a few other things I happened to read.
There’s this guy. See screen shot. A prominent psychobiologist who complained on Facebook that women at a conference he was attending were not hot enough. I do dearly love “no offense.” Of course, people talk like this all the time. Even in front of women! His only mistake was posting it on Facebook. I remember a lunch with a very prominent (male) philosopher (who only asked me along to the lunch because he was hitting on me) and a super-prominent ethicist and another prominent (male) philosopher. Dr. Prominent Philosopher 1 was going on pretty much exactly like this neuroscientist jerk — except with more body part descriptions and more imagined interactions — and Dr. Bigwig in Ethics was just chuckling. (Other prominent philosopher was frowning.) And I ate my soup. Because they were both prominent and might be in a position to help me further down the road. (As it happens, the frowning prominent philosopher did just write me a letter of recommendation.) This was not at all unusual in itself, notable only because of the extreme prominence of the people involved.
And then I just yesterday read this recent article on the state of women in philosophy, which changed a lot of my thoughts on the issue. I knew about implicit bias (a CV with a female name is likely to be ranked lower, letters of recommendation for females tend to emphasize stereotypically female traits, etc.)
Here’s another issue that I knew less about, stereotype threat:
[Stereotype threat] manifests itself when members of a group that is negatively stigmatised at some task are made aware of their group membership in a high stakes situation where they care about doing well. In such situations, we see underperformance from groups as diverse as white men at Princeton doing sports, girls doing mathematics and black students engaging in a test of academic ability. The reminder of group membership can come from many sources – ticking a box indicating gender, engaging in a stereotyped task (colouring in a picture of a girl holding a doll, for example) or simply being one of very few women in the room. When this happens, people who normally perform just as well as those from positively stereotyped groups see their performance decline precipitously.
Although we don’t yet have studies of philosophers, there is good reason to suppose that both implicit biases and stereotype threat play a role in perpetuating the under-representation of women in the field. In addition to biases against women that are widespread in the culture, it seems likely that philosophy as a field is stereotyped as male. Feminist philosophers have argued this point for decades (as in Sally Haslanger’s landmark “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy”). But it’s frankly what one would expect in a field that is nearly 80% male – it would be very surprising, given these demographics, if philosophy wasn’t associated with maleness. Add to this the fact that philosophy makes heavy use of logic (often requiring it for an undergraduate degree) and the well-established fact that mathematics isstereotyped, quite strongly, as male.
If this is right, then it’s very likely that women face a lot of barriers due to implicit bias. Their work is likely to be taken less seriously at every stage if not dealt with anonymously – from early student comments in discussions to work being marked and submitted for publication. (Although most refereeing in philosophy is anonymous, very little editing is and editors reject up to 65% of submissions without sending them to referees.) And these biases will continue to work against them as they apply for jobs, tenure and promotion. It bears emphasising that these biases will cause all sorts of people to fail to appreciate the quality of womens’ work – of all genders and political persuasions, including even those who are actively fighting for equality.
Stereotype threat will also cause women in philosophy to underperform. It will be regularly triggered – by exclusively or nearly exclusively male reading lists, overwhelmingly male lecturers, department seminar speakers and conference programmes. As they progress further in their careers, their colleagues will become increasingly male as well. Combine this with implicit biases, and it is not at all surprising that those who are not white males should have difficulty flourishing in philosophy.
This makes perfect sense to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’m the only female in the room. Then I wondered: this was once true in other humanities. How was it overcome there? It seems to me there are two other factors, one cited by the author of the article, one not. She writes:
[I suggest] it’s to stop talking about “who’s smart”, a widespread vice of philosophers in my experience. As Eric Schwitzgebel notes, these sweeping judgements are really very problematic: “I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as ‘seeming smart’. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male …. Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people’s associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn’t exactly in one’s expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody –all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men.”
Smartness claims are also remarkably immune to counter-evidence (“He’s smart, he just doesn’t work very hard”; “She’s not really smart, she just works very hard”). Moreover, smartness judgements are deeply tied to the notion that there is such a thing as smartness, of which some people are lucky enough to have a big dose while the unlucky get less. And this view of intelligence, Carol Dweck has shown, makes it easier for stereotype threat and implicit bias to do their nasty work. Teaching people instead that intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort helps to insulate against both phenomena. It also helps to motivate people to seek out challenges and to work hard.
This is absolutely right. I do not think other fields are as concerned with who’s really got “the stuff,” where the stuff is some innate ability granted by the naturalistic heavens and identifiable only by the kingmakers who have similar abilities. Who’s smart, and who’s smarter than who, is a constant question at grad school and beyond. I’m sure it is in other fields, too, but I think in other fields it’s actually based more on work than on some undefinable je ne sais quoi (at least, that was the case in the other field in which I got an MA and was 60% female).
The other thing I thought about was the chuckling ethicist. We philosophers think we’re especially good at seeing without bias. We think we’ve taught ourselves to look past rhetoric and irrelevant reasons and focus on the reasons that really matter. And we think that’s what we’re teaching to undergrads. Some of us even teach and write about ethics. But I wonder if this is pride that goeth before a fall. Because we think we already are better than the average Joe at seeing without bias, we think we don’t have to examine our own biases.