Seven philosophers are interviewed in The Guardian in the wake of a recent report by the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit that found that “among non-Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, philosophy is one of the most male-dominated, with men accounting for 71.2% of the profession” in the UK. They were asked “Why aren’t there more female philosophers? And how can university departments become more inclusive?”
The interviewees are Jennifer Saul (Sheffield), Patrice Haynes (Liverpool Hope), Stella Sandford (Kingston), Helen Beebee (Manchester), Katharine Jenkins (Sheffield), Richard Pettigrew (Bristol), and Meena Dhanda (Wolverhapmton).
In philosophy, the ability to think with exceptional clarity and rigour about very abstract issues is highly valued, and rightly so; but this is, of course, a stereotypically male virtue. And that means that women have to be that much better than their male counterparts in order to be judged to have the same level of ability. That’s just the way stereotypes work: it’s much easier to think that someone is an intellectual giant if that’s a quality that fits neatly with other things you know about them.
Much of mainstream philosophy is tame and taming, precisely because it is engaged in reproducing privilege.
To date, I’ve not encountered any direct racism or sexism in academia (excluding the presence of this in the western philosophical cannon). Yet it’s worth noting that neither I nor the two UK-based black women philosophers are employed by standalone philosophy departments: this threshold remains to be crossed. Moreover, while there are few women philosophy professors there are zero black philosophy professors in UK institutions. Occasionally, I’ve been told by American academics, usually middle-aged males: “They’ll love you in America. All you need to do is mention you’re a black woman in your application and you’ll be in!” I’m not entirely convinced. After all, although the American Philosophical Association has 11,000 members, there are only 30 or so black women philosophers based in US philosophy departments. More problematically, while such comments are no doubt well-meant they also raise the dreaded spectre of tokenism. Hard-earned academic achievements are overshadowed by one’s ability to improve the diversity profile of a department by 100%.
Discussions in philosophy are often conducted in a very aggressive and combative way, and given that social norms discourage girls and women from behaving in these ways, it’s hardly surprising that these modes of discussion make some women feel less than fully at home.
It seems that women in a philosophy debate are in a lose-lose situation. Either they perform well by the standards of the debate, but then they are judged negatively on their character — they are judged “abrasive” or “high maintenance” for behaviour that would have earned a man plaudits such as “competent” and “knows his mind”. Or they behave in a way that will attract less opprobrium, but then they are judged negatively on their philosophical ability.
The kind of philosophy that dominates in the UK has tended to see itself as engaged in a purely rational practice uninfluenced by social and political contexts. It hasn’t therefore been able to see the ways in which it in fact mirrors the interests of its relatively narrow band of practitioners and excludes others.
Since the blog started, there have been several very public high-profile sexual harassment scandals in philosophy. And there’s now starting to be a backlash against the feminists who have “taken over the profession” and who are now said to wield enormous power to persecute. The truth is we’re not running the profession: we’re still down at 17-29%. We’re starting to make some small bits of incremental progress in fighting a problem that’s been going on far too long.