What Explains Female Under-Representation Among Philosophy Majors?

Evidence from a new study seeking to explain why women are under-represented among philosophy majors suggests that they are not discouraged by introductory philosophy courses, but rather come to college already with certain attitudes that discourage them from studying philosophy. The findings are presented in “Why Is There Female Under-Representation among Philosophy Majors? Evidence of a Pre-University Effect” by Sam Baron (Western Australia), Tom Dougherty (Cambridge), and Kristie Miller (Sydney), in the latest issue of Ergo. The abstract of the paper:

Why does female under-representation emerge during undergraduate education? At the University of Sydney, we surveyed students before and after their first philosophy course. We failed to find any evidence that this course disproportionately discouraged female students from continuing in philosophy relative to male students. Instead, we found evidence of an interaction effect between gender and existing attitudes about philosophy coming into tertiary education that appears at least partially responsible for this poor retention. At the first lecture, disproportionately few female students intended to major. Further, at the first lecture, female students were less interested in philosophy, were less self-confident about philosophy, and were less able to imagine themselves as philosophers. Similarly, female students predicted they would feel more uncomfortable in philosophy classes than male students did. Further study with a control is warranted to determine whether this interaction effect is peculiar to philosophy, or whether it is indicative of a more general gendered trend amongst first year undergraduate students.

This research suggests an alternative explanation for the phenomenon than that provided by Molly Paxton (Minnesota), Carrie Figdor (Iowa), and Valerie Tiberius (Minnesota) in their “Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy,” and Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State), Morgan Thompson (Pitt), Toni Adelberg (UC San Diego) and Sam Sims (Florida State) (see this IHE article). Their work suggests that the content and readings of introductory philosophy courses (including the lack of women authors on the syllabi) might explain the under-representation of women among philosophy majors. Of course, multiple factors may be at work.

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