Proportion of Philosophy Majors Who Are Women Varies Widely Across Schools

The following is a guest post* by Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside. It first appeared at his blog, The Splintered Mind.

Some Universities Have About 20% Women Philosophy Majors and others About 40%, in Patterns Unlikely to Be Chance
by Eric Schwitzgebel

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 32% of Philosophy Bachelor’s degree recipients in the U.S. are women, a lower percentage than in almost any other discipline outside of engineering and the physical sciences. I would love to see that percentage rise. (I say this without committing to the dubious view that all majors should have gender proportions identical with that of the general population.)

A case could be made for pessimism. Although academic philosophy has slowly been diversifying in race and ethnicity, the percentage of women receiving philosophy BAsphilosophy PhDs, and publishing in elite philosophy journals has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s. It seems that we have reached a plateau. Could anything move the dial?

I decided to look, institution-by-institution across the U.S., at the percentage of Philosophy B.A. recipients who are women. If there are some “outlier” institutions that have a much higher percentage of women philosophy majors than is typical, we could look more closely at those institutions. Such institutions might have policies or practices worth imitating.


For this analysis, I downloaded Bachelor’s degree completion data from all 7357 “U.S. institutions” in the NCES IPEDS database for the academic years 2009-2010 to 2015-2016. For each institution, I examined four variables: total Bachelor’s degrees awarded (1st major), total Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women (1st major), total Philosophy Bachelor’s degrees awarded (1st or 2nd major, category 38.01), and total Philosophy Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women (1st or 2nd major, category 38.01).

To reduce the likelihood of high or low percentages due to chance, I limited my analysis to the 66 colleges and universities that had awarded at least 200 Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy over the period. Across these 66 institutions, there were 22150 completed Philosophy majors during the seven-year period, of which 7120 (32.1%) were women. (Across all institutions, 61963 Philosophy Bachelor’s degrees were awarded (31.6% to women). So the 66 targeted institutions together awarded about 36% of the Philosophy Bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.) I then arranged the institutions by percentages of Philosophy majors who were women. One would expect most of these institutions to be within a few percentage points of 32%. My interest is in the statistical outliers.

[Raw data for all institutions here. Summary data for the targeted 66 here.]


I wanted to be conservative in testing for outliers, so here is how I did it.

First, I performed a two-tailed two-proportion z test, comparing the proportion of women Philosophy majors at each target institution to the proportion of women Philosophy majors in all the remaining institutions combined. To correct for multiple comparisons, I used a Bonferroni correction, lowering the threshold for statistical significance from the conventional p < .05 (representing a 5% chance that results at least as extreme would arise from random sampling error) to p < .0008. Ten of the 66 institutions had proportions significantly different from the overall proportion by this measure.

However, some of those results might have been due to unusually large or small proportions of women in the overall undergraduate population of those institutions, so I performed a second test also. Overall, across all 66 institutions, 1.43% of men graduate with Philosophy majors, compared to 0.58% of women. Based on these numbers, I calculated an “expected” percentage of women Philosophy majors for each institution, based on the number of graduating men and graduating women at that institution: (total graduating women * .0058)/((total graduating men * .0143) + (total graduating women * .0058)). The resulting expected percentages ran from 25% (for Virginia Polytechnic, with a total graduating class of 45% women) to 43% (for Loyola Chicago, with a graduating class of 65% women). I then performed two-tailed one-proportion z-tests comparing the percentage of Philosophy majors who were women at each institution to this expected percentage of Philosophy majors at the same institution, using the same p < .0008 threshold to correct for multiple comparisons. Twelve institutions had gender ratios significantly different from chance by this measure.

For my final list of outliers, I included only institutions significantly different from chance by both measures — that is, schools that both had a significantly higher or lower percentage of women Philosophy majors than did the other institutions and that had a significantly higher or lower percentage of women Philosophy majors than would be expected given the overall gender composition of their undergraduate graduating body.


Five of the 66 institutions were outliers by these criteria. Two were outliers on the low side:

  • University of St Thomas: Women were 9.7% of graduating Philosophy majors (32/329; vs 48% of Bachelor’s degree recipients across all majors; two-prop p < .0001; one-prop p < .0001);
  • Franciscan University of Steubenville: 17.3% (43/249; vs 63%; < .0001, < .0001).

Five more institutions had fewer than 24% women Philosophy majors, with p values < .05 by both measures, but without meeting my stringent criteria for outliers. Due to the nature of multiple comparisons, some of these may appear on that list by chance.

Three institutions were outliers on the high side:

  • University of Pennsylvania: Women 38.5% of Philosophy BA recipients (343/892; vs 51% among Bachelor’s overall, p < .0001, p < .0001);
  • University of Scranton: 46.0% (108/235; < .0001, .0005);

and—but I suspect there’s something odd going on here—

  • University of Washington, Bothell: 72.8% (348/481; < .0001, < .0001).

UW Bothell doesn’t appear to offer a straight Philosophy major; so I suspect these numbers are due to a potentially misleading decision to classify one of their popular interdisciplinary majors (Society, Ethics & Human Behavior?) as “Philosophy” (38.01 in the NCES classification). I’m looking into the matter. Meanwhile, let’s bracket that campus.

Between Penn and Scranton were several campuses with higher percentages of women among Philosophy majors, but smaller total numbers of Philosophy majors, and thus not crossing my stringent statistical threshold for outliers: University of Southern California (39.4%), University of Virginia Main Campus (39.4%), University of California Riverside (go team! 39.6%), CUNY Brooklyn (40.1%), Virginia Polytechnic (41.0%), Georgia State (41.1%), Boston University (41.3%), and Cal State Fresno (43.2%). None of these schools had strikingly high percentages of women BA recipients overall (45%-61%, compared to 57% women BA recipients in the US overall during this period and 54% in the 66 selected universities). Among these, U Virginia, UC Riverside, Virginia Polytechnic, and CSU Fresno all have p values < .05 by both measures. Again, due to the nature of multiple comparisons, some of these may appear on that list by chance.

I draw the following conclusion:

Some colleges and universities have unusually high or low percentages of women philosophy majors as a result of factors that are unlikely to be chance, across a range from about 10%-24% at the low end to about 38%-46% at the high end. If these differences are due to differences in policies or practices which differentially draw women and men into the Philosophy major, it might be possible for schools near the lower end of this range to increase their percentage of women Philosophy majors by imitating those at the higher end of the range.

I don’t know what explains the differences. It is striking that the two schools with the smallest percentage of Philosophy majors are both Catholic affiliated, so maybe that is a factor in some way. (ETA: Scranton, one of the high end outliers, is also Catholic affiliated!) Gender ratios among permanent faculty don’t to be the primary determining factor. Judging from gender-typical names and photos on the Philosophy Department homepages, women are 5/24 (excl. 1) and 0/8 of permanent faculty at St Thomas and Fransiscan, vs 4/15 and 2/16 at Penn and Scranton.

art: Bridget Riley, “Untitled [Fragment 3/11]”

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