“Philosophy is for posh, white boys with trust funds”


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).

Some excerpts:

Beebee:
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.

Dhanda:
Much of mainstream philosophy is tame and taming, precisely because it is engaged in reproducing privilege.

Haynes:
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%.

Jenkins:
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.

Pettigrew:
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.

Sandford:
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.

Saul:
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.

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Keisha
Keisha
6 years ago

Yes! The fear of “tokenism.” As a black woman in the field I have this same fear.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

I understand that the ‘trust funds’ quote, taken in context, is about the perception of philosophy outside the field, but I still think it bears mentioning that this has not been my experience at all. Nobody (as far as I know) that I went to grad school with or currently work with came from an upper-class family. In most cases I’ve encountered (my own included), people studying philosophy came from middle-class backgrounds (their parents were farmers, mechanics, clergy, nurses, teachers, etc.). Is my experience abnormal in this regard?Report

Brandon
Brandon
6 years ago

Anon 12:10, I have had the same experience. Are you from the UK, though? I have often wondered if my experience in that regard is a Canadian thing, since all of our universities are publicly funded and we have a reasonably good public primary and secondary education system. This would have the effect of ‘leveling the playing field’ to an extent. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s one armchair explanation I came up with. Thus the fact that the article is about philosophy in the UK may mean that in the UK one’s experience is quite different, and the public perception of philosophy is therefore quite different.Report

M
M
6 years ago

No, that’s my experience as well. I’ve not met any current graduate students that came from upper-class backgrounds. I’ve known some people who numbered a physician among their parents, but that’s still pretty solidly upper-middle class in most cases.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Re: Brandon. 12:10 here. Nope, I went to grad school and currently teach in the US. I hadn’t thought about the UK angle. Maybe things are different there.Report

orangeglass
orangeglass
6 years ago

“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.”

These remarks seem to presuppose that feminist philosophers = women philosophers. I do not know how else to interpret the move between whether feminists are in power to the percentage of the profession that are women. Perhaps Professor Saul can clarify: does she indeed endorse such an equivalence claim? If not, why did she move between these two (quite different) ideas (percentage of feminists vs. percentage of women) so quickly?Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

My experience with philosophy, as a minority (poor/working class) emigrant, is that most who got into philosophy were much better off than they realized. I can understand why someone viewing philosophy from the outside would see it as a predominantly white, male, upper-middle class activity. I see it the same way. If “trust-fund” does not mean “upper-middle class” for you, I’m happy to let the semantic quibbles slide. Most of my graduate schools cohort were from families that, from my perspective, were well-off. Most of my current colleagues are from families that are REALLY well-off.Report

anonymoustenured
anonymoustenured
6 years ago

Economic indexes (of many, these are the only ones I can think of off hand that aren’t immediately identifying): of my cohort in graduate school, I was the only one who had to take out student loans for my undergraduate education. That is also true of all of those who are now my faculty colleagues. I am the only one of my faculty colleagues who does not own a home. At least half of my colleagues who do own a home had the downpayment and/or a substantial portion of the cost of the home (many of them don’t even have mortgages) paid for by their parents (or the parents of their spouses). Half of my colleagues have one version or another of a “summer” home as well. Technically, in the legal sense, are they “trust fund” babies? Probably not in most cases. But looks rich to me. Being half as rich as they are would completely change my life.Report

Jo Wolff
Jo Wolff
6 years ago

I would like to see an analysis by decade of appointment. I would hope that the statistics show that things are improving with respect to gender but we are still suffering the legacy of appointments 20 years or more ago. If the statistics don’t show any improvement, despite the considerable effort, then we really are in trouble.

In the UK I often talk at schools, running the range from the ‘Poshest’ to comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges in relatively deprived areas. There does seem to be much more interest in doing Philosophy at university from the economically secure. Those good at Philosophy at state schools might look to Economics, Psychology or Politics, believing that there is a some sort of career path at the end. Once at University studying Philosophy, and deciding whether or not to stay on to do post-graduate work, I think it may now be that the upper-middle classes are less attracted to staying on than the lower-middle classes because they are used to a standard of living that could not be funded on an academic salary, and they would expect to be earning the equivalent to a Professorial salary within a few years of graduating. (I’ve had a few conversations with students along these lines.) Obviously this doesn’t apply to anyone with a substantial trust-fund, but I don’t think there can be a statistically significant number of people in that position.

In reply to Brandon and others, I don’t know much about my colleague’s parents careers. In my case my father was a manager of a department store in a rough part of South London, and my mother a doctor’s receptionist. I think one current and former colleague had Latin teachers for fathers. Others worked in the civil service, or had office jobs in large corporations. Some were writers and academics. But I’m sure there are people who come from families that did well in business, or had doctors or lawyers as one or both parents. In other words a fairly wide, though not comprehensive, range. I don’t know of many philosophers, if any, who are children of manual workers. But then I haven’t asked, on the whole.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Here’s a reason to think that philosophy is upper-middle class dominated in the English-speaking world. Pedigree matters enormously for hiring. Admission to top PhD programmes correlates strongly with quality of undergrad education. And top undergrad degrees correlate strongly with high socioeconomic status.Report

Assistantprof
Assistantprof
6 years ago

@ orangeglass: somewhat more charitably, maybe what the remarks presuppose only that if feminists were running the profession, the profession would be more gender-balanced.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

It’s probably worth keeping in mind that the upper/middle/working class distinction isn’t always a very helpful one given the increasing gap between the top 1-10% and everyone else, and with it the increasing split between upper middle class and lower middle class. In the US at least there seems to be a pretty big difference in culture, comfort, lifestyle, and opportunities between the upper middle class and the mid to lower middle class. So saying that academia is largely middle class is a bit misleading.

In my experience as a student and professor, most of my peers have been closer to the upper rungs of the middle class. As one indicator: a majority of my colleagues and student peers had family and friends who were professionals with advanced degrees: academics, lawyers, doctors, engineers, MBAs, MFAs, professional artists, etc. In contrast, in my very middle-middle class upbringing and world I did not personally know a single person with such a degree or profession. So to enter a world where that was common, almost standard, was a big culture shock for me.

I think the notion of the “middle class” has always been a mixture of historical accident (the postwar economic and educational boom) and convenient myth: it allows the relatively poor to preserve some dignity and the relatively rich to be oblivious to how advantaged they really are compared to the majority.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

in my top 5 (PGR-wise) program, i was consistently shocked by how solidly upper middle class my peers generally were (there were a few exceptions, of course). I know for a fact that many of them: had never held a low-skills job, not even to make some extra money during high school or during college breaks; did their undergrads at extremely expensive U.S. schools, with their parents footing the bill; could and did rely on their parents to support them when they went through rough financial patches in grad school (had an unexpected major expenditure, had a year without funding, etc.).

It’s hard to underestimate how much this sort of financial safety net helps you finish your PhD, and with much less anxiety than if you did not have that net. I doubt that most of my peers had actual trust funds (though at least one that I know of did), but many of them could rely on their parents if they needed some help.Report

Steven French
Steven French
6 years ago

I think the headline is a little unfortunate. It needs to be borne in mind that this was an article about reactions to the recent report of the UK’s Equality Unit on (in)equality in *UK* Higher Education, which found that of the non-STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Med) subjects, philosophy *in the UK* has the worst gender inequality (about comparable to chemistry of chemical engineering on the STEM side). Taken together with the statistics on black and ethnic minority colleagues, it is clear that philosophy in the UK is dominated by white men. However the report contains no information about colleagues’ financial backgrounds or upbringing, and although there are some (including friends of mine!) who come from backgrounds that might be called ‘privileged’, we have to be careful not to generalise on the basis of anecdotal evidence. Certainly in my dept. colleagues appear to come from a very wide range of backgrounds and financial circumstances!

The crucial issue however has to do with the striking gender inequality in philosophy in the UK. Taken together with the BPA’s report on gender inequality among the student body (undergrads and postgrads) which shows a steady decline in % of female students from ug to taught masters to PhD, these figures should raise serious concerns in the profession and, more importantly, should prompt some serious thinking about how they might be improved (the recommendations made in the BPA report might be a good start).Report