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.
Great post! Hopefully, we can raise the same question about the paucity of minority philosophy majors too. I make it a rule that most my courses are at least 1/5 women and people of color. I told this to a political scientist friend and she asked why so low. To be fair, when I teach anything to do with value theory, I make the split a lot more evenly. I was a bit taken back, but the reality is my own lack of exposure to women and people of color in philosophy (outside value theory that is), which has a lot to do with who formed the canon of western philosophy. I do think there are some great resources to remedy this problem like: http://diversifyingsyllabi.weebly.com/ and http://phildiversity.weebly.com/anthologies-and-resources.html and the Google spreadsheet with female authors and their works.Report
I asked a number of my female students to read the article and comment if they cared to. Nearly a dozen did. They agreed quite generally with the findings of the paper, both positive and negative.Report
Really interesting and neutral analysis. Sadly, those people at UQAM will do shit with it, as usual…Report
This is an interesting study, and I appreciate the statistical sophistication demonstrated by the authors (correcting for multiple comparisons, reporting both “significant” and “non-significant” findings, and so on). In particular, I like the fact that they acknowledge that different models could be used to analyze the classroom effects hypothesis. At the same time, I was a little disappointed that they didn’t explore these alternatives. I hope they make their data (suitably anonymized, of course) available online, for others to explore alternative models.
In terms of further work, controlling for disciplinary effects may or may not be useful. If our concern is to compare philosophy to, say, sociology and economics, then this kind of control would make sense. But if we’re more concerned about how to recruit more women majors, then a longitudinal study would be more appropriate: tracking a group of students from their first philosophy course until they graduate to leave the university, to see how their academic interests change over time. Qualitative social science methods would also be important here, since they can probably give us more insight into *why* and *how* students choose majors than a rigid survey.Report
It would be interesting to know what, if anything, faculty might do to overcome this initial reluctance to major in philosophy. For example, do more inclusive syllabi make a difference? If they do, then the two studies don’t really give conflicting explanations.Report
I think the discipline can and should shift the way it presents itself, both in terms of how it presents its benefit to society and in terms of how it presents the set of skills that students can expect to develop through practicing it. 74% of education and health services are occupied by women. Women make up the majority of people working as veterinarians, religious workers, social workers, school teachers, physical therapists, paralegals, nurses, librarians, and nutritionists. Outside of the paid workforce, women are also largely the providers of care for children and for the elderly. People think philosophy is a good major for pre-law and maybe managerial or policy-making positions. But, as Cheshire Calhoun has suggested, can philosophy not also be an ideal major for occupations like activism, parenting, providing healthcare, teaching, journalism, or ministry by imparting by imparting skills like: respectful communication; persuasive advocacy; the articulation of values; dealing with difficult problems with care and patience; working through ethical challenges in systematic and fruitful ways; wondering, marveling, being curious, and loving learning; thinking honestly and openly and encouraging others to do the same; digging up buried truths; calling people to conscience; pointing out hypocrisy; and recognizing patterns between historical and current events? I think it would be good for our discipline (and its practitioners, who may be struggling to find a broad sector of employers who appreciate their skills) if we begin to rethink and re-market ourselves.Report
Hmm.. I have a few ignorant questions. Why is it the theory that women are more apt to take courses if they’re taught by female professors or have a majority of female created course material? Should this be encouraged? Teaching staff and course material should be chosen by merit instead of gender otherwise it would it not be deemed sexist? What is it which causes women’s sexist views towards male teachers or course materials created by males? Do we find the same phenomenon with males who take majors dominated by female students and/or teachers?Report
Let me try to answer a few of your questions.
1. Most courses are male dominated in their course material and that has limiting and exclusionary results. The perspectives that students gain from these courses is limited, and it sends the message that only material produced by men is worth learning about. Women already experience that growing up, so if they get that in all their philosophy courses they may see that as marginalizing their views on the basis of gender (and of course that has happened and continues to happen)
2. I don’t think that’s something that’s being encouraged, but rather something we should be mindful of.
3. I don’t think that’s what sexism is. Sexism, like racism, is about power dynamics. Since men still dominate positions of power, it wouldn’t really be sexism if we showed preferential treatment towards women authors to try and diversify curricula. In fact, that would be breaking up some of the institutionalized sexism. Also, merit is a bit of a myth. Iris Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference explains this very well so I won’t go into this other than to say that our standards for merit may well be skewed by inherited sexist, racist, etc. beliefs that we don’t even realize we have.
4. I don’t understand this question: “What is it which causes women’s sexist views towards male teachers or course materials created by males? ” I think you are assuming something that is false. Women don’t stay away from classes with male dominated course material because the women are sexist but probably they do so because they perceive the professors or the course structure itself to be sexist and exclusionary.
5. I don’t know and I would be very curious to see some statistics about the number of men who take women studies courses. I know from anecdotal experience that feminist philosophy courses can usually be women dominated, but I don’t know if that is true beyond just a few accounts of this.Report
Kevin, I might be able to give a partial answer to your question, though others may be able to articulate the issue better than I can. I am a woman who was an undergrad phil major in a department with only one woman professor (who was not tenured). I loved philosophy (even though I don’t recall reading a single woman author) and I loved my professors (who were all men, throughout my four years). But when (from my perspective at the time) there are no women role models and none of the great philosophers are women, and when every time you open your mouth in mostly-male seminar or walk down the department halls with mostly men, you become hyper aware of your femininity, it becomes hard to imagine yourself being very comfortably a successful part of the discipline. (Also, it is an increased cognitive burden. I’d encourage you to read up on the notion of stereotype threat, in which anxiety about perpetuating a stereotype about one’s own group results in underperforming). Putting up with all of that takes a lot of determination, so it’s not surprising that women opt for majors where they feel like they belong. This dynamic changes in an academic space where gender parity is present, and it becomes more appealing to take intellectual risks and increase participation. (This may also have to do with philosophical style being combative versus collaborative in different settings, but I’m not really sure.) All that said, I really don’t think this is an issue of women students being sexist against men professors.Report
I would be very interested indeed in having your take, Mathieu Caron, on what we – in the Philosophy Department at UQAM – do or do not do regarding female under-representation among students and professors; as far as I can tell, certainly not what you suggest…Report
Well, Vincent Guillin, I’m not telling that the UQAM department do nothing, it is actually one of the most active department on that matter in the province of Quebec (after McGill I might say). Nonetheless, I mostly believe that those people don’t know how to do proper research for that matter. Maybe what this study suggests is that this it is a good thing that women keep a certain reserve on the domain. Maybe that’s not “man” or “woman” the problem, but the whole fake academic enterprise of philosophy itself. As when one rewrites the program just to change the names of the courses and some minor things. Women not wanting to pursue floating philosophy is a logical thing, they don’t want that because they know better, and frankly, I believe they’re right. I don’t think that this debate will be settle soon… but I’m always curious to see how this domain sees himself. That’s the first problem and it’s not only gender related ( far from that). Sorry for the UQAM call, I should not make fun of other university, even when we should call that one CEGEP[bis].Report
For the record, in our study we only quantified the nature of the underrepresentation, comparing the numbers at various stages of academic involvement (intro course; major; grad student; faculty). We didn’t defend any hypothesis about why it has occurred; others have undertaken that hard task (including Nahmias et al., Louise Antony, Cheshire Calhoun, and others). I don’t think any hypothesis is off the table now except the one about women being turned off by philosophy’s mathiness.Report
OK, Mathieu, I suspect I get where you wanna go with this. Since I am afraid I am still stuck with the false belief in the “fake academic enterprise of philosophy”, together with many of my students – irrespective of gender -, I will leave you to your thoughts, hoping that they will positively enlighten us regarding the matter at hand in that thread. And of course, your are more than welcome to attend any of the lectures we give at UQAM: you never know, you might even learn something…Report
In my intro course something like 5 of the first 8 readings are female authors, but I was surprised to see that students, even female students, continually use the pronoun “he” to identify the authors in their reading responses. Further, most of these same female authors have very traditionally female names (Helen, Ruth, Judith, Sharon). It would seem that students come into college with the idea that anyone they will be reading is a man.Report
Multiple surveys and research studies reveal that women are more likely to believe in god than men. This varies somewhat depending on age, what country you live in, etc., but overall the finding is pretty robust. To the extent that atheists and agnostics are more likely to seriously ask “why” than believers, this may have relevance in why females are interested enough in philosophy to want to pursue it as a career.
Religion historically also happens to be an area without a lot of women role models, yet it doesn’t dissuade them from believing in the scriptures. This could suggest some of the disparity is beyond feeling comfortable around those who look like me, and perhaps that there is a biological/neuroscience component to this.Report
shorter mhl: females are incurious because “neuroscience,”and the proof is they believe in God
and you wonder why you have a gender disparityReport
One reason it’s so hard to have intelligent discussions on this topic is that people like Onion Man deliberately mischaracterize other people’s comments. When mhl says certain evidence “may have relevance” to an explanation, Onion Man pretends s/he said the evidence is “proof”.
I have no idea whether women are more religious than men, and I have no idea whether more religious people are less interested in philosophy, but it’s certainly worth discussion.Report
My cousin is a lawyer and majored in philosophy. She was obsessed with being a lawyer for as long as I can remember -when she was in high school she spent all her time competing in Mock Trial (or Model UN or debate team, or whatever it is that teenagers do if they really want to be lawyers).
At some point before she picked a major, she found out that philosophy majors do really well on their Law School applications, so she majored in philosophy. And it paid off. She got into Harvard Law, but picked UVA instead.
Anyway, it just so happens that I am also a woman. And at some point halfway through college, I started to question the employability of my BFA and thought that maybe I should be a lawyer too. So I copied my cousin and switched my major to philosophy. Risk-taker that I am, I ended up becoming a philosopher instead.
In both our cases, we picked philosophy as a major because we thought it would give us a leg up on gainful employment.
I’m almost sure that someone made this point already, but one popular hypothesis is that women are more concerned with gaining practical employable skills than men are. Maybe. Maybe not. But I do know that’s why my cousin chose philosophy, and that’s why I copied her.
And so, if philosophy had a more widespread reputation of endowing majors with employable skills, perhaps more women would major in it. I’m pretty sure this point has been made, but I wanted to write this anyway because it’s a nice story and it’s true.Report
Not quite. I am saying that you cannot account for the entire disparity by pointing to a scarcity of female philosophy role models from which to learn.
If you think my religion counterexample is a bad one, you can just point out why it’s bad instead of being snarky.Report
#14: Just a Guy, this it true, in my experience. In my case, the assumption that authors are male was even philosophy-specific. If you happen to go to high school in a country where they tech you history of philosophy as a compulsory subject, then you as well as all your peers — who are most likely to go to university afterwards — will develop the assumption. A very limited number of authors is presented, and they are all European, famous, and male. I should note that other subjects were not much successful in diversifying their syllabi — the only women I encountered were perhaps some novelists in English Literature classes.
Now, studying history of philosophy in high school was one of the best thing in my education, and it’s great that in some country this is even the norm. But we already know that it is difficult to introduce changes in the teaching habits of university professors, who have the chance of being more engaged with current research, are used to new proposals and findings, and should be sensitive to issues affecting the profession. I suspect it is even harder (in my experience, much harder) to introduce similar changes at high school level, where professors may have little freedom in revising their syllabus — especially if their is a standard, national level exam at the end of high school, like in my country — and are generally not supported and do not received praise and recognition for unnecessary research work — I fear this would be perceived as unnecessary in some contexts.Report
gopher: There’s nothing mischaracterizing about it. That was the argument/hypothesis: women’s brains are wired not to ask questions, like believers’ brains are wired not to ask questions, and the proof (“evidence”) is that women are more likely to be believers. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there aren’t many women, or believers, in philosophy.
I fail to see how this is substantially less insulting that saying that womens’ brains are wired for taking care of people, like the brains of nurses are wired for taking care of people, and the proof is that women are more likely to be nurses. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there aren’t many women, or nurses, in philosophy.
mhl: Your religion counterexample is a terrible one. The idea that religiosity implies a lack of curiosity, and that atheists or agnostics are just constitutionally better philosophers (“because they ask ‘why'”), is the kind of statement that could only be made by someone who is both ignorant of and hostilely disposed toward “religion” (whatever you think that word means).
While we’re on the subject of disparities in the field, something like 80-90% of professional philosophers identify as atheist or agnostic. Now, there’s a self-congratulatory explanation, which is mhl’s explanation, i.e., “atheists or agnostics are more likely to ask ‘why.'” But there are a range of competing explanations, as well, most of which are not nearly so flattering…Report
I have now made the raw data files for this study available on my website, including: (i) the first lecture survey spreadsheet; (ii) the last lecture survey spreadsheet and (iii) the SPSS file that I used to do the analysis. The files are available here: https://sites.google.com/site/sambaronphilosophy/research. If you want to talk to me about any of the statistical analysis that I carried out on the data set, please feel free to e-mail me, particularly if you have plans to carry out further statistical analysis.Report
Good. So we can stop obsessing about how terrible we are at retaining women, and advancing fanciful hypotheses about the prevalence of discrimination and harassment *within* the profession.Report
“gopher: There’s nothing mischaracterizing about it.”
Mhl said that certain evidence *may have relevance*, and you report that as the claim that there is ‘proof’. What mhl said is true; your mis-paraphrase is false. That is an obvious mischaracterization.
Now you’ve added another. Mhl said that *perhaps there is a neuroscience component*, and you incorrectly report him/her as saying that believers are wired not to ask questions. So again you take something true and paraphrase it as something false.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is so hard to have a reasonable discussion of these issues.Report
Thanks for answering, SN, and providing insight. I’ll check out Iris Young as she seems quite interesting. I’ll try and keep an open mind, though not so much that it falls right out. 😉
I’m not sure I’m quite getting your definition of sexism. I was using it in the traditional sense. That is, discrimination based on the sex of a person regardless of the discriminating sex. That is, women do not continue on with philosophy because there are too many men involved in it already. They find the men off-putting and assume it is not a place for women based solely on the abundance of men. Not on any factual or anecdotal evidence.
I may not be getting it, or am not ‘hip to the jive’, but the definition you’ve provided doesn’t seem to do with sex/race and has more to do with class/power? Perhaps I’m not quite understanding it? If a black woman owns a cafe in the united states and refuses to provide service to all white people and black males, this would not be racist despite the discrimination based on race because white people hold positions of power in the US? It would also not be sexist despite discrimination against sex because men hold positions of power in the US? Therefore she is justified in her discrimination. Where as, if the cafe were to be located in Nigeria, It would be racist because black people hold positions of power in that country but would still not be sexist because males hold positions of power? Or is your definition more to do with unconscious tribalism? (Which is a term I may have just made up or could currently exist but I’ll try and clarify what I mean.) So, Nursing is a profession dominated by females throughout the various hierarchies it has. Male nurses are by far the minority throughout the hierarchies. No matter the initiatives of the females, who have the power, to provide inclusivity to the male nurses, the female nurses will always be inherently sexist towards male nurses because they hold positions of power?Report
First, I want to say that Baron, Dougherty, & Miller’s research is very exciting and explores the underrepresentation of women using a very nice survey instrument—one which should make comparison across other studies easier and allows hypotheses about when women become disinterested in philosophy to be testable. As more groups (e.g., Elon University, Centre College) begin to share their findings of potential factors of the underrepresentation of women (and other groups), we can begin to address some of the issues in our profession. However, there are a number of research questions that have not yet been answered: are the factors that lead to women’s underrepresentation in the U.S. the same that lead to women’s underrepresentation in Australia? Are there factors that affect women at large state universities, which women at small liberal art schools do not face? To what extent do women of color face different (and/or more extreme) problems in philosophy compared to white women?
Baron, Dougherty, & Miller’s framing of their research in terms of pre-college vs. classroom hypotheses is certainly interesting. Chris Dobbs, a graduate student at Georgia State, has written a Master’s thesis researching the pre-college hypothesis. His work appears to be initial evidence that women already come into college less interested in philosophy, but perhaps end up taking philosophy courses roughly equivalent to their representation at the undergraduate level (Paxton, Figdor, & Tiberius 2012) due to external factors (e.g., distribution requirement, convenient class time).
Some classroom hypotheses may not yet be ruled out though. Following Louise Antony’s Perfect Storm Model for the problem, then we should expect multiple intersecting factors to play a role in women’s (and likely black women’s) underrepresentation in philosophy (as Justin notes at the end of the post). Some of these factors may occur in the classroom while others may manifest before entering college. The correct frame for the problem may differ depending on our goals: to find the cause(s) of women’s underrepresentation in philosophy or to find convenient and effective points of intervention on women’s experiences in philosophy. The two may come apart. Baron, Dougherty, & Miller note this point in their paper. I tend to think optimistically that most students experience philosophy and philosophers for the first time in their introductory college-level courses, which gives philosophy instructors (as the first “expert” a student meets on the subject) a unique opportunity to either reinforce schemas picked up before college or to correct them. Of course, there are a number of fantastic pre-college philosophy programs that I think are doing excellent work (e.g., PLATO, UNC Philosophy Outreach), but these sorts of programs may not be feasible for every university.
Further, the idea that providing diverse syllabi in our courses will improve women’s and non-white students’ experiences in the philosophy classroom has not yet been ruled out. It may be one effective way to intervene on pre-college schema clashes between ‘woman’ and ‘philosopher’ as noted by Baron, Dougherty, & Miller. We agree. We found that women (as well as black students [2/3 women, 1/3 men]) disproportionately compared to men (and to white students [1/2 women, 1/2 men]) were less likely to agree that there was a fair proportion of either women or non-white authors represented on their course syllabi. Changing students’ opinions on this matter via more inclusive syllabi with short bios & photos for each author, more examples of women of color doing philosophy as e.g., guest lecturers, videos, etc. may affect women’s and black students’ experiences in the classroom as well as their schemas. However, we did not find evidence that increasing the proportion of women a small (absolute) amount *by itself* increased women’s interest in the philosophy major.Report
You’re right to note that my explanation for sexism and racism is about power structures and that’s because they are not separate. To paraphrase a line from the movie “Dear White People” women can’t be sexist because they lack institutionalized power, what you’re talking about is discrimination. There is some controversy about this issue, but I stand with the group that says sexism, racism, classism is intretwined with power dynamics. I think this largely because of things like opportunity hording: one group possessing opportunities and keeping those opportunities within the group, even if doing so is unconscious. An example of this is something like old boy’s networks. The discrimination based on sex done by old boys networks has a significant impact upon a person’s life that a woman who owns a cafe and refuses to serve male customers lacks. While the latter is a violation of the civil rights act and may force you to go down the street to get another coffee, the former (a) may hamper a woman’s social mobility, (b) can be (and is) done more covertly, and (c) has institutional impacts that are mimicked by other businesses. For example, say a woman takes a job in an office. Well, her boss is part of an old boys network and so sees women’s role as domestic so she is expected to fetch the coffee, clean up, etc. She doesn’t take part in other important administrative tasks. Her boss’ friend who runs a different kind of business hears about this and says, “you know, that’s a great idea. I’ll hire some ladies to do bland domestic work.” Now, because women are performing what these men might think is their natural role they aren’t even considered for advancement, they’re paid lower because they’re women and so not the bread winner (so their bosses think), etc. Hopefully, you see where this is going. These sorts of models of sexism replicate themselves in all kinds of industries and since men are far more likely to be CEOs of companies their own sexism has a serious impact on a woman’s ability to make a decent living, provide for her family, advance, stay employed (women and minorities had the toughest time during the great recession whereas white male unemployment was only around 6% then), etc. So, sure, the woman discriminating against men at her coffee shop is bad, but the real question (at least the one I’m concerned with) is are women and minorities and others being excluded from opportunities. The Nigeria question is interesting, though I would note that globally white people are far more likely to be wealthier and have more privileges and power than a random person from Nigeria. So, again, there’s that power structure that could be at play. Racism, sexism, etc. don’t mean a whole lot if there wasn’t that added power dynamic over opportunities and privileges that groups can horde. That’s what keeps others oppressed and helps feed into the stereotypes that become familiar justification for sexism and racism.Report
Sin Nombre, you write:
“You’re right to note that my explanation for sexism and racism is about power structures and that’s because they are not separate. To paraphrase a line from the movie “Dear White People” women can’t be sexist because they lack institutionalized power, what you’re talking about is discrimination. There is some controversy about this issue, but I stand with the group that says sexism, racism, classism is intretwined with power dynamics.”
It seems to me that this is both false and frankly unnecessary for your purposes. ‘Sexism’, ‘racism’, etc. have been traditionally used to denote the presence of psychological traits such as overt bias/prejudice and irrational hatred. On your view it seems that a woman who hates men and thinks they are all stupid sex-crazed animals can’t be sexist because of the power dynamics of the society she lives in. This is obviously an act of terminological fiat. You’re free to use ‘sexism’, ‘racism’, etc. as a technical term, but you should realize that doing so severs the new use of the term from its old implications.
Now, I certainly don’t wish to deny that there are huge institutional/cultural problems that make it difficult for minorities, and that in many ways these supercede the problems that arise from individual hatred. But there’s really not much sense in muddying the waters by appropriating terms like ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ and redefining them so that they apply to amorphous institutions and cultural practices. They already have an important use in picking out pernicious overt attitudes. Saying that the institutions, practices, etc. are unjust and promote racial/gender/sexual/etc. inequality conveys your point well enough.Report
I would not disagree that “racist” and “sexist” can be properly ascribed to certain pernicious overt attitudes, Yet Another Anon Grad Student. But I think you will have a hard time defending the claim that *only* attitudes, and not also institutions, practices, and policies, can properly be identified as racist or sexist.Report
Institutions, practices, policies, etc. can certainly be racist if they are the direct result of racist attitudes. It makes less sense to say that the education system is racist because rich white neighborhoods better fund their schools than poor minority neighborhoods, unless one can establish that this is done with the explicit intent to keep minorities down. More likely it is a result of greed.
Whenever the term ‘racist’ etc. is used in a public debate about these sorts of things the debate inevitably becomes centered on the definition of ‘racist’ and whether or not it requires overt attitudes. So it does seem counterproductive. Clearly the term ‘racist’ has a nasty stigma attached to it, and the idea is to co-opt it for broader purposes to get people motivated to make social change. But that will only work if your opponents are willing to accept your use of the term. In actuality they never do, and they end up painting you as intellectually dishonest or otherwise unreasonable and as trying to “pull the race card”. Within liberal academia it may be totally accepted that institutions can be racist, sexist, etc. without anyone involved possessing any overt prejudice or hatred. But liberal academia is a bit of an echo chamber. When dealing with the broader public it is perhaps wise to frame the debate in such a way that you do not get bogged down in terminological disputes.Report
Thanks for posting this very interesting and important piece. It puts me in mind of a great presentation by David Heise at the 2015 Pacific Division meeting. Heise’s research uncovered a strong trend in women over men and an even stronger trend in non-white over white students to be concerned with how well majoring, minoring or just taking one course will equip them with practical skills for their careers. The fact that most laypeople think of philosophy as the epitome of a practically irrelevant area of study is probably having a serious effect here. Heise also initially wondered about the old speculation that women, and perhaps nonwhite students, might be turned off philosophy by its combativeness. But he reported that the claim that philosophy is too combative or confrontational was the one that members of all groups disagreed with overall on his survey. Combining Heise’s results with what Baron, Dougherty and Miller found about incoming female students being less confident about their prospects in philosophy, an interesting picture begins to emerge about what is getting in the way of sexual and racial diversity in philosophy and what we should be doing about it.
Here’s my first stab at a list of best practices for increasing the proportions of women and racial minorities in philosophy in light of this new information. Maybe we can modify the list together into something reasonable and see what we can do to implement it.
1) We need to start pretty far upstream. Since women are already walking in the door on their first day of philosophy class with less interest or confidence, we need to take seriously the effect of childhood and teenage socialization. Looking at the toys, activities, etc. that children are pushed into by sex, as Cordelia Fine explores expertly in _Delusions of Gender_ it’s not hard to see why girls would be less likely to think that a highly analytical discipline is for them. We need to combat this trend long before the students come to university.
2) Another extra-university problem for us to work on is the public perception of philosophy as impractical and silly. Public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sam Harris are loudly perpetuating a hackneyed image of philosophy that, it appears, is exactly what will most turn off women and minorities the most. Ask someone on the street how he or she has seen philosophy portrayed in the media, and you’ll probably hear about a very negative picture. We need to get out there and fight for a positive image of philosophy as a way to develop and practice useful and relevant skills.
3) The first day students come to philosophy class, as Heise stresses, they should be presented with clear information on just how successful philosophy is at preparing students for life after college. The funny thing is that we are already doing just what many women and non-white students disproportionately wish we would do. We just aren’t promoting our achievements very well.
4) We also need to promote that same image with that same information across campus, so that students who would otherwise never consider a philosophy course will give us a chance.
5) Once we’ve made the promise that a serious engagement with philosophy will confer these benefits, we need to make sure we are delivering on our promises to get the students to come back. Students who can see that they are reaping the intellectual and other psychological rewards of the discipline, and who can see how they can apply these skills later on, will be more likely to return for more courses and do majors or minors. And we’re now seeing that this is particularly relevant with women and minorities. So we should aim to deliver, and we also should take the time to make the applicability clear.
6) If women (and minorities) tend to think of themselves as less likely to succeed at philosophy, then activities that bring them out of their self-constraining feelings will be helpful. Good teaching strategies that ensure all the students participate and join in the fun of doing philosophy (puzzling things out, analyzing arguments) rather than learning about philosophers are good things to aim for.
7) If your department has a disproportionately high number of male or white students, and you sense that this might be turning off some female or nonwhite students, then you can make a big difference by sending a personal note to some particularly strong female or minority students after classes end, telling them how much you enjoyed their work, and hoping that they do more philosophy. It can be helpful to add that you remember the student really enjoyed philosophy of X when it was covered in the course, and that phil of X will be the theme of a more advanced course coming up next term. These notes should always be sincere and make it evident that the student is not being recruited as part of a campaign to get more women/minorities into philosophy (how insulting!), but out of a genuine recognition of the student’s interests, hard work, and talents.Report
Yet Another Anon Grad Student,
I don’t think my definition is dishonest, but rather speaks to what specifically makes sexism and racism wrong. Suppose we lived in a utopia where people were not treated differently because of their race, gender, etc. In this utopia, everyone is on equal footing so if the woman you described earlier were to practice misandry then we could rightly call her sexist because she hates all men and is herself not subject to instituationalized sexism that greatly reduces her opportunities, objectifies her as a sex symbol, leaves her unreasonably vulnerable to violence, etc. She is an equal hating others who are her equal. In the society we actually live in, this woman is very much punching upwards and targeting the oppressor with broad stroke views, but views that will essentially be of little importance to most (if not all) men. Her views are worrisome, but likely a symptom of the oppressor/oppressed structure of our society. Racism is a problem not because it is somebody hating somebody else on some arbitrary basis, but is a problem because of institutional controls, opportunity hording, wide spread beliefs in stereotypes and other societal problems.
Suppose I hated all people who wore mustaches. That’s an arbitrary characteristic so is that the same as racism or sexism? I can’t see how it is. Even if I spread pernicious stereotypes about mustacheod people, it does not have the historical or institutional structures to really cause any harm. Many people make the mistake that the harm of racism or sexism is the offensiveness of the terms used, but President Obama noted that racism isn’t about the N word not being impolite, it’s about the larger picture. If we focus on offensive words or an individual’s hatred, we easily miss the bigger problems of institutionalized racism and sexism. So I am thinking about these terms not in the sense of hatred of arbitrary features of a person, but ramifications of genuine harm at broader levels. A female student’s reluctance to take a class with a male professor could come from her hatred of men (though, again, likely has more to do with her own experience of sexism directed at women), but I think it is more dishonest to call that sexism since it implies a moral equivalence between that and institutional sexism or even just her professor’s sexism (maybe he doesn’t call on her in class, maybe he looks down her blouse, maybe he doesn’t take her concerns seriously because she’s just a “girl,” etc.). To remove power from the dynamic muddies the moral waters.
Sure, hatred of a person on the basis of arbitrary characteristics is bad, but the power dynamic is what makes racism and sexism (by my meaning) pernicious. Saying that a woman or a minority can equally be sexist or racist as a man or a white person completely ignores the harm that anti-women sexism or anti-black/latino racism can. I would also remind you that this is not a settled point and I am taking a particular side in a controversy, but I think the other side (the one you defend) has it wrong. Sure, you have it right on a linguistic basis (I suppose), but have drained it of it’s moral and political content.Report
While I too would prefer not to get bogged down in terminological disputes, this does not mean that one party’s definition is simply to be granted as *the* operative definition in the face of genuine disagreement. When you say that ascription of racism is being “co-opted,” or that it “makes less sense” to describe a particular sort of education system as racist, you are begging the question in favor of your position. You end your comment by assuming that “the broader public” (as opposed to liberal academia) shares your view on this disagreement; but that is far from clear, and not argued for here. Indeed, it is not at all obvious that multiple publics share a common view on the proper ascription of racism (or sexism, and so on). Let us not simply assume absent compelling evidence that one view on this matter is the natural, neutral, unmarked position.Report
Regarding women role models in religion, Mary? Esther? Ruth? Deborah? Miriam? Aishah? Mother Teresa? Flannery O’Connor? Just to name a quick few. As to the academic discipline, though, last I checked there were barely more women in Religious Studies and Theology (in terms of representation) than there are in philosophy.Report
Ben A: it’s true that it’s an empirical question as to how people use the word. It’s also an empirical question as to whether most people think racism is a bad thing. It’s also an empirical question as to whether people use the words “the”, “and”, “it”, etc. frequently. I’m going off of my common experience with folk, who I find tend to speak as though racism, sexism, etc. were a matter of explicit attitudes. I suppose my entire experience with the word outside of academia could be innaccurate. To be blunt, when people do extend sexism/racism to things beyond explicit attitudes they tend to simply apply the terms to anything about race/gender that they disagree with. Most people are not terribly intellectually honest.
Sin Nombre: It seems that you’re saying that what makes racist/sexist attitudes bad is the fact that they are accompanied by structural inequalities, and inferring from this that racism/sexism only occurs as a result of structural inequalities. This is just a bad inference. It would be like me saying that theft is especially bad is when it is a rich person taking something from a poor person, and then inferring from this that a poor person can’t steal from a rich person. That’s not how it works. What makes theft bad is the fact that one is taking someone’s property. Likewise, what makes racism/sexism bad is the fact that one is making broad judgments about people without any evidence. It may be that racism/sexism is much worse when it is accompanied by structural inequalities, but what that shows us is that these structural inequalities are more pernicious than outright racism/sexism, not that racism/sexism only occurs as a result of structural inequalities.Report
Yet Another Anon Grad Student,
You got it half right: racism and sexism are pernicious because of structural inequalities. As to their origin, their historical origins are intertwined with these structural inequalities. You can’t just abstract away 500 years of global white supremacy or how ever many millennia of patriarchy. I didn’t include the origin to these phenomena because I didn’t think it necessary, but if you want to follow the inference correctly, you need the historical account of how these inequalities began and the beliefs that were developed to justify those inequalities.Report
I want to thank everyone for having these conversations, and to Justin for hosting them. As a young(er) man in the profession, I appreciate seeing what people have to say. I don’t want to butt into the exchange between Sin Nombre and Yet Another Anon Grad Student, but do I want to say a few words about at least this reader’s response to Sin Nombre’s position. I think of racism as a trait that is borne by institutions and individuals against other individuals (and their properties) on the basis of perceived and inferred racial identities, often (but not always) resulting in behaviors that target these individuals because of their race (where the explanatory force of ‘because’ often, but not always, involves the intentionality of conscious agency). As such, it would only make sense to say that one group of people could not be racist towards another if it were impossible for them to think about and act toward other people as members of different races. But it is clearly not the case, race relations being what they are in America today, that the black population (say) is strictly incapable of using the perception of whiteness (say) as a basis for targeting individuals in ways that are racist by this definition.
If something like that lies at the back of our notion of racism, then when Sin Nombre encourages us to consider “500 years of global white supremacy or how ever many millennia of patriarchy” as an explanation for why black people in America can’t be racist toward whites (for instance), she (or he) is not really giving us an explanation for anything. Instead she is participating in the kind of radical taxonomic reorganization that, while sometimes necessary for conceptual progress, can also leave its practitioners on the dust heap of crackpots and lunatics. And when it comes time for me to decide, in the everyday ways I must, how to think about and act on our problems of race relations, I am struck by how ineffectual it is to hold that racism is only possible in the context of certain power relations. There’s a theory here, I know. But our problems are far more prosaic, and anyone who has spent any time living in a lower income mixed race neighborhood in a large American city will have seen plenty of things that the person free from the grips of Sin Nombre’s theory would call ‘racism’. And so the attempt to redefine that term in such a way that we can no longer call what we all along recognized as racism is just going to butt heads with the fact that American English, together with details of American history, have already settled that racism is a feature of American life that crosses all sorts of boundaries irrespective of power relations. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that is trying to change the conversation; though they profess to be doing so, there is a real sense in which they are not talking about racism as a problem in America today (for instance). They’re talking about Racism as a force that is wielded by white people, almost always men, on the basis of “500 years of global white supremacy or how ever many millennia of patriarchy”. But that’s just not what anyone who isn’t already in Sin Nombre’s camp means by ‘racism.’ A similar point can be made about the attempt to use a narrative reconstruction to prevent us from calling certain behaviors by women ‘sexist’ towards men.
None of this is to deny that power relations are important for instituting racism or sexism, nor is it to minimize the extent to which it is right to say that America has many racist and sexist institutions and inhabitants. But the attempt to redraw the linguistic boundaries is a misfire, I think.
Race and gender relations are so horrible today that we clearly need to have a conversation about race and gender, and the more we talk about it the better. Thanks again to everyone for the willingness to have it out over this material. I hope we can continue to do so, and to do so more and more productively.
Enjoy the Fourth!Report
Sin Nombre, you’re half right. Racism is pretty much universal. For instance, we’re I to go to India I could not hand things directly to Brahmins as I would be considered ritually impure. I also could not become a Japanese citizen because I’m not racially Japanese. And if you live in China and aren’t Han Chinese you’re pretty much screwed. Just ask the Tibetans. Or look at the constant ethnic cleansing in places like Sudan. White people may be good at racism, but we didn’t invent it and we don’t have a monopoly on it. But you’re right insofar as racism usually has its basis in some way of justifying poor treatment of other people. All of that is perfectly compatible with what I’ve said.Report
*were I to go to India* (damn auto-incorrect!)Report
And to be perfectly clear, the fact that racist attitudes often originate due to imperialism and a society’s need to justify poor treatment of minorities does not entail that all racism must exist within the confines of specific imperialist power relations. That’s just a straightforward genetic fallacy.Report
Yet Another Anon Grad Student,
I see what you’re saying but those phenomena have their own particular histories and manifestations that are different from the American experience. That’s my fault for being American-centric. Sure, those can be called other forms of racism, though they weren’t always considered that since the history of racism is tied to the (now debunked) scientific idea that there are 3-4 races and European imperialism justified itself on that basis. Some people are more comfortable calling the phenomena you describe as tribalism and at the root of it, racism is a form of preferring one’s tribe over another’s. I’m fine with that, but again, racism has no teeth and isn’t really pernicious without the power structures differentiation so I don’t think it’s significant to talk about a woman’s discrimination against men as sexism since that’s not what makes sexism bad. Your examples provide only help further my view.Report
You write: “If something like that lies at the back of our notion of racism, then when Sin Nombre encourages us to consider “500 years of global white supremacy or how ever many millennia of patriarchy” as an explanation for why black people in America can’t be racist toward whites (for instance), she (or he) is not really giving us an explanation for anything. Instead she is participating in the kind of radical taxonomic reorganization that, while sometimes necessary for conceptual progress, can also leave its practitioners on the dust heap of crackpots and lunatics. And when it comes time for me to decide, in the everyday ways I must, how to think about and act on our problems of race relations, I am struck by how ineffectual it is to hold that racism is only possible in the context of certain power relations.”
Frankly, I don’t know what to say to this because it sounds like you are just finding a way to dismiss the historical context of racism and sexism without having to actually engage in anything I said. First, human beings, institutions, and beliefs all are part of a historical context so I don’t get why what I’m doing “leave its practitioners on the dust heap of crackpots and lunatics.” I don’t even understand what that means. Does it mean that the history of racism and sexism is too great a burden to consider when thinking about racism or whether something is racist? Does it mean that we don’t live in that world any longer and have sufficiently progressed so that that history is irrelevant? What does it mean? And who are these crackpots and lunatics? A very convenient way of dismissing people who we don’t want to engage.
As for my biography, I’ve actually always lived in lower income neighborhoods that have been fairly diverse. So I don’t get this other than maybe white people aren’t treated so nicely when they walk into the bodega 🙁 or some other perceived slight against whiteness. If we are going to make baseless assumptions about each other’s biography, I’m going to guess that you have never actually read any work in philosophy of race (much less taught it).
Lastly, I don’t think my definition is so uncommon or strange. Consider that in the US we have hate crimes that protect minorities, antidiscrimination crimes that protect minorities (and should, but doesn’t, protect gays), and the violence against women act. All of that is meant to help protect people who have traditionally been oppressed because of arbitrary features like race and gender. Sure, there are detractors, but those who accept the laws recognize that while there might be hostility or discrimination against white people by black people, or of men by women what matters is white male discrimination against women and minorities. So, my way of defining racism already has traction in current US law.Report
“racism has no teeth and isn’t really pernicious without the power structures differentiation so I don’t think it’s significant to talk about a woman’s discrimination against men as sexism since that’s not what makes sexism bad.”
I’ve already replied to this line of reasoning and you seem to have simply ignored my response. It seems we’re right back where we started. First of all, I didn’t really say anything about discrimination, which is a somewhat loaded term itself. I’m certainly not claiming that all affirmative action is a form of racism/sexism. What I’m saying is that a woman or other minority that hates all men/white people and believes generalizations about all men/white people is clearly sexist/racist because the presence of those attitudes are sufficient conditions for sexism/racism. I’m not claiming that affirmative action is racist/sexist. My whole point is that it depends upon the attitudes and reasons behind the policies. Indeed, I think those policies are NOT racist or sexist precisely because they are motivated by a desire to foster diversity and correct for systematic inequalities.
Second, making broad generalizations and having an intolerant attitude toward large groups of people is what is inherently bad about racism/sexism/etc. I completely agree that systematic power relations make the effects of racist attitudes a lot worse. A bigoted person can obviously do a lot more damage if society is structured in such a way that he/she has the power to make bigoted decisions regarding other people’s livelihoods. But one can easily accommodate this fact without saying that it is ONLY power relations that make these attitudes bad. You seem to want to deny this and say that it is ONLY power relations that make racist/sexist/etc. attitudes bad and because of this you think it only makes sense to think of racism/sexism/etc. in terms of power relations. This is why I and others think you are adopting a strange form of revisionism. Think of all the effort that has been put into eliminating these attitudes and promoting more tolerant ones in their place. On your view this is all wasted energy that should have been put into correcting systematic socioeconomic inequalities. Now, I certainly think that it would be wise to spend more energy on the latter than the former, but I also do not think the former is a total waste.
The whole bit about punching upward/downward appears to be an attempt to eliminate moral distinctions concerning types of actions and redefine right and wrong solely in terms of group-membership. If you want to see how well that line of reasoning works you need look no further than the various communist societies that arose in the 20th century.Report
You might find it hard to believe, but US is among the least racist countries in the world. In fact, in my own experience – having traveled and stayed extensively in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and North America – (over 30 countries), US remains by far the least racist and most successful in integrating different “races”… the kinds of things people think, say, and do anywhere from Germany and Greece to India or Egypt…would not be even thinkable here. This very discussion is not thinkable in most countries. That is not to say we should not fight racism here. But Americano-centrism is pretty foolish.Report
To get evidence about what a word means you can look in a dictionary. The OED gives this definition for ‘racism’:
A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.
The New Oxford American Dictionary says:
the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
• prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior: a program to combat racism.Report
sin nombre: I’ll help alleviate your confusion about the “dust heap of crackpots.” The idea that a woman can’t be sexist or that a black person can’t be racist is utterly bonkers.
One of the major failings of your brand of analysis is that it completely ignores the existence of small, local power structures within the broader institutions that you identify as racist/sexist. A white person that is beaten up for being in the ‘wrong’ part of town is no less the victim of “racism” than a black person who commits the same transgression, even if the society at large is racist toward blacks in a way that it isn’t racist toward whites. That simply doesn’t matter, nor should it, in our analysis of a white person who is beaten up by black people because he is white.
Having lived at length on three continents (and having spent a good month staying on a fourth) I will also echo p’s point: if you think the USA is a terribly racist society, you have a crippling lack of perspective.Report
Hi Sin Nombre, thanks for the response. Unfortunately, you seem not to be reading me very carefully. So I’ll try to clear some things up.
First, I never speculated about your biography when I referred to what people experience living in lower income mixed race neighborhoods. Here’s what I wrote: “But our problems are far more prosaic, and anyone who has spent any time living in a lower income mixed race neighborhood in a large American city will have seen plenty of things that the person free from the grips of Sin Nombre’s theory would call ‘racism’.” Notice the phrase ‘the person free from the grips of Sin Nombre’s theory.’ Clearly that cannot refer to you, as you are fully in the grips of your theory.
Second, none of what I said conflicts with your remarks about “the historical context of racism and sexism.” Again, notice: “None of this is to deny that power relations are important for instituting racism or sexism, nor is it to minimize the extent to which it is right to say that America has many racist and sexist institutions and inhabitants. But the attempt to redraw the linguistic boundaries is a misfire, I think.” I’m not objecting to the analysis of racism and sexism as social institutions. But when you say things like “women can’t be sexist because they lack institutionalized power,” you aren’t offering us an explanation of anything. Instead, you’re trying to change the language. And the right response to that is to say ‘no thanks’ to the people proposing the change, and to exhibit by reasoned conversation (for anyone not in the grips of the theory) why the proposed change is crackpot.Report
I never thought I would see someone on a philosophy blog try to settle a conceptual argument by appeal to the dictionary. Presumably, we’ll have to start prefacing all our comments with a quotation from Bartlett’s next, or else lead with “Since the dawn of time…”Report
Wow, that is a condescending, arrogant comment, Bunny Hugger!
It’s an argument about the meaning of the word ‘racism’. That’s an empirical issue, and dictionaries provide empirical evidence to answer it.
I wonder if you have anything constructive to contribute – maybe an argument or some evidence about what counts as ‘racism’.Report
Thanks very much for making your data available!Report
If conceptual problems were easily resolved with dictionaries, we wouldn’t need so many philosophers, would we?Report
Well, I don’t know, Bunny Hugger. Some of us work on problems other than the definitions of words.
Since you decline to offer any argument, or evidence, or anything constructive, even after I specifically asked you, maybe you could explain which conceptual question you have in mind. The one that is impervious to lexicographical evidence.
But then again, maybe the snotty condescension is enough.Report
I’m baffled by the apparent relative lack of interest of females in philosophy before they even attend university. However, it seems like our best response is to make sure that we are publishing philosophy in venues likely to be read by females who have not yet reached adulthood. If we are to do so, we must make it clear that as a profession, we value such writing.Report
Sin Nombre’s sentiments are right on – the sexism and racism that matters, today at least, is that which harms the vulnerable — but the argument is wrong and dangerous. To define bigotry, or any wrongdoing, entirely in terms of who it effects, and how much, robs the term of any distinct meaning. And without a distinct meaning, it is hard to say what’s so terrible about bigotry, per se, as distinct from subordinating people by other means. Consider a white vagrant who stands on a street corner and proclaims “I hate Coloreds!” all day. If Sin Nombre is right, people would be wrong to take offense — as long as the conduct did not appear to have any further pernicious consequence to black people.
Also, it’s worth asking: why is it bad to be subordinated or downtrodden in the first place? It’s not merely because one is deprived of resources; that’s true of many who don’t belong to a vulnerable class. Rather, the problem is at least partly, also, the insult and disrespect that comes with what bigoted subordination expresses. But then it’s wrong to insult and disrespect people no matter who they are, even if it’s much worse to do it to the most vulnerable.
Finally, consider that the most violent and destructive forms of bigotry in recent history grew out of the resentment of once-downtrodden people against their once-privileged foes. This form of bigotry has been deadlier and more vicious worldwide than anything ever done to minorities in the United States in the past century. If we care about avoiding such violence, we may want to decry hatred period, not only the hatred now directed against those who most visibly need protection.Report