No Women Philosophers in the British A-Level OCR Philosophy Courses? (updated)


A reader brought to my attention a petition from 17-year-old Zishi Zhang claiming that there are currently no women included in the A-Level OCR Philosophy and Ethics syllabus, and calling to change this [see update below]. (A-levels are the course and exam requirements students in the UK and elsewhere must typically meet in order to graduate from high school and attend college. “OCR” (Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society for the Arts) is one of the examination boards that sets the requirements.)

The petition text also notes that no women are slated to be added in the 2016 updates to the requirements.

The philosophy and ethics qualifications that Zhang is referring to fall under the Religious Studies category and are officially titled “Philosophy of Religion” (G571) and “Religious Ethics” (G527). They are described in this document  (starting on pages 12 and 16, respectively).

Anyone know more about this?

UPDATE: Alison Wood, Chair of Examiners for AQA GCE AS and A-level philosophy, writes in to clarify a few things:

The OCR course referred to in your post is not A-level Philosophy, but A-level Religious Studies. The A-level Philosophy is run by AQA and there are currently women philosophers represented in the content.

We are, however, very mindful indeed that the voices of women have been under-represented in philosophy and we are committed to doing all we can to support raising the profile of women in our subject [philosophy, not religious studies].  To that end, we have been working with the British Philosophical Association to make sure that the work of women philosophers is incorporated into the A-level subject criteria.  This will guarantee that any and every A-level qualification in philosophy will have to include them, as is absolutely right and proper.

The DfE will shortly be publishing the subject criteria for philosophy and we trust that the philosophy community will be as pleased as we are to see the changes which have been made. We look forward to continuing to work with the professional philosophical community to ensure that our A-level in philosophy properly represents the range of people working in this subject area.

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Anon
Anon
5 years ago

All I’d say is careful those who push for more philosophy in high schools. This is what it ends up looking like, some weird afterthought of religious studies…Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

For an undergrad philosophy of mind course I took one of the two main texts was authored by a female. However, to my knowledge, none of the women who took that class based their decision even slightly on the fact that there was a female author involved (neither did it have any effect on my choice, as a male, to take that course). What seems to me to be the big issue is content not gender. Take two introductory textbooks: one written by a male and the other by a female. Suppose–as is often the case–that these books are very similar in content and merely differ on the final conclusion. Why should it matter which book we pick? Why should gender, as opposed to ideas, come into play? For example, the most popular position in philosophy of mind is physicalism. If you have two authors, one male and another female, it is more likely than not that both will be physicalists. Thus, if it is a diversity of ideas that we are after, wouldn’t it be more wise to use a book written by a dualist, idealist, or neutral monist? Ideas like this are gender blind. I’m not against using textbooks written by females, what I’m against is using them *because* they were written by a female (just like I’m against using a textbook *because* it was written by a male). Again, it seems to me that it is the content/ideas that are most important, *not* gender.

A comment on the phil of religion course shenanigans: it strikes me as odd that they didn’t use Eleanor Stump given that she is a pretty big name in phil of rel.Report

harry b
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

Imagine that pretty much every book on every syllabus were by a woman, and pretty much every teacher of philosophy you encountered was a woman, and pretty much every person you encountered talking about philosophy were a woman, and your classes were largely female, and when they talked they tended to ignore what the men in the room said, regularly talking across and interrupting them (female students regularly report this last experience to me in reverse, and as a teacher I pretty much don’t allow it, but it takes up quite a bit of my skill and psychic energy to prevent it; male students never report anything similar). This is equivalent to the experience very many female students have when they encounter philosophy. Mightn’t that affect your choices, over time, at least a little? If not, then that’s great. But I’d conjecture that a good number of men (maybe not even most) would be affected at least some by that. And it only has to be a good number for that to affect the quality of the profession significantly (assuming those who are put off are on average equally capable as those who are not).Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

I’ve made it a point to ask the women philosophy students at my university: all feel comfortable and have never experienced discrimination or been treated differently. This was very surprising to hear given the reputation of women and philosophy (However, I do attend a Christian university, so this might factor into this non-discriminatory phenomenon.)

(As for your version of female experience in philosophy, I wouldn’t be too troubled. I used to work in the human care business (caregiving). There were hardly any male coworkers: pretty much everyone I encountered talking about caregiving was a woman, the classes I attended to keep up with my requirements were mostly women, and women tended to dominate meeting discussions. I did fine. If I had an opinion I made it known. Now, let me be clear, if women’s ideas are being ignored *because* they are women, this is a problem. I don’t doubt that this occurs (I also don’t doubt that men’s opinions are occasionally dismissed because of their sex), and any philosopher who does this should be rebuked.)

That said, it isn’t at all clear how what you said effects my point: we should *not* choose textbooks based on gender, we should choose them based on *content*. How is this objectionable? If we truly want a diversity of ideas (which may or may not be virtuous), then we should, you know, make sure that the ideas are diverse. Difference in gender doesn’t entail difference in ideas.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

I’ve made it a point to ask the women philosophy students at my university: all feel comfortable and have never experienced discrimination or been treated differently.

Perhaps the women students at your university have had experiences that are not like experiences women have had at other places, or perhaps having a man make a point to go up to them and say “Do you feel comfortable in philosophy, or have you experienced discrimination?” is not the best way to elicit an honest answer, but the experiences that Harry Brighouse describes are well-attested among women in philosophy. You can find many sources for this, if you look.

There were hardly any male coworkers: pretty much everyone I encountered talking about caregiving was a woman, the classes I attended to keep up with my requirements were mostly women, and women tended to dominate meeting discussions. I did fine. If I had an opinion I made it known.

I too worked in a workplace with hardly any male coworkers once, as an in-house copy editor at a scientific journal. If I had an opinion I made it known, and my opinion was not dismissed because I was a man. This is signally different from the (again, widely attested) experience that women have in philosophy class discussion, where they are routinely interrupted by men much more than men are. There has been a lot of scientific research showing that, in meetings in general, it is much more common for men to interrupt women and for women’s contributions to be ignored than vice versa.

So our happy experiences as lone men in the workplace doesn’t seem exactly relevant to the question of whether more gender diversity is needed in philosophy, and whether more gender diversity in the syllabus would be one way to achieve that.Report

harry b
5 years ago

I wouldn’t assume that the diversity of ideas in a course was determined by the content of the textbooks. Certainly not the diversity of the ideas the students themselves consider and grapple with: that is affected tremendously by the quality of the pedagogy through, among other things, its influence on which students speak and how well they are induced to articulate their ideas. And diversity of ideas is only one (important) criterion: we want all our students to learn, well, and that those who will benefit from more philosophy take more philosophy; and (a secondary matter) we want to ensure that the pipeline into the profession is inclusive and diverse; not least because as a discipline which depends so much on dialogue among different intuitions, we want to ensure that a good variety of life experience (which is what shapes all of our ideas) is brought into the mix.

“Difference in gender doesn’t entail difference in ideas”. No, absolutely; it just, like other differences in life experience, considerably raises the probabilities, which is what we are interested in.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

The ideas that students grapple with is often based on the textbooks that are used. And do you think that we want the “pipeline into the profession” to be inclusive and diverse for ideas, or things like gender and race? I guess I see a diversity of ideas as being more important (well, as important as a thing like “diversity” is). You say that the life experience different races and genders bring is valuable, and I think the same can be said for the experience brought in by people who hold atypical positions. Again, I’m not really sure if anything you’re saying is relevant to my point, which was that content and not gender should determine the textbooks we use.

As for your claim that diversity of gender (and the like) “raises the probability” of a diversity of ideas: well, we have a foolproof way of raising the diversity of ideas. Instead of trying to *indirectly* raise the diversity of ideas through gender diversity, we can actually *look* at the ideas a certain philosopher holds by looking at her publications and by interviewing her. In other words, we have a way to *directly* cause ideological diversity; for a diversity of ideas we don’t need to look at gender at all.Report

harry b
5 years ago

Kind of hard to tell if that last paragraph was serious. Was it? If so, we are definitely talking past each other!Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

I interpreted you as saying that increasing gender diversity increases the probability of increasing ideological diversity. My response was that, if ideological diversity is what we’re after, we can bypass gender and go straight to the source. For example, most philosophers of religion are theists. Suppose that my department reflects this statistic. Now suppose that there are two applicants, Eleanor Stump and Michael Tooley. Now, I can hire based on gender to try to fix this problem (if, indeed, non-diversity is a problem), but this, as it turns out, would actually do the opposite: to hire Stump over Tooley here would not increase diversity. In sum, my point is this: if it’s ideological diversity that we’re after, then gender shouldn’t come into play: we can look at the work of the philosopher in question. If I have misinterpreted you, feel free to let me know.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
5 years ago

I do think, though, that there’s a difference between having a course syllabus that constituted mainly of men, and the atmosphere in classrooms/meetings/etc. where women are interrupted more, or given less respect for their perspectives. I think those things were conflated in responding to the original commenter. Does the former (the syllabus) necessarily create the latter (the poor atmosphere)? I don’t think it has to.Report

harry b
Reply to  GradStudent
5 years ago

Conflated? They were distinguished, surely? No, of course, there are many different things going on. Point is just that in a certain kind of environment, additionally having an all-male syllabus (which is common) may be another factor, that is relatively easily alterable. Of course, getting teachers to learn how to teach (eg, learning how to prevent interruptions, create an environment in which everyone can say their piece; ensuring that the quiet ones with more interesting things to say speak at least as much if not more than the loud ones with less interesting things to say, etc) would be far more effective. Its also much more difficult.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

It would also be interesting to see (1) if women are “interrupted” more than men (in my experience, this isn’t so) and (2) whether or not they are interrupted more *because* they are women. I’m not sure how one could go about determining how to answer (2)–I will interrupt someone if I think I know where they are going and if I don’t think they are going to a good place. This merely reflects my poor etiquette though. Hence it’s difficult to determine the status of (2), and (2) is a essential question when it comes to gender issues.

All that said, I agree with you that a syllabus doesn’t necessarily create a poor atmosphere. I think a poor atmosphere is caused by people, not a syllabus.Report

harry b
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

(2) is not the essential issue at all. Many men do what you do. And many men (and many women) are more inclined to think that about what a woman says than about what a man says. And then there is just interrupting because I am more interested in what I have to say than in what anyone else does. Men tend to do that more. In my experience, anyway. And much less these days, since I have become a better teacher.Report