Why Do Undergraduate Women Stop Studying Philosophy? (guest post by Morgan Thompson)

The following is a guest post* by Morgan Thompson (Pittsburgh), who, along with Toni Adleburg (UCSD), Sam Sims (Florida State), and Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State), authored the newly published “Why Do Women Leave Philosophy: Surveying Students at the Introductory Level” (Philosophers’ Imprint). Below, Thompson covers some of the main points of the paper for the purposes of discussion here at Daily Nous.

Why Do Undergraduate Women Stop Studying Philosophy?
by Morgan Thompson

Recently on blogs, at conferences, and in journals there has been much speculation and various hypotheses concerning the causes of women’s underrepresentation in philosophy (e.g., here, here, and here). Most of the discussion has focused on factors that contribute to the very low proportion of women graduate students and faculty in philosophy, rather than undergraduates. And few discussions have included empirical support (or they draw only on research regarding other disciplines).

In early 2012, Toni Adleberg, Sam Sims, Eddy Nahmias, and I began a project to gather empirical support for explanations of the gender gap in philosophy, focusing on potential causes of the early drop-off of women in philosophy between initial courses and choosing to major, since research shows that this is the most significant drop-off. If the proportion of women majors remains stuck under 1/3, as it has been for decades (National Center for Education Statistics 2013), then it will remain difficult to improve the proportion of women graduate students and faculty.

Our paper describing our surveys, results, and suggestions is now published in Philosophers’ Imprint here. We hope people will find it useful, especially for generating more hypotheses, research, and solutions. Below, we offer a few highlights and welcome discussion here at Daily Nous.

During the project, we considered a number of questions: What factors could explain the dearth of women majoring in philosophy, as well as the dearth of minorities? Which hypotheses from the literature and from blogs have empirical support? If we can implicate factors in a particular group’s underrepresentation, can we successfully intervene on those factors? Do underrepresented groups face different sets of problems at different types of institutions or in different countries? Are the sets of factors distinct for different underrepresented groups? How might intersectional analysis of data highlight specific or intensified factors for particular groups? (We also gathered data on differences in responses to our surveys by Black students and White students and are considering hypotheses about why fewer Black students major in philosophy. We also aim to highlight the importance of intersectional analyses in demographics of philosophy studies, but have faced struggles in securing large enough sample sizes. A future paper—with Liam Kofi Bright and Erich Kummerfeld—will explore these results and issues.)

In the fall of 2012, we developed and conducted a survey of over 700 undergraduate students enrolled in Introduction to Philosophy courses at Georgia State University, and we repeated the survey (with additional questions) in fall 2013 with over 800 students (see Appendix 1 of our paper for the questions and responses). One of our most important findings is that women and men did perceive philosophy and the philosophy classroom differently.

While students on average reported enjoying the course and finding philosophy interesting and relevant, women were significantly less likely to agree to these statements than men. Women were also less likely to identify with the typical philosophy major or their instructor and less likely to believe that “people like me” can be successful in philosophy. Finally, women were less likely to report interest in taking further philosophy courses or to consider majoring in philosophy. We then asked what factors might contribute to women’s disproportionate lack of identification with philosophy and less willingness to continue in the field.

Here I will highlight just a few of our results, but several others are described in our paper. One early hypothesis for the lack of women in philosophy is that a schema clash between ‘woman’ and ‘philosopher’ makes it more difficult for women to enter and work in the profession (Haslanger 2008). A woman philosopher may be seen as a token instance that violates the stereotype that philosophers are men, or she may be seen as lacking membership to one of the relevant classes. We found evidence that undergraduate students recognize the gender gap in philosophy among majors and professors.

We examined students’ perceptions of the gender balance of authors on their course’s syllabus. In 2012, students on average disagreed that there was “a fair proportion” of women on the syllabus, and women were more likely to disagree than men. When we looked at the syllabi used in the 2012 courses, on average only 10% of authors were women. This proportion is not anomalous. We looked at 18 Intro textbooks and found that the gender proportion was even worse (6.94%; see Appendix 4 of the paper and here). Furthermore, 44% of these articles by women are on “women’s issues” like abortion, sexism, feminism, etc. We found that student perception of the fairness of gender ratio of authors partially contributed to women’s (un)willingness to continue in philosophy.

We decided to intervene on the percent of women authors on introductory syllabi for the fall 2013 courses. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support of the Chair George Rainbolt, both Tim O’Keefe and Sandy Dwyer, who run the graduate student teaching program at GSU, and the fall 2013 graduate student instructors, introductory syllabi included an average of 20-30% women authors (individual syllabi for all sections, some taught by faculty, ranged between 5-39%). Students on average disagreed less than in 2012 that there was a fair proportion of women authors. Men’s responses hovered around the midpoint while women on average disagreed significantly more, and responses to this question influenced willingness to continue in philosophy. However, we did not find that students or women specifically were more willing to continue in philosophy in relation to higher proportions of women on the syllabus.

Ultimately, the intervention on gender ratio of authors on syllabi did not by itself prompt more women to consider continuing in philosophy, perhaps for any number of reasons: for instance, women still found the 20% ratio to be unfair and perhaps a higher ratio of women authors would make a difference, the intervention on one factor alone in the absence of interventions on other factors is not enough, or perhaps gender ratio on syllabi—in the grand scheme of choosing a major—is not very important when choosing a major. Further research is necessary. (It’s worth noting that GSU has continued to include 20+% women authors in most of its Intro sections and also includes a powerpoint on the value of the philosophy major, and the proportion of women majors over the past five years has increased from below 40% to 50%, and the proportion of Black majors has also increased significantly.)

Finally, in the 2013 survey we probed students’ perceptions of field-specific ability beliefs (FABs). Sarah-Jane Leslie et al. (2015) proposed the hypothesis that women and Blacks are underrepresented in academic fields to the extent that practitioners in the field take natural brilliance (in contrast to hard work) to be required for success in that field (discussed here). Strikingly, out of all the fields discussed in their work, philosophers had the highest proportion of brilliance-based FABs. Leslie and colleagues indeed found evidence that the proportion of women and Blacks in a field is negatively correlated to these brilliance-based FABs. This hypothesis suggests that we pass onto our students the message that success in philosophy requires natural brilliance (“a special aptitude that just can’t be taught”), while hard work just won’t cut it, and this stereotype disproportionately turns women and minorities away from the field.

We did not find that undergraduate women were more likely to hold brilliance-based beliefs than men (the FAB theory does not predict they would). We did, however, find that those students who do hold brilliance-based FABs about philosophy were less likely to be interested in further philosophy courses or the philosophy major. And this effect was more pronounced in women than men. Hence, it seems likely that the subtle ways in which philosophy instructors, texts, or stereotypes about philosophers contribute to this brilliance-based belief about success in philosophy partially explains why women leave (or simply don’t enter) the field. It’s likely that both the gendered stereotype of philosophy and brilliance-based beliefs about it are “in the air” such that students are influenced by them even before taking any college philosophy courses. If so, it may be that much more important to try to challenge those beliefs in students’ first philosophy course, at least if our goal is to prevent women from saying goodbye to philosophy right after they say hello to it.

Since 2012, many research groups have begun investigating why women leave philosophy after introductory courses at their own universities. We hope this paper (and subsequent ones) inspire more research on the question of why women and minorities are majoring in philosophy at such low rates and what might be done to inspire more women and minorities to major, ideally by making philosophy more interesting to all students. We are happy to share our survey or answer questions here or by email.

Matisse - Marguerite Reading

(Henri Matisse, Marguerite Reading)

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