The Gender Gap In Philosophy (guest post by Morgan Thompson)

The following is a guest post* by Morgan Thompson (Pittsburgh) on explanations of the gender gap in philosophy. It covers some of the material discussed in her recently published “Explanations of the gender gap in philosophy” in Philosophy Compass.

The Gender Gap in Philosophy
by Morgan Thompson

Women outnumber men among college graduates in the U.S., yet women make up only around 30% of philosophy majors. What can account for this gender gap?[1] Here I will highlight some especially promising and unpromising hypotheses, but I consider more in my paper. I conclude with ideas for future research in the demographics of philosophy.

1. Lack of Abilities

One hypothesis that arises in these discussions is that the gender gap is caused by women disproportionately lacking the abilities necessary to succeed in philosophy. This hypothesis is typically modelled on a common hypothesis about the causes of the STEM gender gap: because women have less variation than men in the distribution of scientific and/or mathematical abilities and because academia selects for only those individuals with the highest abilities, we should expect STEM fields to have fewer women than men. Often the implication is that the gender gap does not indicate any underlying problem and there is no reason to aim to get rid of it.

Even if we assume for the sake of the argument that academia is a meritocracy, there is little reason to think this hypothesis can explain the philosophy gender gap. Scientific and mathematical abilities may be important for some philosophical subfields like logic, decision theory, or philosophy of science, but it is less clear that these skills are required for an individual to do excellent work in ethical theories or some topics in the history of philosophy.

Further, the argument for this hypothesis in STEM fields may not be compelling either. Some of the evidence used to support it—the existence of gender differences in distributions of the SAT mathematics section—changes over time (showing a decrease in the variation in distributions) and there is even a reversal of the gender difference in variation in other countries such that women make up the higher end of the distribution. These abilities are malleable, at least in part, by social and environmental factors to the extent that the gender differences can completely reverse.

Given all of the caveats necessary to get to this point, at best the gender difference in abilities hypothesis is woefully insufficient to explain the gender gap in philosophy. (It’s also worth pointing out that women do not earn worse grades in philosophy courses than men, and at Elon University, women earn better grades.)

2. The Deterrence of Brilliance

A more promising contributing factor the philosophy gender gap comes from some recent research on field-specific ability beliefs (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland, 2015). According to this hypothesis, students who get the message from their philosophy instructors that success in philosophy requires brilliance (as opposed to a variety of strategies and hard work) will be less interested in majoring in philosophy.

While research groups have not found that women are more likely to hold brilliance-based beliefs about success in philosophy, there is some evidence that women who hold such beliefs were less likely to be interested in philosophy than men who also hold them. Another group found that students’ propensity to believe that success in philosophy requires brilliance increased between the first day of class and the end of class (see paper for details).

3. Classroom Comfort

Another promising set of factors—comfort and sense of belonging in the classroom—have been implicated in the STEM gender gap and may also contribute in philosophy. In an Australian study, women reported expecting to feel less comfortable than men speaking in class, even on the first day. At Georgia State, we found that the gender difference in comfort speaking in class in part mediated the effect of gender on willingness to continue taking philosophy courses. Women also feel a diminished sense of belonging in the classroom; they report having less in common with a “typical philosophy instructor” or the instructor/tutor. They also were less likely than men to predict that people like them could be successful in philosophy.

Still there are only a few empirical studies exploring why women are underrepresented in the philosophy major, most of which take place in varying institution types and countries: Georgia State University (U.S.), Elon University (U.S.), University of Sydney (Australia), and most recently, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Without more studies at these types of institutions and in these countries, it is unclear whether any discrepancies in the results of individual studies are due to local factors. Similarly, it is important to understand whether the converging results from different research projects generalize to other countries and other institutional types. For example, Georgia State University is in Atlanta and introductory philosophy courses have nearly as many Black students as White students. While this fact is a boon for those of us quantitatively studying students’ experiences in the philosophy classroom, it also means that some of the findings could be due to particularities about Georgia State. Without more research, we won’t be able to say one way or another.

4. Intersecting Identities

Another major area for future research is that most of the work that has been done so far focuses on women as a homogenous group. But women have many other identities that make a difference to their experiences as women. Future studies of a large enough size to study students’ experiences at many of the intersections of their identities are necessary to determine whether our interventions on the gender gap target only some women and whether it comes at the expense of women with other intersecting identities. In cases where there are too few women with particular intersecting identities, such as women with particular kinds of disabilities or trans women, to get adequate numbers for quantitative methods, researchers may have to include qualitative methods in their research as the folks at Elon University did.

5. More Data Needed

A network of factors contributing to the gender gap is beginning to emerge from the empirical research, but until we have collected more data and until we have explored the specific problems women face at the intersections of their other identities, we will be less likely to rid our profession of the gender gap and the accompanying difficulties that women face.

[n1] Another interesting question is when does the gender gap emerge? Early data suggests that women are less likely than men to declare a philosophy major heading into college (Dobbs 2015) and women are less interested in philosophy even on the first day of class (Baron, Dougherty, & Miller, 2015).

Perle Fine, “In Staccato”

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address