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”

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Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

Morgan Thompson: Thank you for your continued research on this subject. It is very illuminating and much appreciated.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

Thanks for the appreciation!Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

One idea for more data: look at fields where women are over-represented, and compare them to philosophy. For example, psychology. What differentiates the two disciplines? What features of these disciplines are good predictors of the divergent demographics between the two? If you take the factors measured in this paper, could you apply them in the same way to psychology? Would they explain the under-representation of men in psychology? Or, would other factors be needed to make a better explanation? If there’s an overlap in the explanations, perhaps that’s a good place to start exploring…Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I cannot applaud this post enough. Academia is rife with gender gaps, yet for some reason, we seem to assume that whatever causes the gender gap in philosophy is unrelated to the gender gaps in departments where men are underrepresented. Mathematically, that’s just odd. After all, every women English gets is one less for us to get, and every man we get is one less men for English to get. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have internal problems in philosophy that are worth looking at, but we obviously need to look at broader patterns too for some sort of context.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Hi Greg. Great questions. I’ve been wanting to compare the causes of demographics in various disciplines for a few years. To do a study across a wide range of disciplines with a large enough sample size to do quantitative comparisons for a number of factors, the research would need to be well funded. For now, I’m writing a proposal for a project with David Colaco where we seek to compare students’ experiences in introductory philosophy and psychology courses. I expect the two gender gaps will not have similar causes, but it’s an empirical question. The first study to really compare students’ experiences in philosophy classes to those in another discipline across a variety of factors would be the research group in New Zealand; however, to my knowledge they have not yet published their work. Keep an eye out for their paper though!Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

This is particularly noticeable at very advanced levels in fields that span disciplines. For instance, semantics is a field with some very prominent researchers in both linguistics and philosophy of language. In linguistics, many (all?) of the most prominent scholars are women – Barbara Partee, Irene Heim, Angelika Kratzer. (Richard Montague might have been a counterexample had he lived longer, and moved from mathematics to linguistics.) But in philosophy, while there are many junior women, the people in the similar career stage to those linguists are largely men. Even though the two sub-sub-fields are very similar in subject matter.

I believe there are similar splits when looking at psychology of concepts and related areas of philosophy of mind. Are there other subfields open to similar explorations?Report

Chris Surprenant
4 years ago

What about what seems to be the most straight-forward explanation, and the one that seems to come up most frequently when I have asked bright female students why they don’t continue: The road to success in academic philosophy is very difficult, and people who are very good often fail to find satisfying jobs or bounce around for many years before finding one. Even if/when they find one, the salary is often 50%, 25% or even 5-10% of what they would have made in other fields that utilize similar skill sets. Combine the bleak career outlook in philosophy with women, generally, being more risk adverse and many of these other more lucrative and more stable fields (law, for example) having female hiring biases right now, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that the number of women in philosophy is actually higher than you might otherwise expect it to be.

Either way, all of this is just armchair social science. If you’re interested in finding out why women are dropping out at the various stages along the way, you need to ask them. Survey the female students who take 1 philosophy class and don’t continue why they stopped, survey the female students who major in philosophy but don’t go to graduate school why they didn’t go on, and survey the female students who are in PhD programs but don’t go on the job market or leave academia why they made those decisions. That will tell you what you want to know.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
4 years ago

Hi Chris. First, I will say that while this paper is a review of the literature on the gender gap in philosophy, I have collaborated on one of the first empirical exploration of women’s experiences in introductory philosophy courses. You can find our paper here: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/phimp/3521354.0016.006/1 Other research groups empirically studying the early gender gap in philosophy and their work can be found in the links in my post above.

Second, it’s possible that women are more practical and risk averse than men in their career choices and that it partially accounts for the gender gap, but I’m not sure it is likely. I have no data, but I’d guess that students do not always fully understand the state of the philosophy job market before deciding whether or not to major in philosophy. Women already opt out of philosophy disproportionately compared to men after introductory courses. There is also some recent evidence that while women and men might enroll in introductory philosophy courses in about even proportions, women come into the classroom less interested in philosophy and predicting that they will not take further coursework. See work by the research group at Sydney: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/fpq/vol1/iss1/4/?utm_source=ir.lib.uwo.ca%2Ffpq%2Fvol1%2Fiss1%2F4&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages

Another relevant paper is by Chris Dobbs, shows that women declare the philosophy major before entering college much less than men do: http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/42468/UnderreprinPhil.pdfReport

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
4 years ago

This hypothesis is a non-starter… not in the least because fields in the humanities where jobs are just as scarce and pay is just as low have female majorities.

Also, a vote against the “just asking them” strategy. Surely we do not need any more empirical psychology to know that people are often highly unaware of what causes them to make decisions like this one. I’d be very surprised if the motivating reasons on both side of the gender divide were transparent to the people choosing to major or not to major.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

The point wasn’t that there weren’t other fields in the humanities where female students outnumber male students, but rather that the skill set that makes a student good at doing philosophy transfers to more lucrative and more stable paths in a way that, say, the skill set that makes a student good at French or art history does not.

Morgan, I held off responding further because I wanted to sit on this a bit more. I greatly appreciate what you all are trying to do and I was part of a similar project at Colby College in the early 2000s when Cheshire Calhoun was chair. She was interested in the same question. We had the same types of ratios at Colby, but we had a department where the majority of the faculty members (or at least half depending on how you counted) were females (Cheshire, Sarah Conly, and Jill Gordon). We came up with a similar survey and ran it in our courses with no prerequisites for either 2 or 3 semesters. We had about 500 responses if my memory is correct.

Nothing ever came of this because, like your results, they were generally inconclusive. We didn’t think we could say anything about Colby students, never mind generalizing from Colby students to philosophy undergraduates at vastly different schools across the country. Looking at your own data, I’m somewhat stunned that you all would try to draw any conclusions about philosophy students generally when it doesn’t seem that you can draw any definitive conclusions about GSU students specifically. I know you’ve included this caveat a few times in your paper about generalizing from GSU students, but then it happens anyway. Perhaps I’m missing something here. (And it’s possible because I only skimmed the article.)

Before publishing anything, it seems to me that it would have been incredibly valuable to actually test any of the inferences we see at the end of the paper. When you have a course with “regular” introductory readings taught by a male faculty member, does it generate fewer female continuers than one where the course readings have more female authors? When you have a course with “regular” readings, do you retain more female students if it’s taught by a female faculty member instead of a male faculty member? When you have a course taught via a “regular lecture style” (I’m not even sure I know what that is), does it generate fewer female continuing students than one taught by a more collaborative discussion style course? Again, you may be able to draw these conclusions about philosophy students at GSU (which would be very, very valuable), and then other folks could see if you can draw the same inferences about students who attend other schools similar to GSU and ones with very different student demographics.

My concern is that right now the methodology of what is being done here seems to be flawed and the only real aim seems to be to advocate for things like hiring more female faculty members, changing the curriculum, etc. I can understand why people are interested in doing that, and there may be good reasons for doing that, but we shouldn’t be appealing to armchair social science (which then gets vetted by other philosophers who really don’t understand appropriate methodology either) to support these goals.

These comments may seem hostile, but I am very sympathetic to this project and to understanding why we see the numbers we do in philosophy. My own experience has been that I have 60/40 females to males in my lower level courses and the women outnumber the men in my upper level courses as well. Most of the students I have helped send to graduate school have been women. It’s very possible (and seems very likely) that the discussions I had with Cheshire and my female classmates back when I was a student at Colby have influenced how I approach teaching philosophy and this approach is more conducive to retaining female students. But my sample is so small it’d be foolish to draw this conclusion.

Again, this is a very important topic and I’m glad folks are looking into it. We just need to operate off of a sensible methodology before we start drawing any substantive conclusions.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
4 years ago

Hi Chris,

I’m grateful for the way Cheshire Calhoun and your colleagues at Colby began this research. I agree it is important to not only do “armchair social science” as you suggest, though I do think testimonial evidence should be taken seriously. One of my main areas of research is philosophy of science, so I’m sympathetic and sensitive to concerns about misunderstanding the strength of the findings of some study. As I write in the Phil Compass paper on which this blog post focuses, I do not think that we have complete explanations for the philosophy gender gap at this time. I think at best that we have some potential contributing factors–some of which are more or less confirmed by the available evidence than others. I do not take the findings from GSU to be indicative of the problems women face everywhere and in fact, I’m interested in whether the high proportion of Black women among our sample might shed light on their experiences as opposed to women of other races and ethnic groups.

The GSU paper was very exploratory rather than providing (dis)confirming evidence for one particular hypothesis as other work has done (like Sarah-Jane Leslie and her colleagues). As an exploratory research project, we focused on examining many plausible hypotheses and beginning to develop a picture of the set of potential contributing factors. We also developed and refined our survey instrument and methodology over the two years. As part of a current project, I am working with David Colaco to further refine the survey instrument and determine whether certain parts of the study design make a difference to the results of the study. We aim to make a usable survey instrument and set of best methodological practices for others to do this research at their own universities because we understand that many philosophers do not have substantial training in empirical study design and gathering data from more universities of different types, with different demographics among the student body, and in different countries will help determine which results generalize and which do not.

When I conclude the Phil Compass paper, I suggest areas for future research that I think will be the most fruitful because thus far empirical research on the topic has primarily been conducted by philosophers, who may be more likely than researchers in other disciplines to have limited funding and time to commit to the project.

You suggest we should not have published our research until we had better evidence about the effects of lecture vs. discussion focused courses, the gender of the instructor, and the gender of the authors on the syllabus. I do think we have some (disconfirming) evidence about the last one. If researchers are particularly interested in whether increasing the proportion of female authors above 20%, then that is a testable intervention to determine what effect gender proportion of authors would have on the gender gap in philosophy. As for the gender of instructor, our empirical methods ran into problems with the gender gap in philosophy, ironically enough. Because there were only a small number of women instructors (compared to men instructors) teaching the years we gave the survey at GSU, we were unable to get better evidence about this hypothesis. It is also not a factor that we could manipulate. To get better evidence, we would need to study over multiple years (which introduces additional confounds) or compare across different universities (which introduces additional confounds). I know a few departments have near gender parity among graduate students and it would be really wonderful if folks at those places took up a study on the effect of instructor gender on women’s interest in philosophy. To the extent that we could, we provided transparent information about what statistical tests were performed and what our results were; it is up to the reader to use their scientific competence to make inferences about them in particular cases, though we provide guides about what sort of corrections we did for multiple comparisons, when we feel that the sample size was too small to provide (dis)confirming evidence, etc.

I will say that there have been some significant benefits from publishing our initial work. Many research groups have begun to study the problem at their universities and we have been very open with them concerning our survey instrument and study design. Other research studies have used our survey instrument (sometimes with modifications), which helps for comparisons across studies and allows us to determine which results generalize. I have also seen a number of studies that improve upon our initial study design. For example, later studies included pre- and post-test design (where the survey was given at the beginning and at the end of the course to determine how students’ experiences (do not) change) and the folks at New Zealand have done a comparative study between students enrolled in introductory philosophy and psychology courses. As research continues, the survey instruments and study design have been improved. I hope to continue this work and eventually I would really like to get a large research grant to run the quantitative survey at multiple disciplines at multiple universities as well as run smaller qualitative studies such as focus groups. All of this research takes substantial funding and time (have I mentioned this isn’t the topic of my dissertation?), so individual studies at different universities for now will provide the best evidence of which contributing factors can be said to contribute to the gender gap in philosophy rather than, e.g., the gender gap in philosophy at GSU.

Finally, my aim in doing this research is not to advocate for any particular intervention like hiring more women faculty members or including more women authors on syllabi, though I think there may be independent reasons to do such things. I am mostly interested in the empirical problem of what factors contribute to the philosophy gender gap and how those factors relate (and reinforce?) each other. When we have a better empirical picture of what is going on at the undergraduate level, we will have a better sense of what interventions are the most likely to be successful at reducing the gender gap.Report

Junior Prof
Junior Prof
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
4 years ago

Also, on the “just ask them” line, we’ve been asking the women who do end up in academic philosophy, and so, so much of what they’ve said suggests that there is an explanation that we *should* find deeply worrisome: constant unwelcome sexual attention, their contributions being taken less seriously than when a man makes the same contribution (even AFTER the female philosopher has made it), higher service loads, etc.

I’m all for asking women what their experiences in philosophy are, as at least one part of solving this problem – but when we ask them, let’s actually listen to what they tell us.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Junior Prof
4 years ago

Junior Prof: Yes, that’s a great point. I don’t focus as much on sexual harassment because it is difficult to find quantitative data on the subject, but testimony provides some good evidence that its a huge problem in philosophy. Unfortunately, it may even be a factor at the undergraduate level. But I don’t think it will be the sole explanation of the gender gap (not that you are suggesting it is). I also think there are more subtle ways women might become disinterested in philosophy. So, departments should not assume that the absence of reported sexual harassment means the absence of problems.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Does anyone know of a breakdown of gender by philosophical specialty? Not all specialties seem to be equally skewed.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Hey Nonny Mouse: We don’t have much information about gender and AOS. I can link what we do know, but I’m not sure we have a great sample of all philosophers in any of these sources. First, there is the PhilPapers Survey info, which can be found here: https://philpapers.org/surveys/

Next, there is the analysis of APA Pacific participant demographics that Molly Paxton analyzed: http://www.apaonline.org/members/group_content_view.asp?group=110424&id=210635

There is some demographic information that Miriam Solomon analyzed for the Philosophy of Science Association: http://psawomen.tumblr.com/post/122429571177/demographics-of-psa-membership Other associations may have their own demographic analyses.

Finally, there is Eric Schwitzgebel and Carolynn Dicey Jennings’ excellent work on women’s representation in ethics compared to other subfields, though their categorization of subfields is pretty course-grained: http://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/WomenInPhil.htmReport

Poecilia Formosa
Poecilia Formosa
4 years ago

One thing I have not seen is an analysis of all-women’s graduates (yes,, a minority in a minority) who declare their majors in philosophy and compare this group to their peers in co-ed colleges. It seems we garner a lot of statistics and information from this.Report

womenscollegegrad
womenscollegegrad
Reply to  Poecilia Formosa
4 years ago

Yes– I’ve often thought this. I’m a women’s college grad, tenured philosopher, and it has long seemed to me that there are a freakishly high (given how small my college was, how few women there are in the profession) number of women actually employed as philosophers who graduated from my college in particular. But, anecdata, sample bias, all that. And I haven’t a clue how to go about getting actual statistics. But somebody surely could.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  womenscollegegrad
4 years ago

Poecilia Formosa and womenscollegegrad: That sounds like a great research project. It really would be valuable to consider women’s colleges and look at both women’s reasons for not taking further philosophy classes and women’s reasons for taking further philosophy classes. To my knowledge, no one has yet looked at a women’s college.Report

Philippe Lemoine
4 years ago

Perhaps I will post something on my blog about this when I have more time, but right now I don’t have time to write a long response, so I just wanted to make a brief observation. I don’t think any hypothesis that purports to explain the underrepresentation of women in philosophy actually explains anything unless it can explain why they are underrepresented in philosophy but not in other fields.

For instance, even if women are less comfortable in the classroom than men when they take a philosophy course, this does little or nothing to explain the underrepresentation of women in philosophy unless they are more comfortable in the classroom when they take a course in other fields such as psychology where they are not underrepresented.

In fact, even if women were more comfortable in the classroom when they take a psychology course, it may still not explain the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. Indeed, since women are overrepresented in psychology, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were more comfortable in the classroom just because there are more of them, but this would not explain how psychology came to be dominated by women after the restrictions to their enrollment in college were lifted while philosophy remained a male-dominated field.

The variability hypothesis, which I think you reject far too quickly (although, even if it’s true, I doubt that it’s the main factor), at least does not have this problem. But I think what the comparison of philosophy with other fields suggests that, for whatever reasons, women tend to be less interested in pursuing a career in philosophy than in other fields. Of course, even if that’s true, there could be a nefarious reason for this. For instance, perhaps women face a more hostile climate in philosophy than in e. g. medicine, which is why they tend to be more interested in going to medical school than to do a PhD in philosophy.

But again if you want to say that, then you can’t just show that women face a hostile climate in philosophy, you also have to show that the climate is more hostile for women in philosophy than in medical school, which I think few people who know a lot of medical students would find plausible. (It certainly isn’t remotely plausible if we’re talking about medical school in France, but I don’t know any medical students in the US, so perhaps the situation is different here.) Before I stop writing, I should probably say that I have not read the paper but only the blog post, so perhaps it addresses some of my concerns.Report

Philippe Lemoine
Reply to  Philippe Lemoine
4 years ago

It’s actually worse than what I said in my last paragraph, as what I said before, when I talked about psychology, should have made clear. It’s not even that you’d have to show that the climate is more hostile for women in philosophy than in medical school today, you would have to show that it was more hostile in philosophy than in medical school 50 years ago or so, when the restrictions that prevented women from going to medical school or doing a PhD in philosophy were lifted. Indeed, even if the climate for women is more hostile in philosophy than in medical school today, it could just be a result of the fact that more women go to medical school than do a PhD in philosophy. But this wouldn’t explain why medical schools have almost reached gender parity since the restrictions against women were lifted, while philosophy remains largely male-dominated. I really doubt that, 50 years ago or so, medical schools were less hostile to women than philosophy or, at least, I have no particular reason to think so.Report

I Love Everybody
I Love Everybody
Reply to  Philippe Lemoine
4 years ago

I’m wondering what you mean by ‘worse.’ Do you mean ‘harder to do’ or ‘there’s no plausible explanation that involves sexism on anyone’s part’–or something like that.

Even if philosophers were highly trained in this kind of research, we’d need a whole bunch of studies pulling on a lot of hypotheses to get some knock down explanation that would convince a total (fair-minded) skeptic that the disparity in philosophy means the thing the skeptic says it doesn’t mean.

Your point that comparisons between fields would help (if that’s your point) seems fair. But that’s a starting point and no conclusions can be drawn from the armchair about any comparisons we might make.

Anyone who wants to do this comparative research would have to see what the confounding factors are and what they mean. There could be a multitude of things that are relevant here. E.g., if subjective professor assessment of ability play a very large role in philosophy but a much smaller role in medicine than grades and test scores do, that seems like it would make a clear difference in recruiting women into PhD programs and retaining them. It could be that recommendation-writing professors act as gatekeepers in different ways in medicine and philosophy, etc. It might be that the pre-med recruitment and retention process is wholly different than whatever passes for that in philosophy, and perhaps this works to the advantage of pre-med female students in a way it doesn’t for pre-PhD female students. It could be that interpersonal interactions and attitudes at the undergrad and grad level are much more significant to success in a way that women may suspect can’t be overcome by sheer hard work.

As for psychology, we could ask, e.g., if the presence of infant development as a hot field isn’t responsible for an increase of women in that field. Perhaps the research agenda of psychology changed to create a tipping point that drew women into the field. If so, this would mean that research agendas affect demographics.

Here’s something from the APA that argues the women got into psychology because the field opened up when men left.

http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun07/changing.aspx

As we can see from this link, there’s a longstanding concern about the disparity in psychology. Some of the reasons are that majority-female professions have lower status. Other reasons are the same as the ones raised about philosophy and economics –too much homogeneity distorts research agendas and an insular field is less relevant to the larger society. Unlike those in STEM fields, we can’t point to the things we make to prove our value to society. A variety of people must see what philosophers do as worthwhile if we are going to survive as a field.

I’m obviously speculating about any of the things one could find out with a fine-grained study that includes the comparable cases you suggest. My point is only that there isn’t even an implicit far-reaching conclusion present in comparative numbers for different fields unless a few well-trained investigators take a thorough look and do good research.

From my armchair, I think things like 1) isn’t an absence of women students majoring in philosophy also an absent of *students* majoring in philosophy? 2) Can a field that finds threatening an expansion of its reach to half or more than half of current undergraduates be a going field in the future? I realize some are hopeful that Trump will change things when it comes to women’s power in the future, but I have my doubts most men are going to lose interest in educating their college-age daughters in the coming decades.

It also seems that losing talented women to other fields isn’t such a great thing either. The possibility that is happening is also something to take seriously.Report

mhl
mhl
4 years ago

Any numbers on rates of majoring in philosophy at women’s colleges? Might help to get at (at least part of) the classroom comfort idea.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  mhl
4 years ago

mhl: As I mention above, I don’t know of any studies currently at women’s colleges. It sounds like a fantastic research project though!Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
4 years ago

There’s a few things that I think continually get missed in these discussions.
First, I think many people make the inference that since there is approximately no gap in first year undergrad, and a large gap in postgrad/faculty level, the cause of this must occur sometime between first year and the job market i.e. be something to do with the discipline. This is obviously faulty reasoning. We know that many couples start out with aspirations to avoid any housework gender gap, but end up developing one. It doesn’t follow that the primary causes this gap is something that occurred in the years of the relationship – a lifetime of socialization is surely the main culprit. For this reason I don’t think we should really think explanations 2 and 3 (which seem no more robust than the many other factors we have some evidence that the gap correlates with) are the cause until we can rule out #1.

And I don’t think we have ruled out #1 due to a worrying ambiguity when we talk about ‘abilities’:
“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.”
I think this common line of thinking obscures some really important potential explanations. Whilst being good at maths isn’t necessarily needed to be good at philosophy, it is still highly plausible that the things that cause people to be good at maths and science (in particular, socialization) are the things that are causing people to be good at philosophy. I agree with David Papineau – philosophy is like snooker. Snooker has a massive gender gap, but anyone can become good at snooker if they start early enough. All you have to do is buy a table and practice for many many years. The fact that there’s such a gap doesn’t mean snooker is the cause or women are excluded from snooker, it means socialization is really really pernicious.

There is a temptation to think that when we hear ‘ability’ the speakers mean natural, biological ability, and so anyone who talks about men having greater ability than women instantly triggers warning signs that the speaker is a biological gender essentialist dickhead. But we need to acknowledge that when students first get to philosophy, they’ve had 18 years of education and heavy socialization to develop certain abilities above others. We have no reason to suspect that all undergrad demographic groups will be of approximately the same ability by the time they get to our classes, or that these differences are able to be mitigated by us.

This doesn’t mean everything is fine or that we as a discipline shouldn’t do things to fix this gap, but I think there’s a real suspicion that any talk of ability implies essentialism and this actually prevents us from better understanding what’s going on. Would really love to hear your thoughts Morgan, thanks for your work.Report

Philippe Lemoine
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

I completely agree with the points you make, but I want to push back on the suggestion that anyone who takes seriously the hypothesis that some differences between men and women are natural is a “biological gender essentialist dickhead”, because I think it’s totally unjustified. (I’m deliberately using the term “natural” without being more precise because it’s notoriously difficult to cash out exactly what it means and, in the context of this conversation, I think most people will have a sufficient grasp of what I mean by that.) There are several theoretical reasons to expect that males would show more variability in some traits than females and there is no particularly good reason to suppose that they only apply to non-human animals or that complex traits such as cognitive ability couldn’t be concerned. For instance, women have two X chromosomes, whereas men only have one. This means that recessive alleles on the X chromosome are more likely to have a phenotypic manifestation among men than among women. Now, it doesn’t mean that men show more variability in cognitive ability than women, but that’s a perfectly legitimate hypothesis that shouldn’t be rejected for moral reasons. Yet many people talk as if it should and I think that, unless you make clear that you don’t have in mind people who take seriously that kind of hypotheses when you talk about “biological gender essentialist dickheads”, you will only strengthen that attitude, which strikes me as obscurantist.Report

Philippe Lemoine
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

The worst thing about this is perhaps that, even though I explicitly said above that I didn’t think the variability hypothesis, even if it’s true (which I don’t know), was the main factor in the underrepresentation of women, I have no doubt that most people who read this will automatically assume that it’s what I think and that I’m just not willing to say so. I have a lot of unpopular opinions and, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m not shy about any of them. So if I was convinced that the variability hypothesis is true and that it’s a major effect in the underrepresentation of women, I can guarantee you that I would say so, but I’m not and most people will nevertheless assume otherwise. I’m sure there are many people who also think it’s a legitimate hypothesis, and even some of who believe it’s true and that it plays a significant role in the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, but wouldn’t even say that because they’re afraid they would be vilified for it. I think it’s a problem when a hypothesis that is completely reasonable can’t even be publicly entertained because it’s politically incorrect, which is why I really wish people didn’t use expressions such as “biological gender essentialist dickhead”, unless they made clear that it’s not directed at people who take seriously or even accept some perfectly reasonable hypotheses. I don’t mean to single you out, but your comment, which I thought was otherwise excellent, just offered me the opportunity to make that point.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
Reply to  Philippe Lemoine
4 years ago

Apologies for not being clearer. Not everyone who thinks there is some degree of essentialism is automatically a dickhead, and I wasn’t referring to the philosophical community alone who presumably think they’ve done their epistemic due diligence. But I think in the space of comments sections on the internet, if you come across someone arguing for essentialism, more often than not they’re using this to argue current injustices are totally justified (and thus are a dickhead).

I think it is possible to think some form of essentialism is not unreasonable to believe and it is true you will have many an academic psychologist in your corner. BUT many of the “reasonable” evidence often has been refuted or has major problems, but these refutations fail to secure uptake amongst these proponents, which anti-essentialists interpret as these people not doing their due diligence or being motivated by something other than the evidence (and thus also being dickheads).

Rather than debating the evidence, I’ll just say that Cordelia Fine’s work is very convincing in showing that much of the evidence and reasoning used to support essentialism which is prima facie very convincing turns out on closer inspection to be far from it (she argues pretty much all of it is, I was persuaded).

And if you haven’t heard of her or read her books, I’d begin thinking about why this might be.Report

Philippe Lemoine
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

I know about Cordelia Fine’s work and it has been widely discussed, so I’m not sure why you expect it to be somewhat obscure. I think she is right that much of the research about sex differences is garbage, and that we know significantly less about them than many people, including some professional researchers, think we do. But not all of the research about sex differences is garbage and anyone who thinks that the debate is closed, which is not what Fine says, clearly has not read enough about this and/or has not thought this through. In particular, the debate about the variability hypothesis, which is what I was specifically talking about, is definitely not closed.

Since the debate isn’t closed, it’s wrong to assume that anyone who takes seriously that hypothesis is a “biological gender essentialist dickhead”, unless you know for a fact that this person is unresponsive to the evidence that suggests it’s false. While I’m at it, I also think that using the term “essentialist” to describe people who take seriously or even believe that hypothesis is misleading, because it suggests a very simplistic view about sex differences, which cannot reasonably be ascribed to people who just think that men show more variability in cognitive ability than women or at least think that it’s not a crazy hypothesis.

But while I’m always happy to discuss the evidence, note that I was making a very weak claim, which I think we should agree on. I myself am agnostic regarding the variability hypothesis, because I think that, for the moment, the evidence is mixed and therefore the jury is still out, or at least it should be. However, I know many people who have never looked at the evidence, yet automatically vilify those who take it seriously by using expressions such as “biological gender essentialist dickhead”. This is the attitude I was attacking specifically, because anyone with a basic understanding of biology can see why it’s not a crazy hypothesis, so they should at least look at the evidence before they reject it. (Note that I wasn’t ascribing that attitude to you, since I wasn’t sure who you were referring to when you talked about “biological gender essentialist dickhead”. The only qualm I had with your comment, the substance of which I was in complete agreement with, was precisely that you had not made clear who you had in mind.)

Having said that, I also believe that, if someone has looked at the evidence, then they shouldn’t use the expression “biological gender essentialist dickhead” to characterize anyone who takes the variability hypothesis seriously, because it suggests that they think reasonable people can’t disagree about this and that seems plainly wrong to me. Indeed, I think the only thing reasonable people can’t disagree about regarding that hypothesis is precisely that reasonable people can disagree about it. (Again, as far as I’m concerned, I think the most reasonable attitude with respect to the variability hypothesis is agnosticism. But I can see how reasonable people could disagree.)Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
Reply to  Philippe Lemoine
4 years ago

I assume it’s obscure because most people barely read science books, let understand things like socialization, psychology, statistics, peer review, confounding variables, or p values, and especially let alone current and rather dry work that contradicts their world view. They see things like ‘income correlates with third finger length’ and infer science has it settled and that they can totally take on anyone with a measly arts degree.

I don’t think if follows that since a debate ‘isn’t closed’ that I need to find out if someone is unresponsive to evidence before concluding they maybe have some reproachworthy traits or I don’t need to take them seriously. I can infer that since the last 50 people with view x who seem to be taking an active interest in discussing this weren’t responsive to evidence, the next one probably won’t be either. It might be unfair to paint you with the same brush but I daresay you’re probably in the minority (the type of person to take issue with 4 words and write 50 lines on a philosophy blog probably isn’t representative of most people in these debates).

TL;DR people of your type probably weren’t what the term was referring to and if I come across someone who reflexively reaches to biology to explain a current gap there’s justification in thinking that they’re simply non-culpably misinformed.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

They’re not* simply minsformedReport

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

“I don’t think if follows that since a debate ‘isn’t closed’ that I need to find out if someone is unresponsive to evidence before concluding they maybe have some reproachworthy traits or I don’t need to take them seriously. I can infer that since the last 50 people with view x who seem to be taking an active interest in discussing this weren’t responsive to evidence, the next one probably won’t be either. ”

Surely that depends on context. As this is a forum (by-and-large) for professional philosophers, one would hope one’s potential interlocutors about this issue are not “biological gender essentialist dickhead[s]” who are unresponsive to evidence.

I myself don’t have a settled view on whether, for instance, the research on 2D/4D digit ratio as a marker of prenatal testosterone exposure bears on preferences for professional work analogous to its apparent bearing on other behavioral traits in humans and other species (notice ‘preference’, not ‘aptitude’—I think these two issues should be separated). But I think it’s worth considering, and my experience has been that it’s difficult to raise that possibility among philosophers without falling under suspicions of the sort given voice to above. And this is despite the fact that there is an ongoing body of research in the biological and social sciences that is looking into related questions.

It’s considerations of this sort that led to the formation of the Heterodox Academy, an organization that has so far been highlighting the problems consequent on a lack of ideological diversity in the social sciences. But the “entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies” listed on their “Problem” page seem to be just as problematic for philosophers as social scientists:

“Examples of entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies include:
•Humans are a blank slate, and “human nature” does not exist.
•All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members.
•Social stereotypes do not correspond to any real differences.”

So I guess I disagree that, based on past experience, one can in general conclude about someone who raises these possibilities that “they maybe have some reproachworthy traits or I don’t need to take them seriously” simply because they raised that possibility, and prior to discerning whether they are responsive to evidence. Again, context matters, though, and so I’m happy to restrict the claim to a context where philosophers are talking among themselves (or among other academics and scientists). And I can certainly understand frustration at having had conversations with “biological gender essentialist dickhead[s]”.

Finally, I should note that I talked with Morgan about the bearing of digit ratio research on her own research into gender and philosophy when I was still a student at Pitt. She was clear that she didn’t think that raising the possibility that differences in gender representation in the academy were rooted in preferences correlated with prenatal testosterone exposure was itself a sign of moral depravity.Report

Philippe Lemoine
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

You are probably right that people who take seriously the variability hypothesis are not typically responsive to evidence that weakens that hypothesis, but the same thing can be said of people who don’t take it seriously. As I noted in my previous comment, there are many people, including among philosophers, who reject it at the outset even though it’s clearly not crazy and they have never looked at the evidence. So, if you were right, I would be justified in calling anyone who clearly doesn’t take that hypothesis seriously a “biology denying moron”, even if some of them might be pretty reasonable. But I think it’s clear that it wouldn’t be conducive to a very productive debate… Moreover, as Preston noted, context matters. Any context in which one is justified in calling anyone who takes seriously the variability hypothesis a “biological gender essentialist dickhead” is a context in which it’s simply not worth debating the issue, but I would hope that it’s not the case on this blog.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

I’m wading into this discussion quite late, so I apologize if I’m failing to address anyone’s points.

One of my other areas of research is in philosophy of neuroscience. Among other issues, I’m interested in the neuroscience research being done on gender differences in the brain. There are, of course, the issues that differences in the brain are often taken to be immutable and fixed at birth. However, we know at least that many neural circuits are refined and honed through development after birth and are dependent upon our environment. These are complicated issues, but no one is really suggesting biological gender differences like having a “philosophy” area of the brain.

Regarding Preston’s prenatal testosterone influences on 2D/4D digit lengths theory, as it is written (and I can’t recall from personal conversations) I’m not sure how it is supposed to explain the philosophy gender gap. Preston, does your theory invoke Simon Baron-Cohen’s systematizing/empathizing theory of gender differences? Or is it based on levels of aggression? Either way, the theory needs to be spelled out a bit more (and not just empirically). Why should we believe that individuals who have greater levels of [systematizing/aggression/something else] as a result of fetal testosterone levels are more likely to continue in philosophy? I’m not saying that I think the theory can’t be filled out to include an argument answering this question, but I don’t think one has been given yet.

I don’t think Preston’s theory is necessarily essentialist and therefore unworthy of consideration, but I also don’t think the prenatal testosterone hypothesis is likely. Moving from an environmental condition for fetuses to adults’ career preferences will require many, many steps.

From my knowledge of the structural organization of the brain (though not really hormones), one ought to be careful drawing functional and behavioral implications from structural differences alone. It is a move that much of the gender differences in neuroscience research makes. For example, one of the more recent studies on gender differences in the structural connectome of the human brain (from Penn) suggested in scientific communication about the study that because they found statistically significant gender differences in the proportion of interhemispheric connections they had found an explanation of why women are better multi-taskers. The study failed to control for a well-known gender difference in brain size, which might provide an explanation for their gender difference finding. Men, on average, have larger brains than women, on average; longer monosynaptic connections require more metabolic resources to develop and maintain, so larger brains will have fewer long monosynaptic connections. These studies often fail to consider alternative explanations–sometimes based in other gender differences–and provide a very tenuous story about how we go from something like fetal hormone levels to career choices.

Hormones are not an area of expertise for me, but if you haven’t read it, I would recommend Rebecca Jordan-Young’s excellent history and philosophy of science book on the topic: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674063518Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

Hi Morgan–thanks for your response. I wouldn’t expect you to remember the conversation, as it was in passing at a party a number of years ago. But just to be clear, I don’t myself have a theory about how prenatal testosterone exposure would explain the philosophy gap (it does seem to me that we should distinguish the ‘aptitude’ and ‘preference’ questions, however).

As you might recall, I just want the data–and not just for philosophy. I’d like to see an academy-wide study on 2d/4d ratios correlated with things like evaluations of interest in the field, time to declaring a major, final grades, etc. Not because there’s anything I think we are going to see; still less that I have a theory about *why* were are going to see what we see. I’m just curious, and I wonder what the data would show. At the same time, I’m bothered by an intellectual atmosphere in philosophy that seems to dismiss issues of this sort out of hand (har har).

Incidentally, that was the point of my intervention here. I don’t have a view about this stuff, but I think it’s important people be able to talk about it without being branded “biological gender essentialist dickhead[s]”. The tendency to adopt that attitude is a problem, particularly when people go on to claim they do not have a duty to see whether someone is responsive to evidence before concluding they are morally blameworthy and don’t need to be taken seriously. This is all the more disconcerting when the moral scolds don’t know the science (it’s 2d/4d ratio, not third finger length–I don’t think I’ve seen a single study on the latter trait). And of course, there are important ethical issues that turn on answering these empirical questions, so I think we should be careful about shutting down the conversation, by morally condemning one’s interlocutors, before there’s anything like a consensus on the scene. Again, not something I’ve ever experienced with you and your work on this issue, but something that does seem to be a bit of a problem in the profession more generally.

And thanks for the Jordan-Young book! Looks like a productive counterpoint to some of the stuff surrounding Steven Pinker’s work (founding member of the Heterodox Academy, by the way).Report

Simone de Eyeroll
Simone de Eyeroll
Reply to  Philippe Lemoine
4 years ago

Wow! After reading through this subthread, it continues to be a real mystery to me why women don’t want to go on in philosophy!Report

Philippe Lemoine
Reply to  Simone de Eyeroll
4 years ago

Don’t assume that every woman is as obscurantist as you.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Simone de Eyeroll
4 years ago

Why is that Simone? Is the subject matter supposed to be so upsetting that the discussion shouldn’t take place? Or was the discussion carried out in a manner you found insulting or offensive in some way? And please know I’m not being snarky–I’m genuinely interested.Report

Nathan
Nathan
4 years ago

Is there any data on whether women are more likely to stay in philosophy if they have women instructors, especially at the introductory level? This might fall into the third category “Classroom Comfort”, especially in relating to the instructor.

Also Morgan, if you could expand on the relating to a “typical philosophy instructor” bit – who is that question posed to? Should we think that students who have only taken an introductory class have an idea of what a typical philosophy instructor is, or might their idea of that be based primarily on their intro instructor? If so, then we might see some real differences in women who have had women as their intro instructors.

Thanks for this work – it’s very interesting and important.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Nathan
4 years ago

Hi Nathan,

We do have some data from Georgia State that the gender of instructor did not make a difference to women’s interest and willingness to continue taking philosophy courses. However, I wouldn’t draw any conclusions yet because we had very small sample sizes for women instructors. I’d like to see a larger sample size before weighing in on the hypothesis. However, in other fields there is some evidence that gender of a role model or mentor need not be the same gender as the mentee for recruitment (as opposed to retaining women in the field). What really matters, according to the results of this study, are that the role model does not confirm stereotypes about the field. You can find more discussion in my empirical work with Toni Adleberg, Sam Sims, and Eddy Nahmias: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/phimp/3521354.0016.006/1

Thanks for asking about the “typical philosophy instructor” bit. That’s actually a typo, so good catch. I meant to say “typical philosophy major”, which is in the statement “I think I would have a lot in common with the typical philosophy major”. We asked students enrolled in an introductory philosophy course to rate their agreement with the statement. To some extent, I expect the “typical philosophy major” will be based on any majors (or soon to be majors) in the class as well as stereotypes about the kind of student who would major in philosophy. We did ask whether students identified with their instructor, but again we didn’t have enough women instructors to reliably break down the data in that way.Report

Preston Stovall
4 years ago

The Leslie, et al. study cited above in the “Deterrence of Brilliance” section suffers from a methodological shortcoming. As Scott Alexander discussed over at slatestarcodex shortly after the paper appeared, the authors not only dismiss testing quantitative reasoning scores as a predictor of gender representation in different disciplines, they rely on data that groups GRE scores in such a way that the relevance of quantitative reasoning to fields like computer science gets lost. As a consequence, Leslie et al. fail to consider a hypothesis that has far better predictive value for gender representation than the ‘perceptions of brilliance’ hypothesis they entertain. Here’s the meat of Alexander’s own analysis (though the whole piece is worth reading):

“There is a correlation of r = -0.82 (p = 0.0003) between average GRE Quantitative score and percent women in a discipline. This is among the strongest correlations I have ever seen in social science data. It is much larger than Leslie et al’s correlation with perceived innate ability3.
Despite its surprising size this is not a fluke. It’s very similar to what other people have found when attempting the same project. There’s a paper from 2002, Templer and Tomeo, that tries the same thing and finds r = 0.76, p < 0.001. Randal Olson tried a very similar project on his blog a while back and got r = 0.86. My finding is right in the middle.

A friendly statistician went beyond my pay grade and did a sequential ANOVA on these results4 and Leslie et al’s perceived-innate-ability results. They found that they could reject the hypothesis that the effect of actual innate ability was entirely mediated by perceived innate ability (p = 0.002), but could not reject the hypothesis that the effect of perceived-innate-ability was entirely mediated by actual-innate ability (p = 0.36).

In other words, we find no evidence for a continuing effect of people’s perceptions of innate ability after we adjust for what those perceptions say about actual innate ability, in much the same way we would expect to see no evidence for a continuing effect of people’s perceptions of smoking on lung cancer after we adjust for what those perceptions say about actual smoking.”

https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/24/perceptions-of-required-ability-act-as-a-proxy-for-actual-required-ability-in-explaining-the-gender-gap/

Notice that philosophy is still an outlier when it comes to what this alternative hypothesis predicts—based on average GRE quantitative reasoning scores, the field should be much closer to a 50/50 split. And so perhaps the perception of brilliance plays a greater role in our case than the evidence suggests generally.Report

Chandra Sripada
Reply to  Preston Stovall
4 years ago

Preston, It may interest you and others that Leslie and colleagues reply to this charge (i.e., the charge that when disaggregated GRE scores are accounted for, perceptions of innate ability no longer predict field-specific gender gaps ) here:

science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6246/391.3Report

Chandra Sripada
Reply to  Chandra Sripada
4 years ago

To be clear, I am not endorsing their reply — I think the original charge is likely correct and disaggregated GRE scores fail to be properly accounted for. But I am just noting that the reply is out there.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Chandra Sripada
4 years ago

Thanks for this Chandra. The multicolinearity problem that Leslie et al. identify in Ginther and Kahn’s reply is not one that Alexander’s analysis suffers from, as he considers only quantitative GRE scores. Nevertheless, I’m open to considering that some more direct response to Alexander could be given. But just to clarify–the claim is not that perceptions of brilliance don’t predict gender gaps, it’s that average quantitative GRE scores far better predict those gaps. Having not covered that possibility in the original paper, Leslie et al. suffers for it. And that’s something that I heard a couple of people independently voice after the paper appeared, so it’s somewhat surprising the authors dismiss that line of inquiry in the original paper. I can’t help but feel this is a case where peer review stumbled due to the kinds of problems the Heterodox Academy is pointing to.

http://heterodoxacademy.org/problems/Report

DocFE
DocFE
4 years ago

Maybe women are not that interested in going into philosophy as men are? I do agree there is a sexist bias, though, but why not the simplest explanation? Just a thought, not an analysis nor criticism of other comments, many of which I concur .Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  DocFE
4 years ago

DocFE: I agree that there is a difference in interest levels and in fact, that is one of the primary findings from my research with Toni Adleberg, Sam Sims, and Eddy Nahmias at GSU. However, in that paper, we found that when we performed a factor analysis on our many many survey questions, the responses to the question on interest levels in philosophy loaded onto the same factor as other questions like: whether they could consider majoring in philosophy, whether they enjoyed the class, whether they feel they have a lot in common with a typical philosophy major, whether they are good at philosophy, whether philosophical topics are relevant to their lives, and more. I don’t think saying that women have lower interest levels in philosophy than men provides an explanation of the gender gap. Rather interest levels are related to the general problem we’re trying to address: why are women less likely to take further courses in philosophy than men?

A good social scientist would explore why students’ interests differ. Is it because women feel less comfortable speaking in class and so are less engaged in philosophical discussion? Is it because women experience stereotype threat and so perform worse than their male peers in the philosophy class and then infer that because philosophy requires innate talent, that they don’t have what it takes to succeed? Or is it because women are less interested in hostile and aggressive discussions? There are a huge number of possible contributing factors (some of which are mentioned in the blog post and some that are in my Compass paper and the GSU study), so there’s a lot of empirical work to be done even if we find robust gender differences in interest levels in philosophy and assume that students choose their majors based on interest levels.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Morgan Thompson
4 years ago

Ever worry that philosophers expend about a thousand times as much effort on this problem – which is, after all, not even a philosophical problem – as they do on any one problem in metaphysics, epistemology, phil of language, phil of mind, or phil of science? Maybe women are just better than men at apprehending that philosophers themselves don’t seem to be taking philosophy itself seriously.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
4 years ago

Why shouldn’t philosophers concern themselves with an issue in professional philosophy, even if it is not a philosophical problem? Having said that, it could be true that women are turned off by the tendency of many professional philosophers to treat philosophy as a game rather than something genuinely important.Report