The Perception of Philosophy as Masculine


A recent study looks at whether perceptions about how “masculine” philosophy is can help explain the gender disparities in the field. 

In “21% versus 79%: Explaining philosophy’s gender disparities with stereotyping and identification,” forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology, authors Debbie Ma, Clennie Webster, Nanae Tachibe, and Robert Gressis (all at CSU Northridge), present data that, they argue, supports the idea that male domination in philosophy could be eroded, eventually, by changing how it is taught.

They find that students who haven’t taken much philosophy do not have a sense that the field is male-dominated, but they come to have this view the more philosophy they study, and that further, the degree to which women students see philosophy as masculine, the less interested they are in majoring in it.

Here’s an excerpt from the discussion section of the paper (citations removed, emphasis added):

The current paper attempted to empirically test the notion that gendered perceptions of philosophy may contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the field. In our research, we borrowed from previous social psychological research linking stereotypic beliefs with selection of careers. Consistent with previous research and our predictions, we found that gendered beliefs about philosophy corresponded with participants’ interest in philosophy as a course of study, and that these masculine beliefs had their effect through identification with philosophy traits for females. Women who viewed the field as more masculine identified with it less and this related to lower interest in the major. However, women who associated philosophy with femininity tended to have greater identification with the field and expressed greater interest in ultimately declaring a philosophy major.

Interestingly, the reverse effect was not observed for men: seeing the field as more masculine was not associated with greater interest in the field. Although we can only speculate about the cause of this asymmetry, we postulate that men may not think about their gender as much as women and are not typically influenced by gender issues. We cite research arguing that one aspect of social privilege is not having to think about one’s privileged status. That said, we do think that there could be some contexts, such as those that make men’s minority status stand out (e.g., perhaps when considering a major in gender studies or early childhood education), that might make gender salient for men.

One notable aspect of our findings is that there was no evidence for a mean-level belief that philosophy is gendered, despite the sizable gap in the field. This may be an artifact of the participants that we sampled, who were largely Latino and gathered from a student population with high rates of first-generation college students, or could reveal something deeper about what is happening to women in the philosophy pipeline. All of our participants were undeclared college students who presumably have limited knowledge of the gender gap in philosophy graduate programs and in the academy—some may never have even taken a philosophy course prior to participating in the study and those who have would have only taken introductory courses where classes are fairly equitable in terms of gender composition. Although they may enter the major unaware of these schemas, women may become acculturated to the masculine nature of philosophy at the upper-division where gender parity diminishes, or perhaps women see that most of their professors are male and course texts are predominantly male-authored. This is consistent with a newly published report by Thompson, Adleberg, Sims, and Nahmias, who found evidence that introductory level philosophy students who were surveyed toward the end of the semester indicated that philosophy was a male discipline. Further, women in the class expressed this view more strongly than men. As our findings suggest, these perceptions may discourage women’s identification and engagement in the field.

The null mean-level effect that we report is very encouraging in that it suggests undergraduate students enter the Philosophy 101 world without these preconceived, gendered notions. Moreover, our analysis suggests that men and women are equally unaware of these gendered stereotypes, t(203) = 0.31, p = 0.76. The key finding in our view is that even though we do not see evidence for this gender-stereotyped perception of philosophy, the extent to which individuals saw the field as more masculine did have an influence on both identification and interest in the field. It is entirely conceivable that we can retain women if we can continue to suppress these masculine stereotypes of the field and/or actively work to promote an atmosphere of belonging for women and men alike.

The study was conducted on 261 students at CSU Northridge.

The paper is currently accessible in full here.

Alessandra Rossi, untitled

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Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

I’m not going to concern myself with bullshit like how “masculine” or “feminine” philosophy *seems* to people in order to market a truthseeking field under the same reasoning you’d use to help toddlers eat their vegetables

I don’t and have never concerned myself with how “masculine” something is in real life. if I didn’t do it in my country-ass high school when gay bashing was still a thing I’m certainly not going to do it because it’ll help me sit at the girls table at lunch or something. I’m going to give my most truthful account of literature whenever I can and social constructs of gender can eat shit.Report

John
John
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago
Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

Wow, the hostility of this comment is off the charts. But to address its substance, here is an analogy for why worrying about how ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ something seems isn’t just stupid BS:
Let’s say that I’m involved in the education and training of people to become nurses. Nursing is, stereotypically, a ‘feminine’ activity in our culture (although much less so nowadays than it used to be). But I regard this stereotype of false and harmful. There is nothing about the things nurses do that make men less suited to nursing than women, and to the extent that this stereotype leads to fewer men to become nurses–men who would do good work as nurses and who would find it rewarding–that’s a bad result.
Obviously, I’m going to be mainly concerned in my training/education with teaching people how to be good nurses, and this is gender-neutral. (Well, mostly–obviously in some particular areas of medicine gender makes a difference.) But if there anything about the ways nursing is portrayed, or especially about the way we teach it, that helps reinforce those false and a harmful stereotypes, then I’d want to know about it, so that I can help correct those problems.
Now, I haven’t looked at the paper itself, so I cannot comment on it. There may be serious problems with it, and the situation in philosophy may not be analogous to the nursing scenario I sketched out above. (For instance, associate prof raises a good point below about what’s involved in viewing something as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’) But Alfred objects to the very idea of looking into these sorts of stereotypes as illegitimate BS, and I don’t see why it is.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
3 years ago

I agree that the comment was hostile and don’t think I share Alfred’s view. BUT: I’m not sure this analogy is helpful. What does it mean, exactly, to say that the nursing stereotype is harmful? You suggest that it is harmful because it leads to fewer men who would be good nurses and enjoy it becoming nurses. But (a) the research cited above at least suggests that more masculine =/= more interest from men; (b) it also suggests that more masculine = less interest from women, and (c) presumably we want to compare the overall effects of stereotypes when judging whether they are harmful. If getting rid of the feminine stereotype about nursing resulted in fewer good nurses (who enjoy nursing) overall (say, because 10% more men but 20% less women become nurses), then I’d be pretty tempted to say that getting rid of the stereotype was harmful (= more harmful than maintaining it). Anyhow, I’m only pointing this out because I think this cultural design stuff is interesting and important and under theorized. I think lessening or eliminating the masculine stereotype associated with philosophy seems like a good thing, but I just think that in this case, as in all others, we have to ask: at what cost? In the philosophy case the cost looks pretty minimal, but that seems less clear in the nursing case.Report

Radstudent
Radstudent
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

If you believe that philosophy isn’t gendered and that philosophy is about truthseeking then you should be concerned about the fact that some students have a misconception about the discipline, as well as the empirical finding that this misconception leads people away from participating in our practice of truthseeking.Report

Sure as heck posting anonymously
Sure as heck posting anonymously
Reply to  Radstudent
3 years ago

“…the empirical finding that this misconception leads people away from participating in our practice of truthseeking.”

Are you referring to the study that is the subject of this post? If so, then as far as I can tell, it finds no such thing. What it finds is that there are correlations in both directions, specifically for women–if a woman already has the opinion that philosophy is gendered (which, by the way, they found no evidence that this opinion was widespread), then her interest/identification in it correlates with *which way* (masculine, feminine) she takes philosophy to be gendered. So even if some people are being “led away” by a misconception (as we are assuming for the sake of argument) of philosophy as masculine, some are being “led toward” it by a misconception of it as feminine. Not at all clear that the misconception of philosophy as gendered is “lead[ing] people away” on the whole.

And that’s granting that there’s a causal relationship from the gendered misconception to interest/identification and not, say, the other way around (or some third, underlying factor that is a common cause), none of which the study (at least as summarized here at DN) rules out.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Sure as heck posting anonymously
3 years ago

You seem to be pointing out that this study did not yet investigate every aspect of the gendered perception of the field, and the ways that this might affect student interest in it. That suggests that the set of questions here is *even more interesting* than the paper itself shows. So I don’t understand why you are so negative about this. Your own comments seem to say that there are deep empirical questions here that we haven’t yet answered, which suggests to me that people should be pursuing them.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
3 years ago

I took it that comment was about what a conditional effect between two IATS and an interaction absent robust direct or indirect effects actually shows here, not what would be interesting to show.Report

Nate S
Nate S
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

What if it meant growing the number of majors at your university?

If truthseeking is important (it is), and would improve anyone’s life by participating in it (sounds reasonable), then it would seem like a good idea, as a person who values truth and others’ intellectual well-being, to promote measures that spread those norms to everyone. You’re not dumbing anything down, just smoothing away rough edges that might alienate the otherwise curious student. This isn’t about political correctness either; it’s about better pedagogy, reaching every student and making the most of your time with them.Report

Matt
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Presumably, you would not tell your colleagues there that their work should be dismissed as “bullshit”

This _should_ be so(*), but I’m pretty sure there is less than 100% consensus on the point. Perhaps that’s part of the problem?
(*) I’m willing to believe there might be times when “this is bullshit” is the proper response, but they are fewer than some people think.Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

Tim O’Keefe, Radstudent, and Nate S – I really admire how gracious your replies are. Thank you, both on substance and on conversational generosity!Report

BW
BW
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
3 years ago

I agree with the general attitude behind your comment on this “issue” (and it seems I’m not alone based I your ‘thumbs up’) although I assume you’re unfamiliar with this blog. Your style of comment isn’t taken too kindly here. I would probably say something similar in casual conversation, (I’m pretty foul mouthed with my friends) but not here. Surprised it hasn’t been removed yet. Report

associate prof
associate prof
3 years ago

This is intriguing. But can we hear more about the features that led some students to perceive philosophy as “masculine”? And also, the features that led others to associate the discipline with “femininity”? It is hard to know what to take away from this study if we aren’t given a sense of the stereotypes that the authors suggest should be suppressed.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
3 years ago

Thank you for sharing this paper. Just to be sure I understand the findings: there is no evidence for the belief philosophy is gendered, no gender differences in that belief, gender-IAT does not predict interest in philosophy, for either men or women, self-IAT and self-IAT*gender do not predict interest in philosophy, but if you then split the sample by gender the indirect IAT-IAT interest effect comes out for women, is that correct?Report

debbie
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
3 years ago

That’s correct. We found (and others – Di Bella et al., 2016) no evidence for gendered beliefs across the sample. This was true for male and female participants. This is consistent with the undergrad subset in the Di Bella paper.

There was no evidence for a zero-order correlation between gender-IAT and interest in philosophy. We do find that for females gender-IAT relates to self-IAT, and find no corresponding relationship for males. This is the effect in the gender box in Figure 1 (b = .47***). The conditional indirect effects then show that for females, the effect of the gender-IAT has its impact on interest in the field through self-IAT.

I hope that explanation helps! Happy to correspond through email!Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

One option available to us is to work toward a society where concepts like “masculine” and “feminine” have been unmasked as the limiting, oppressive ideologies they are and subsequently discarded. If nothing is masculine or feminine, then philosophy can’t be perceived as masculine either. In a society riven by gender roles (norms applied to people on account of their sex), it is very hard to insulate any practice (such as philosophy) from it. If we want to de-gender philosophy, we may have to de-gender society generally. A big ask . . . but maybe anything less is futile.Report

Iano
Iano
3 years ago

“A recent study …”
*Gets up*
*proceeds to slam the door at the exit*Report

Sybil
Sybil
3 years ago

bb: I’m not sure “degendering” philosophy (or society) is possible (yes, it’s a HUGE ask). But even if it were possible, I’m not sure it would be desirable. Perhaps it’s not *homogeneity* that ought to be aimed for but rather a *diversity* of voices. The problem is not that we don’t all speak with the same voice; the problem is that many of the voices who have something important to contribute are marginalized, underrepresented, or otherwise not heard (=not listened to). Indeed, it seems quite plausible that the perception by an underrepresented individual or group that only the mainstream voice “counts” (or the perception of there being only one dominant voice that doesn’t particularly speak to one’s own experience) – and that one would have to speak in that voice in order to be included in the enterprise – could turn a person off to philosophy.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

I applaud the conducting of this study, but I am bothered by the fact that discussions about the lack of females in philosophy never seem to look at the effect of the rest of the academy’s ability to attract men and women. Of the programs we are competing with, some programs are attracting more men and some are attracting more women. The question isn’t simply “why aren’t women doing philosophy?” but “why are they going elsewhere instead of philosophy?” and that may have a lot to do with what they are being offered elsewhere. Likewise, we don’t simply have to ask “why do men do philosophy?” but “why are men doing philosophy instead of being temped away by other departments?”

We need to take very seriously the question of how philosophy may be pushing women away, but we also need to recognize that the push or pull of philosophy is not the only factor determining whether someone ends up in philosophy or not. This is a tug-of-war.Report

Chronos
Chronos
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

I think this is quite right. Suppose you’re a woman interested in working on some woman-related topic for your research. It’s much easier to find a topic in English or History to pursue than in Philosophy where requirements include logic, modern philosophy, epistemology, etc. Report

arnold
arnold
3 years ago

Post modern Ontology is trying to understand Being via Observation…
… as objects in motion, that they are active, passive, neutral or in transition in motion……Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  arnold
3 years ago

Precisely! Report