Why Women Choose To Continue Studying Philosophy — Or Not


Two attitudes help explain why some women choose to not continue studying philosophy, according to research recently published in Analysis. 

In “Similarity and enjoyment: Predicting continuation for women in philosophy,” authors Heather Demarest (Colorado), Seth Robertson (Oklahoma),  Megan Haggard (Francis Marion) Madeline Martin-Seaver (Oklahoma), and Jewelle Bickel (Oklahoma) discuss the results of surveys they gave to students at the completion of introductory courses in philosophy.

They find that for women students, feeling similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers is the single strongest predictor of taking more philosophy courses or majoring or minoring in philosophy. The second strongest predictor of this is enjoyment while thinking about philosophical puzzles and issues.

Neither the number of previous philosophy courses the student has taken, nor demographic information, provide a particularly good basis for predicting whether she will continue to study philosophy.

They write:

We found that students’ responses to two of the statements strongly predict their responses to statements about continuation in philosophy:

[S3] I enjoy thinking about philosophical puzzles and issues.
[S7] I feel similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers.

By using a regression analysis, we can estimate how well these statements predict agreement with statements about continuing in philosophy:

[S17] I will probably take another philosophy course.
[S18] I have seriously considered a philosophy major or minor.

Since there were not significant differences in correlations with [S17] and with [S18], we refer to both [S17] and [S18] as Continuation. According to our regression analysis, information about how many previous philosophy courses a woman has taken, in addition to her demographic information, allow us to very weakly predict her Continuation score. More specifically, according to a hierarchical regression analysis of our data, these factors account for 5% of the variance in Continuation. Very strikingly, however, when we add in the data from the two statements above, we can account for an additional 63% of the variance in Continuation. In other words, [S3] and [S7] are extremely good predictors for whether or not a woman student reports that she will go on in philosophy. The strongest predictor is [S7] (t-score = 9.44, p = 0.0001), followed by [S3] (t-score = 2.86, p = 0.005). 

The authors discuss what could be done to increase the number of women studying philosophy, in light of their findings:

The regression equation suggests that interventions aimed at demonstrating the ways in which professional philosophers are like undergraduate students could have a large impact on how many women go on to take additional courses and major in philosophy.

Among the interventions they mention as possibilities (to try, or for further study) are: improving the gender balance of authors in introductory syllabi, increasing the number of women instructors for introductory-level philosophy courses, [update: I should note that the authors raise worries about each of those preceding ideas] and exposing students to “profiles of counter-stereotypical exemplars in the field.” On this last point, they say:

The idea is that when students can identify with professional philosophers along some dimension, they are more likely to think that they are similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers. The dimension can be gender, but it need not be. For instance, during an introduction to philosophy course, there is often a unit on scepticism and Descartes. It would be easy to present some of the little-known facts of Descartes’ life that would allow students to identify with him along some dimension, such as the fact that he was a devout Catholic, he adored his daughter, and he liked to sleep in until noon. When an instructor explicitly presents a counter-stereotypical profile of an author, it directly combats the existing stereotype of a philosopher as a white man (without family, obligations, or other interests and concerned only with arguments). 

When it comes to the enjoyment of philosophy, what interventions are available? The authors do not have specific recommendations here, but we might ask: what can we do to make introductory philosophy classes more enjoyable (while staying within the bounds of the pedagogically responsible)? Suggestions welcome.

Valerie Hammond, “Girl”

guest
45 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Peter Adamson
4 years ago

Discussing this problem with female students at my institution one suggestion they made is that it would help if faculty were more proactive in suggesting to talented women students that they continue on to the next level (undergrad to masters, masters to PhD). They argued that men are often more self-confident or just getting plenty of tacit signals that “this is for them,” and that since this is often not the case for women, being directly and explicitly encouraged to go on in philosophy on an individual basis could make a big difference.Report

Ken
Ken
Reply to  Peter Adamson
4 years ago

While this would probably help with gender balance, I wonder how we can balance this with the worry that encouraging people to go to graduate school in a discipline that has such an atrocious placement record in academia and doesn’t train people in seeking jobs outside academia is very likely ceteris paribus immoral. We have far too many grads and far too jobs for it to be fair for professors to encourage students to do PhDs.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Ken
4 years ago

Ken –

Another solution to your problem would be to (a) change PhD programs to make them prepare students better for jobs outside of academia and (b) encourage your students (male or female) to evaluate programs not just on their academic placement but on their placement record in industry. I tell all my students who are considering PhD programs to ask this question: “where do your students end up if they don’t get tenure track jobs?” If the answer is “I don’t know,” go elsewhere.

We as a field have far too narrow a concept of what having a PhD in philosophy is for. We tell our undergrads about all the skills we’re teaching them that will help them in their futures lives. Why should a PhD be any different?Report

Ken
Ken
Reply to  Kevin Zollman
4 years ago

Thanks for your reply. I don’t disagree that those things should be done – we should all adopt your suggestions. But that takes a lot of time, and philosophy departments and the general culture of the discipline are notoriously slow to change. In the meantime it seems irresponsible to encourage people to go to grad school to me.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Ken
4 years ago

Yep, actively discouraging grad school for anyone and everyone seems like the responsible choice at this point. Until the number of Ph.D. programs is cut in half (at least), anyway.Report

GradWoman
GradWoman
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

Active discouragement also seems morally suspect, as opposed to neither encouraging nor discouraging. Another solution is to encourage that one only go to grad school if accepted to a program with a decent placement record.Report

Ken
Ken
Reply to  GradWoman
4 years ago

Could you explain what problems you see with active discouragement? It seems to me that just being neutral is not nearly strong enough. I could say more, but I am happy to expand based on your response.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

Great to see more work on this topic. I am curious to see the full model if possible before the file is split up by gender. Specifically, I was wondering, if there is only a marginal difference, or arguably no gender difference, in the most important predictor [S7] of continuation [S17-8] how do these data explain the gender imbalance, as opposed to say, a factor more generally influencing whether people continue?Report

Jen Doe
Jen Doe
4 years ago

It would also help if most philosophers weren’t a bunch of socially awkward white men–men who weren’t comfortable around girls and young women when they were younger, and who don’t carry those complexes with them into adulthood.Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  Jen Doe
4 years ago

I guess broad-brush slander and low-key ableism are cool now. Yes, let’s select our professional philosophers on the basis of whether they suffer from social anxiety or complexes formed during adolescence.

And before you say “I didn’t say that” (because all of a sudden, analytic rigor will, once again, be important), know that the implicatures are all there. This is a post about whether women’s ability to identify with philosophers affects their desire to continue in the field and, if so, what can be done about it. Slandering philosophers with psychological challenges clearly implicates you think that what can be done about it is to get rid of those philosophers.Report

Kagu
Kagu
Reply to  Sahpa
4 years ago

I don’t see the last implication, clearly or not. Another, perhaps more obvious, way of addressing the problem would be not carrying those complexes into adulthood. This might be achieved by getting over oneself, making an effort, seeing women as human beings, getting therapy, upholding minimal standards of behaviour within departments, providing training to staff new and old, denying tenure to people who have a toxic effect on the field, etc. Plenty of socially awkward youths manage to become adults who can function in the world without scaring off all the women. I’ve known some lovely people who are excellent philosophers, socially awkward, and yet not unfriendly or unsupportive to female students. That you think protecting people incapable or unwilling to behave professionally is more important than making the field safe for all qualified participants is not at all surprising though. You are the problem.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Kagu
4 years ago

A thousand times this.Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  Kagu
4 years ago

The able-ism continues apace! Now “socially awkward white men…who weren’t comfortable around girls and young women when they were younger, and who…carry those complexes with them into adulthood” don’t see women as fellow human beings, have a toxic effect on the field, cannot even comport themselves to a minimally acceptable standard, and scare off all the women (I mean do you even hear yourself?).

And can you imagine the response I’d get if I said that people with PTSD (just an example–we’re talking about mental illness, I’m picking an example) should “get over themselves”, “make an effort”, and “get therapy”, as if the (putative) fact that they should do any of those things exculpated me from blaming them for whatever social ill I am blaming them for?

Do better.Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  Sahpa
4 years ago

(Justin: I hear you regarding derailment, but I think that because I was just declared “the problem”, you have good reason to let me respond.)Report

Hoopoe
Hoopoe
Reply to  Sahpa
4 years ago

Social awkwardness is not a mental illness. It’s a pretty broad characterization including a range pf people whose problem stems from laziness, exaggerated sense of entitlement, or unpleasant personality, in addition to people with genuine diagnosable problems socializing. This is why a range of possible remedies was given. Not every remedy is appropriate in every context.
If someone’s PTSD were the reason for making female students feel unwelcome in the field (which seems a little far fetched, but we’ll run with it), therapy seems the most appropriate option from the list of remedies. It’s wildly uncharitable to have read the comment as suggesting that people with PTSD (which wasn’t even mentioned) should just get over themselves. People with an exaggerated sense of entitlement should just get over themselves.
I completely agree with your last point: Do Better.
(Incidentally, I agree that Jen Doe’s comment was a little over the top, but perhaps not quite as over the top as yours.)Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  Hoopoe
4 years ago

Couple of things. You seem fixated on my PTSD example, though nothing I said before it really hangs on it.

Ableism, I take it, is a prejudice that extends beyond just prejudice toward the mentally ill. Jen Doe pretty clearly exhibits ableism understood in this broad way.

Even if, however, you want to restrict the conversation to mental illness (which I concede I did with my example), it is still clear that what Jen is talking about is mental illness. After all, neither she nor her defender Kagu has in mind *mere* social awkwardness. In particular, Jen is talking about the kind that gives rise to complexes persisting into adulthood. If your social awkwardness in childhood gives rise to a complex, it is safe to say that you are mentally ill, not merely socially awkward. Jen and Kagu then proceed to slander and malign people who suffer from such mental illness.

Over the top prejudice warrants over the top dismissal. I apologize for nothing!!! 😛Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Hoopoe
4 years ago

I haven’t checked the DSM, but I’ll grant that social awkwardness is not classified as a mental illness. I think the broader point remains: socially awkward people rarely choose to be that way. Usually, socially awkward people suffer quite a bit as a result of the awkwardness, so they have a pretty strong incentive to become less awkward if they can. Anyway, I would have thought that the *definition* of ‘socially awkward’ was something like: someone who finds it much more difficult than normal to be socially graceful. And that seems fairly analogous with various mental disorders/illnesses: people with phobias are much more scared than normal, people with depressions are much less happy than normal, etc. (I know those are ridiculously simplified definitions, but I think they make the point.) The upshot is that socially awkward people are generally not culpable for the effects of their social awkwardness, or at least not significantly more culpable than (many) people with mental illnesses are culpable for the effects of their illnesses. Of course, some people are just jerks. But that’s obviously different than being socially awkward (although some socially awkward people are jerks).Report

Shy person
Shy person
Reply to  Hoopoe
4 years ago

So being shy is the result of feeling entitled? I don’t get this.

If you don’t mean this, then please don’t use “socially” awkward” as a euphemism for something else ( maybe just “being jerks”)

Is everyone on the autism scale also somehow empowered or egotistical?Report

Tim Collins
Tim Collins
Reply to  Jen Doe
4 years ago

“It would also help if most philosophers weren’t a bunch of socially awkward white men–men who weren’t comfortable around girls and young women when they were younger, and who don’t carry those complexes with them into adulthood.”

I thank Jen for exemplifying the sexist animus that I fear underlies many “diversity” efforts in philosophy and reminding us that gender-based discrimination is a two-way street. I hear that same animus when “dude” is used as a slur. I see it in our discipline-wide indifference to the disadvantages junior, male job-seekers face simply because they are male and too junior to enjoy the institutional protections that senior male philosophers enjoy, those same philosophers responsible for sexist discrimination in the first place.Report

arnold
arnold
4 years ago

…Are the origins of philosophy–for men to understand themselves alone, and for interaction with women…
While; in this prehistory, at the same time, origins of philosophy for women were ongoing in the same way…
…but were forgotten–perhaps even forced to be forgotten…Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  arnold
4 years ago

Justin – I’m confused about your policy concerning arnold’s comments. While certainly not harmful, they’re erratic and obscure at best. They’re funny, I have nothing against it. But how they relevant to anything?

Is Presocratic style still a thing?Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

I’m suspicious of ‘Arnold’. I think he may be a bot. The similarities among his comments are simply too strong. They also always seem to arrive at roughly the same time (between 12:00 and 2:00). Although that’s likely true for many others on here as well.

Anyways. If he’s not a bot, he’s certainly posing well as one.Report

Sahpa
Sahpa
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Something tells me his “enlightenment” won’t be very enlightening 🙂Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

…I have been practicing–for fifty years–work-exercise toward self observation…
I have found I enjoy philosophical and psychological talk–It is akin–help to my thoughts as objects-resistances in my work…
Yes like Socratic work–I don’t know anything except what is in front of me…Thanks for not deleting me too often…Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  arnold
4 years ago

This did very little to convince me Arnold is not a bot.

I will confess, though: if Arnold is not in fact a bot, I would be very much like to meet him. Not for very long — I imagine the koans would get annoying quickly — but just to see this sort of character in action.Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  Tom
4 years ago

…You’ve taken me back to my Navy days in Japan…1963
Perhaps seeing-there–a giant Buddha statue at rest–and still young enough to wonder…
…Influenced me into action-affirm the independence of observation in life…

…Your way of writing is refreshingly fun–story like…Report

Joe
Joe
4 years ago

“Among the interventions they mention as possibilities (to try, or for further study) are: improving the gender balance of authors in introductory syllabi”

It’s important to note that the only published study of this attempt was in Thompson/Adelberg/Sims/Nahimas (2015), and they found that a moderate increase in female representation did not affect female students’ willingness to continue in philosophy. The increase was only from 10% to 20%, so as those authors note, this strategy might still work. But at present we do not have any actual data on its positive effectiveness.

That said, this is great work, and I’d like to suggest that the two factors these authors identify are probably deeply intertwined. Thompson et. al. found that women are far more likely to think that philosophy is not “relevant to their lives”. Standard philosophical methodology resonates with certain types of people and fails to resonate with others, and it is entirely reasonable to suggest that this is partly a gendered pattern. The fact that the Trolley Problem, for example, was invented by a woman philosopher does not mean that it isn’t an example of the lifeless, context-free mode of ethical theorizing which tends to dominate normative ethics in various prestigious circles. Or, to take another example, we should remember that no-one has a gender behind the veil of ignorance. We can and should eventually teach these thought-experiments, but perhaps we should not hold them up as shining paradigms of philosophical activity, not right away in a 1st-year course? My sense is that this would represent a *much* more powerful corrective, as compared to merely swapping women for men on a syllabus.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Yes, it is likely they are intertwined in the sense that the “kind of people” could just be those who “enjoy philosophical puzzles”. Such methodological preferences replicate prior work at the University of Waterloo, although not cited presently: https://philpapers.org/rec/BUCPWO-2Report

Assumed Name
Assumed Name
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

What if idealized thought experiments are actually the best method for answering normative ethical questions? What if these thought experiments are in fact shining paradigms of philosophical activity?Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Assumed Name
4 years ago

Assumed Name, that is of course a substantive position you could take, if you cared to provide reasons for it, that is. But for most ethics teachers, that position is not based on reasons, it is based on sheer disciplinary inertia. It is extremely unlikely that your average ethics professor has conducted a fair-minded survey of alternative methodologies and of their merits, precisely *because* the alternatives are rarely taught. So, in the absence of a conclusive argument for your position–something more than a far too easy “what if??”–the sensible course of action is to at least try other programs. In moral philosophy, this would probably involve giving more time to anti-theoretical approaches, to ethics of care and relational ethics more generally, to existentialist ethics, to psychoanalytic ethics, discourse ethics…Report

Assumed Name
Assumed Name
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

There are indeed reasons for it, which I would have thought were obvious: If a view can be counterexampled, it is false. Idealized thought experiments like the Trolley Problem generate counterexamples to many prima-facie-appealing ethical theories. Therefore, such thought experiments teach us a lot about normative ethics.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Assumed Name
4 years ago

Good. You’ve now argued that the TP is a valuable tool. Which I have not denied. So how do your reasons move us to the claim that such thought experiments are, in your own words, “the best method for answering normative ethical questions… shining paradigms of philosophical activity?”

If non-idealized, real-world examples featuring human beings situated in social and relational contexts are just as probative in normative ethics then your claim is false, and we should not teach ethics in a way which implies that it is true.Report

Assumed Name
Assumed Name
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

I did not mean to suggest that real-world examples weren’t also part of the best method, if they are sufficiently interesting and do an equally good job of raising counterexamples for appealing theories. If a real-life sociopath were to hijack a train and act out the trolley problem, turning the case from a hypothetical one into a real-life one, of course I would not say that that would diminish the usefulness of the example.

Is your view that a real-life news story with all the features of the trolley problem would make the example significantly more worthwhile as a subject for teaching introductory ethics students?Report

Emily
Emily
4 years ago

It seems to me that more information is needed, specifically, about what is meant by “the kinds of people who become philosophers”, before recommendations about improvements can be made. A follow-up would be helpful. What do students think that the kinds of people who become philosophers are like? For example, do all the women who answered “no” think “the kinds of people who become philosophers” are old men, while all the women who answered “yes” think “the kinds of people who become philosophers” are intelligent people? Etc. What are the relevant characteristics, in their minds, and what, if any, difference between relevant characteristics exists between people who disagreed and people who agreed? These are empirical questions, and without the answers, any corrective action may be totally misguided.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Emily
4 years ago

Agreed. I’d be interested to know how much of the variance in continuation can be explained by just looking at S3. How strongly does yes to S7 predict continuation after conditioning on the answer to S3?Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
4 years ago

This new article speaks to my own experience as a female philosophy student. I do think being able to imagine yourself in the field makes a tremendous difference. I had an easier time than some other women because, while I am Latina, I am white; and while I am a woman, I had my whole life hung out with the boys and identified with the combative analytic style. Philosophy felt ‘natural’ to me. Then again, even the very few mentions of women philosophers fired up my imagination the the degree that I could see myself being one, not merely majoring in it.
Upon realizing these things I intentionally began modeling myself as a teacher to be more feminine (not that I think all women need to be; just that I yearned for our discipline to be less masculinized) and to have women on all of my syllabi, and to talk about philosophers as people, how some were sickly but did philosophy from bed, others were gay, or Jewish, or only known from their letters because they were marginalized by the canon. There were so few women majors when I was in college, and I had a precious few grad school women friends and mentors. I miss them now out of grad school. I want “feminine” to be in our collective imagination of “philosopher”.
Of course I also want WOC and POC to imagine being philosophers too, and I’m working on that bit along with some great colleagues! I suspect similar structural impediments.Report

Nostalgia
Nostalgia
4 years ago

“I feel similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers” was a huge factor for me in choosing to go to grad school. And because grad school has made me feel less and less in agreement with this, this factor will probably end up being why I leave philosophy if I ever do. In undergrad ‘the kinds of people who become philosophers’ meant intelligent, curious, and open-minded people who would entertain any idea at all, judging it only on the strength of the reasons given in support of it. Gender, race, class, wealth, etc. were totally irrelevant. I never once cared or even noticed that I was in a ‘minority’ as a female. Ideas mattered more, and so I identified more as an atheist (in the majority) or a materialist (also majority) or simply as someone who loved to discuss philosophy all the time (if a minority, not a disadvantaged one!). In grad school, I am constantly reminded that I am female even though there are many more female philosophers around. I doubt that ideas are always judged on their merit. There is a huge shift of focus to ‘who you know’, to whether you’re ‘collegial’, ‘professional’, and increasingly, part of the right political ‘tribe’. Does anyone still care about getting at the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable? Is there still a welcoming community of odd and socially awkward people who just care about good philosophy? I don’t know. I suspect that these people have and will continue to go elsewhere.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Nostalgia
4 years ago

A thousand times this.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I would like to know to what degree the students distinguish between the questions
[S3] I enjoy thinking about philosophical puzzles and issues.
and
[S7] I feel similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers.
They may think that the “kind of person” who becomes a philosopher is someone who enjoys philosophy.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

One way that we could encourage students to think of themselves as the kind of person who becomes a professional philosopher is to avoid using the word “philosopher” to mean “professional philosopher”. I tell my students that they are philosophers already. I just do philosophy for a living.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
4 years ago

I have not had time to read this whole article, but it looks like a promising addiction to the literature aiming to understand the causes of under-representation of women in philosophy, including from the earliest parts of the pipeline. I am really happy to see Morgan Thompson’s pioneering work helping spur such research (disclaimer: I was a co-author on the 2016 paper with her, Toni Adleberg, and Sam Sims 😉Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
4 years ago

“addition” not “addiction”Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
4 years ago

I don’t mean this as a dig, but why don’t authors of this kind of statistical, meta-philosophical article submit it to the journal whose aim is precisely that (e. g. Metaphilosophy)? I get a bit confused about the scope of journals when they publish things ostensibly outside their scope. For example, Phil Studies, which explicitly does not publish history, recently published Mercer’s article on Descartes and Teresa of Avila. I don’t mean to suggest the paper isn’t top notch, but journals seem to be stepping outside their scope to publish articles related to women and philosophy. Again, that they’re published is a good thing, but the venues strike me as surprising.Report