How What It Is Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy has Changed over the Past Decade


How have things changed for women in philosophy over the past decade?

That’s the question Helen Beebee, professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester, takes up in a recent essay in The Philosopher’s Magazine.

[Chantal Joffe – “Poppy, Esme, Oleanna, Gracie, and Kate”]

Here are some of the positive developments she notes:

  1. It has become more widely known that women are underrepresented in philosophy.
  2. It has become more widely acknowledged that women’s underrepresentation in philosophy is a problem.
  3. There has been increased empirical research on women’s underrepresentation in philosophy at various levels (from becoming a philosophy major to article citation rates).
  4. There is active discussion over how to improve the representation of women in philosophy and their experiences in philosophy.
  5. Feminist philosophy has become mainstream.
  6. Women in the history of philosophy are getting more attention.
  7. The sexist and racist views of well-known philosophers are no longer automatically being ignored or downplayed.
  8. Philosophy seminars are less “incredibly aggressive”.
  9. There is better representation of women on syllabus reading lists.
  10. There is better representation of women as conference speakers.
  11. Childcare is more frequently offered at conferences.

The occasion for Professor Beebee’s refelections was the 10-year anniversary of the publication of a report she and Jenny Saul (Sheffield) wrote for the Society for Women in Philosophy (UK) and the British Philosophical Association entitled “Women in Philosophy in the UK“. The report looked at the number of women in philosophy in the UK at various levels. The two of them recently conducted the survey again. Here are the results, then and now:

% of the below categories who are women (UK) 2011 2021
Philosophy Undergraduates 44% 48%
Philosophy Master’s Students 33% 37%
Philosophy PhD Students 31% 33%
Philosophy Lecturers 26% 32%
Philosophy Professors 19% 25%

Professor Beebee says, “That’s not an earth-shattering improvement, but it’s definitely progress—and I’m optimistic that much more progress can be made.”

One thing Professor Beebee notes is that some of the problems, as well as some of the improvements, regarding the representation of, treatment of, and experiences of women in philosophy, are reflections of the broader culture:

In many ways, of course – philosophers are just people, after all; philosophy students are just students; and philosophy departments are just academic departments – you’d expect the obstacles to gender equality in philosophy to be pretty much the same as those facing wider society in general and universities in particular. Doubtless that’s true to an extent. For example, there’s no reason to think that sexual harassment is any more of a problem in philosophy than it is in any other male-dominated discipline; hence institution-wide approaches, if they work in general, ought to work in philosophy in particular. But even where a problem isn’t distinctively a problem for philosophy, it doesn’t follow that we can just leave the problem to Them Upstairs to sort out. 

You can read the whole article here.

I’d like to invite women in philosophy—students, faculty, and staff—to share their thoughts about Professor Beebee’s observations, and more generally about being a woman in philosophy, what has changed over the past decade or so, remaining issues and problems, possible strategies and solutions, and so on.

Comments on this post from women only, please. If you identify as a woman, you are welcome to comment on this post. If you don’t, please sit this one out. Thank you. Comments will be moderated to this effect, to the best of my ability. 

 

 

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Maja Sidzińska
4 months ago

I agree with Beebee that this problem in philosophy reflects a problem in the broader culture.

In the “broader culture” however, it’s not so much that women are “underrepresented” in, say, dollars earned, as it is that mothers are underrepresented in dollars earned; i.e., empirical studies have shown that the gender pay gap is mostly a motherhood pay gap.

I think the situation is likely similar in the case if philosophy. I suspect that women qua identity aren’t discriminated against so much as are people who may become pregnant, take on caring duties, and therefore suffer from time poverty. It might explain why there is near equal representation of women in philosophy at the undergraduate level (in 2021), and then representation declines as one moves up the professional philosophical hierarchy–not because different levels in the professional hierarchy in philosophy make an enormous difference (although I’m sure it makes some), but because women age, have children, and overwhelmingly become their primary carers. This is still consistent with their representation declining as one moves up the levels because of “climate” issues in philosophy, but I bet the material explanation accounts for more of the data. To my knowledge there is no empirical work on this. I would love to be involved with any such work if anyone undertakes it.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Maja Sidzińska
4 months ago

Unfortunately, motherhood alone does not explain why women are so much fewer in philosophy than in other humanities and social science disciplines.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 months ago

Perhaps not motherhood alone, but motherhood together with discipline-specific norms, such as those for hiring and promotion.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Jen
Maja Sidzińska
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 months ago

Sure, no one factor explains all the data whether we’re comparing philosophy to the broader culture or philosophy to other disciplines. In the comparison of gender parity in philosophy to other disciplines it seems plausible that less of the data (showing gender disparities) is explained by motherhood. But I doubt this is the case in the comparison of philosophy to the broader culture (which was the comparison Beebee raised), or in the comparison of academia in general to the broader culture. We can’t know to what degree it’s motherhood or other non-material factors such as people’s attitudes within the discipline that are associated with the disparity unless we have some empirical studies. Care work and single parenthood is not only gendered but racialized, so “the motherhood penalty” could also help explain e.g. racial disparities in philosophy and academia in general. This is all compatible with motherhood alone not fully explaining women’s worse representation in philosophy than in other disciplines.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 months ago

In 2018, I attended a workshop on Feminist Philosophy & Formal Logic, hosted by MCPS, and a bunch of us commented on the fact that this was the first time I’d ever attended a logic conference where there were more women than men.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, one of the discussion groups in my intro logic class (taught in a philosophy department), had 6 women and 6 men in it, which meant that when I was in the room, women outnumbered the men, and I commented on the fact that this was the second time that this had _ever_ happened to be, and I’ve been doing logic in philosophical circles since 1998.

This last academic year, discussion groups for that class happened online, synchronously. Attendance varied due to illness and internet access issues, and there was one day when the entire group was women.

That’s definitely a change I have noticed over the last 20ish years.Report

Lynette Smith
Lynette Smith
4 months ago

I am one of those who left philosophy (a bit over ten years ago) because she knew she was never going to survive it. The constant state of humiliation. A feeling of incompetence could not be budged, not even by the evidence of high marks. What were the sources of that? It was just an extremely patronising atmosphere to breathe. And not a moment of safety.

It also wasn’t doing what was on the label. I was in a highly regarded faculty (with just two women) in one of Australia’s best universities. But it was not a place for thought (which is always dogged by doubt). Not a community which allowed the kind of discourse that is characteristic of thought in flight (hesitant and not always articulate). And, having come to philosophy from studying linguistics because I wanted to understand philosophical theories of language, I couldn’t fathom the nose-high-in-the-air refusal of new knowledge coming from that field. I felt like I’d fallen back into dogma.

That last part may not be obviously connected to the question of the representation of women in philosophy, but I think it is: patriarchal modes are really strong in philosophy. These modes are not open; they are about approval; they enforce The Word. Where in that is the joy of using your mind?Report

Santana
Reply to  Lynette Smith
2 months ago

ironicReport

Linda Barclay
4 months ago

I’ve been a professional philosopher for over 20 years, with lots of breaks for babies, ill-health, etc. My own experience in Australia is that the culture has most definitely improved. The common sneer has gone, the one-upmanship has tapered off. The mansplaining is less frequent, and more easily silenced with a subtle cock of an eyebrow. At least in my small part of the world, it is common, and commonly expected, that we treat each other with day-to-day respect and courtesy in seminars and other professional exchanges. I also don’t have to carry the banner with only a small handful of other women. My colleagues accept the importance of gender equality and that is brought into job selection processes, promotion processes and so on fairly automatically. We have achieved a level of (near) gender equality in appointments which reflects the work and commitment of everyone in the department. Level of seniority is of course happening more slowly….I am really happy about these improvements, although I sometimes wish things had been more like this when I was younger, which was often a very tough – and personality-shaping – time.

But I sometimes wonder how much this improved behaviour is about public expectations rather than a genuine shift in attitudes. When people are anonymous (reviewing of papers, grants etc) some of the behaviour remains appalling, with, sometimes, stark misogynistic overtones. When not being observed or scrutinised it is clear that some colleagues still set heavily male-dominated reading lists, presumably on auto-pilot (and let’s not even mention the white domination of such lists). I still deal with all manner of weird and sexist behaviour from (a small minority) of undergraduate and graduate students who are apparently oblivious to how expectations have changed or how their behaviour is read in light of those changed expectations. I still feel the disproportionate response when I don’t behave as we still expect women to behave (when I’m sharp-tounged rather than gentle, indirect and unthreatening). I still sometimes wish some men would just talk just a little less (although not nearly as often as I used to). I still wish the profession didn’t encourage or even expect people to perceive each professional interaction as an opportunity to self-promote, rather than to listen and learn. And of course, there remains the underlying, juvenile, boyish, obsession with who’s ‘got it’, who’s the ‘next big thing’, who’s been anointed by the big, white, male professor. That’s pretty embarrassing for us as a discipline I think.Report

Prof L
4 months ago

It’s been fantastic being “a woman in philosophy”. My area of philosophy (a historical subdiscipline) is dominated by brilliant women, I’ve received nothing but encouragement. There is some occasional unpleasantness, but I imagine that is universal (who doesn’t run into a clueless colleague or a asshole student every once in a while?), and it’s easy to brush off when one is well-supported more generally. I’m early career, and I feel like the movement has been incredibly successful, and I’m grateful to those who came before. However, I can think of two areas for improvement:

1) Better maternity policies: every school should have a semester release of teaching for graduate students and faculty. They should also have an optional year on the tenure clock (for TT faculty) or a year added to time to finish (for graduate students). These policies should apply to the person who gives birth. I’ve benefitted such a policy, but also had two kids without such a policy, and the policy makes all the difference.
2) Better 2-body-problem awareness and solutions. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, a higher percentage of women suffer from this problem than men, and I’ve seen many women forced to give up careers because they aren’t willing to do a long-distance relationship (especially with kids!). Or, they are forced into other difficult circumstances, marital problems, long-distance ending in divorce, etc.

I think these two issues are part of a broader, mostly cultural problem. “Women drop out to have babies” or “women sacrifice their careers for their partners” are common tropes as ways of justifying the ‘gap’. But of course calling it a choice masks those norms and policies which force that ‘choice’—give up your career or force your partner to give up theirs. Go back to teaching six weeks after giving birth (putting your six-week-old infant in an expensive daycare that costs 60% of your salary), or quit. I’ve not seen the numbers, but I am pretty sure that women would love to continue their careers while having children, but many find it incredibly difficult, depending on their circumstances. Women seem to face these decisions and feel this pressure much more often than men. So until we face the fact that we’ve made it such that it makes sense for women who want to have children to sacrifice their careers (especially when they are married to another academic), we won’t really make progress on this front.Report

Madeleine Ransom
4 months ago

We definitely have a ways to go, but I would like to express my gratitude to those who have devoted time to running summer schools and conferences dedicated to improving diversity in philosophy (and those who are funding these initiatives). I attended the Networking and Mentoring Workshop for Graduate Student Women in Philosophy, and it was a great resource when I was still in grad school and trying to figure out my future. I am not sure of the percentages (and there is of course selection bias) but many people from this workshop have gone on to TT positions.Report

A Woman Who Thinks Things Suck
4 months ago

I don’t know. I earned my PhD recently, and I was harassed (more like terrorized) by a famous senior male philosopher in graduate school. Many of the faculty and graduate students in the department reacted in a way that was very, uhhhh, 1980s, to put it mildly. Some of these people were self-proclaimed feminists, so it was a real mindf-ck to have to come to terms with the fact that they weren’t going to come to my aid (or were some of the worst bullies). I have a job now, but that experience still casts a long shadow and continues to constrain my career in unexpected ways. Maybe if the person who harassed me wasn’t quite so famous…

I have a very pessimistic view about the situation for women in philosophy. I’ve heard enough horror stories to know that my experience is far from isolated or unusual, and let’s just say that I would discourage my future daughter from going into the field.

One last comment: sexual harassment occurs in all industries, but there’s a unique problem that confronts academic departments. It’s called tenure. I can’t get into the details in public, but my university acknowledged that my situation was horrendous, that they had had years of complaints about him, and yet that they wouldn’t do anything substantial to Professor McCreepy because he had tenure. Professor McCreepy sucked at his job in many respects and committed all sorts of misconduct, and I have a hard time thinking that even the most soul-sucking of corporations would have wanted to keep him on, just given the liability he incurs for his employer and his general incompetence. But tenure is tenure, and he is still employed there and probably still terrorizing students.

It says something about my lack of faith in the field that I’m not even sure if Justin will let this comment through.Report

Nothing to See Here
4 months ago

Well, I finally worked up the nerve to peek through my fingers at this comments thread, and I think… it’s all true. Things are better; things are the same. I started my PhD fifteen years ago at a top-ranked program. It’s hard to put into words the way my confidence was systematically demolished, both in and out of the classroom. I was lucky to have some professors who really took an interest in me, but unlucky to have to worry about their motives for doing so. The constant insinuation from your fellow (male) graduate students that a professor who supports your work, gives you feedback on papers, seems to enjoy talking to you, etc is doing so for the wrong reasons– that undermines your confidence bit by bit, over years. To then find out that at least one of those professors who you considered a real friend has victimized other students/women in the profession– that’s the death blow. Now on top of a lack of confidence in your intellectual abilities, you’re dealing with guilt and a much more general and insidious form of self-doubt.

I’ve been lucky to land on my feet. I have a family and a well-paying job with great colleagues. I count myself lucky to not have to deal with graduate students– not because I wouldn’t enjoy it, but because I don’t think I could stomach the memories it would bring back. I know I should try to make things better for others, but I just want to retreat. Indeed, I have virtually disappeared from what was once a fairly active internet presence; no longer keep in touch with senior members of the profession I considered friends; don’t self-promote at all.

Being seen felt (still feels) risky, downright bad at times. I prefer to blend into the background, write on topics I enjoy, and only occasionally wonder what I could have accomplished had I had a bit more confidence in myself and my abilities. Sour grapes? Maybe. I am certainly nursing one hell of a hangover. I do wonder how many women like me are out there– women who prefer to feel safe on the sidelines.Report

Nothing to See Here
4 months ago

I’ll add a more specific change I’ve noticed: many of the very same dudes who made grad school so rough are now actively publishing in feminist philosophy and epistemic injustice. Cool cool cool.Report

glasshalfempty
4 months ago

I’m a woman in philosophy. I’d say there’s been undeniable progress. I’d also say it’s still really, really bad for women in our discipline.

I personally know of several sexual harassers who have never faced consequences or been outed.

I still notice that in some grad seminars, conference talks, or colloquia, women ask far fewer questions than men and/or their questions aren’t received as seriously as men’s and/or aren’t as likely to be picked up on by other in the Q &A (this varies by context, though, and i think it’s gotten better overall).

I still see a lot of men who presume that women who have succeeded have done so because of partner hires or (unfair) affirmative action practices.

I still see women’s work being vastly under-cited and under-appreciated compared to men’s work.

I still women being disproportionately on the receiving end of dismissive, condescending, or hostile comments when they give talks.

I still see boy’s club networks, groups of friends, predominantly men, who cite each other, read each other’s work, invite each other to conferences, and are generally professionally supportive of each other. I don’t see that ‘women’s clubs’ exist to nearly this extent, though I think there’s a fledgling attempt to develop such groups.

I still see some forms of hostility to feminist philosophy and philosophy of race in some circles, sometimes behind closed doors.

I think my main fear is that much of these negative effects accrue disproportionately to grad students, to the most junior and vulnerable members of our discipline.

There’s been progress, no doubt, including on all the fronts I’ve mentioned. I can’t say I’m personally very impressed by the amount of it. We have a very long ways to go.

I haven’t even touched, of course, on the recent anti-trans trend in philosophy, which disproportionately affects trans women, or the near silence in our discipline about wide-scale attempts in the US to silence critical race theory. Critical race theory is a kind of philosophy. It’s shocking to me that more philosophers, whether they work in this field or not, are not talking about this.Report

Another woman who thinks many things suck
4 months ago

I think it’s important to acknowledge how much most women are trained from birth to reassure powerful men that they and everything they do are just fine, and we’re very happy, and we won’t be angry and difficult like *those women over there*. This amongst other features of our behaviour shows that women are a class, intersectionality notwithstanding.

I’m worried that this post is part of that process.

What I observe is that in professional philosophy there are still many workplaces which are deeply unsafe for women. It’s a ‘luck of the draw’, something like Russian Roulette, as of course no-one advertises to the new hire that she will be creeped on with no recourse, or that a senior male who went to an Ivy League school but never amounted to anything will take great exception to her “personality”, and everyone will look the other way. The body count is truly disturbing.

A woman I’m close to was recently driven from her job at an antipodean University by a systematic campaign of workplace bullying. The campaign was actually led by a woman, who was enraged by my friend’s direct and honest style of communication, her suggestions about ways their program might be improved by applying certain feminist ideas, and of course her many academic accomplishments.

If one wishes to do more with one’s philosophical career than merely settle into what is essentially a medieval institutional structure, as a sinecure, but wishes to push for real change in how we do so-called ‘higher education’, one needs to be able to protect oneself from variously gendered complicities and their weapons of mass reputational destruction.Report

Prof L

What about when a woman sets out to destroy a junior male colleague—is that also gendered complicity? Anyone can be an asshole, anyone can engage in abuses of power, and seek to destroy the reputation or livelihood of someone who gets in their way. That’s a human problem, not limited to people of a certain gender or political orientation. I’m sure it can take on political or gendered valences, depending on the people and their circumstances, but I really think it’s a distortion to construe this primarily as a gender thing.

One other annoying thing about being a woman, which no one has mentioned, is that if you don’t see eye to eye with the self-proclaimed right-thinking people on all major points of the current political moment, you could be psychologized and dismissed as a gender traitor. When identity is given such weight, there has to be a way of dismissing the “lived experience” of a person who is not on board. “Gendered complicity” works …

But, if you disagree with me, don’t worry! My views are the product of being socialized into sexism, while yours are of course born out of thoughtful reflection. Nothing to see here!Report

Another woman who thinks many things suck
Reply to  Prof L
4 months ago

What about when a woman sets out to destroy a junior male colleague—is that also gendered complicity? Anyone can be an asshole, anyone can engage in abuses of power, and seek to destroy the reputation or livelihood of someone who gets in their way. That’s a human problem, not limited to people of a certain gender or political orientation…..”

Yes this was actually the point I was seeking to make when I said “variously gendered complicities” – sexist abuse is perpetrated by men and women, as individual agents.

Having said that, though, the patriarchal structures that are in place make the rules of the game rather different for men and women. It’s possible that a very senior woman might set out to destroy a junior male’s career, but it’s going to be more difficult to pull off, compared to the ease with which I have seen senior men destroy junior women’s careers, and women inflict major damage on other women.

I don’t find the sarcasm at the end of your response helpful. If we’re to make progress as a profession on these deep-seated and very damaging issues, we will need to be able to have full and frank discussions, whilst sarcasm is a strategy for shaming and shutting down one’s interlocutor.Report

Jen
Jen

Do you actually believe that the situation to which Prof L refers is an instance of sexism, not merely abuse of power or bad behavior? Without knowing the people involved or the circumstances of it, you cannot sensibly judge it to be sexism. So I guess that you’re simply attempting to avoid appearing foolish for making your earlier remark. I don’t think this was the best way of doing so…Report

Another woman who thinks many things suck
Reply to  Jen
3 months ago

“…simply attempting to avoid appearing foolish for making your earlier remark…”
Wow! This remark is very abusive, and we have the interesting context here that Justin has requested that only women post.
This is such a good example of my point that when women speak out about patriarchal structures in our discipline, some of the worst retaliatory personal attacks come from other women. I remain of the view that ‘complicit’ is not an inaccurate term for such behaviour.Report

Jen
Jen

I merely stated my guess about your aim in writing what you wrote. How is it “very abusive”? It’s not, and calling it so is hyperbolic and ridiculous.Report

Jen
Jen

I should add that reactions like yours partly explain why people don’t take seriously efforts to ameliorate our profession’s sexism problem. If the people calling to address sexism can’t be taken seriously because they react as you did, why take seriously the problems those people report.Report

Prof L

This is really important, since chalking up all abusive behavior to patriarchy gives women of a certain political orientation a free pass (or at least: an unreasonable benefit of the doubt) to harass, abuse, and humiliate male (or female) colleagues and students. I have seen atrocious behavior of this kind.

As I said above, surely people abusing power will use all manner of tools at their disposal, and surely some of those will have racial, gendered, or political valences. Maybe that makes it easier for men to destroy a woman’s career, in certain contexts. In others, depending on the circumstances, it might make it easier for a woman to destroy a man’s career. So sure, socialized gendered power imbalances may make women more vulnerable in certain circumstances. But these circumstances don’t exhaust the circumstances of bad behavior of this kind. Again, this is a human phenomenon. If we had a full gender equality, people would still abuse power.Report

Another woman who thinks many things suck
Reply to  Prof L
3 months ago

Hi Prof L,
I don’t think that gender is the only power imbalance that distorts our academic institutions, creating abusive behaviours. I never said that. But at the same time I do believe that our gendered power imbalance is an omnipresent force, which ‘inclines though it does not compel’, until such time as broader social change may take place.
It’s precisely the structural nature of this analysis which enables us to avoid having to say that just because someone is a woman, they can’t be held accountable for harassing, abusing or humiliating colleagues. About the desirousness of avoiding this consequence (which some forms of feminism have arguably fallen into at times), I totally agree with you, and this was kind of the point of my original post.
Where we disagree I think, is in that I believe that in order to fully unwind patriarchy it’s important to understand how certain women who’ve lived in rigid hierarchies all their lives will learn to take advantage of patriarchal structures by putting down other women to get ‘brownie points’. This is sad behaviour on the part of those women, as they’re acting against their own long-term best interest, and abusing their sisters, but it happens. A typical example I’ve witnessed: a female colleague with a pattern of gossiping about the talks of senior women who keynote at conferences, making fun of the talks and suggesting that they are so poor as to be embarrassing, whereas talks by senior males which to my mind are considerably sloppier go unremarked. Just one example of course.
“If we had full gender equality, people would still abuse power…” Would they? I think this is an interesting question. We might be underestimating what instituting full gender equality would really require. CheersReport

Linda Barclay
Reply to  Prof L
4 months ago

Hi Prof L,
Correct me if I’m wrong, but was your first paragraph there sort of like an “All lives matter” intervention? Of course everyone can be an arsehole! But are you denying that women are much more likely to be sexually harassed than men, that the vast majority of sexual harassers are men, that women are underrepresented in Philosophy? Are you denying that there is any truth to the truly vast body of social psychology research that suggests women and men react much more harshly to forthright women than they do men; and the vast body of research that indicates both women but many more men do not wan to have an female supervisor/boss? I wasn’t sure if there was some particular aspect of Another Woman’s comments that you were objecting to, or whether you were denying the existence of gendered inequality altogether?Report

Prof L
Reply to  Linda Barclay
4 months ago

No. I’m objecting to the notion that abuses of power are ‘male’ in such a way that when women abuse power, it’s “gendered complicity”.Report

Linda Barclay
Reply to  Prof L
4 months ago

Thanks for clarifying Prof L. Having read your additional post on this, I understand now what you meant. I agree.Report

Thracian servant girl
Reply to  Prof L
4 months ago

I was accused in no uncertain terms of ‘gendered complicity’ when I submitted a critical review of a book written by a senior woman in my area – handy!Report

Junior woman
4 months ago

I’m concerned about the impact of culture wars on women in philosophy and feminist philosophy. The result, in short, is that we have women tearing each other down. Women philosophers (on all ‘sides’) are being boycotted, ridiculed, and harassed. Seems like a win for the patriarchy to me, to be honest. And it’s made feminist philosophy a pretty scary place to be (and no, not just if you’re in the business of being anti-trans). Women of course do not have to do feminist philosophy, but any impact on a subfield that has been a better subfield for women in philosophy is not good. I hope that my worries are unfounded.Report

Thracian servant girl
4 months ago

Thanks to Helen Beebee for charting the progress that has been made over the past decade. It is important that we update our views of the state of philosophy (which btw isn’t a ‘profession’ in any meaningful sense) even if there’s still much work to be done – we don’t want to leave younger women with a needlessly bleak view of the field. That can have debilitating effects in and of itself.

The conversation about causes of underrepresentation tends to focus on factors that aren’t specific to philosophy (the impact of motherhood, the two-body problem, sexual harassment, dismissive attitudes to work outside the former mainstream). I find it quite telling that even in Scandinavian countries, where gender equality is far more advanced than in the U.S. or U.K., women are still underrepresented in professional philosophy. Scandinavian men tend to have progressive values, are not in general sexist, and are used to respecting women with power. While there are no doubt exceptions, one should expect women to be far better represented in philosophy there than in the U.K. and U.S. That’s not the case, on the whole. My hunch is that women are uncomfortable devoting their lives to a pursuit that seems ‘idle’ and that does not automatically ‘help others’. This type of luxurious leisure to think about things simply because they interest you runs counter to the expectation that women make themselves useful to others. Women don’t seem to mind the aggressive interactions in law, and don’t seem to mind the gruelling hours of doctors. Compared to these professions, the life of a philosopher with children is much much easier (it’s also much easier than the lives of almost all working-class women with children). And yet, a career in philosophy seems unattractive to many women, including our own undergraduates. It’s telling that the labor market in Scandinavia is still quite divided along gender lines, with women concentrated in caring professions.

Ironically, perhaps, the recent rise in ameliorative areas like feminist philosophy allows women to ‘help others’ while doing philosophy, thus weakening the tension between the schemas. That’s fine, but until women are permitted the leisure to think about philosophical questions without any immediate benefits for others, and until women philosophers are not expected to devote a disproportionate amount of their research time to service and mentoring, we won’t reach parity. These pressures come both from our institutions and from other women. When people praise you for all the social work you do in the field: ask yourself whether you should make use of the freedom that men take for granted and spend more time thinking about the questions that interest you, even if they don’t advance a cause or have direct benefits for others.Report

Junior woman
Reply to  Thracian servant girl
4 months ago

Interesting points raised here, though I don’t think I agree that that’s a good explanation of the underrepresentation of women in philosophy (although it’s no doubt true of some women). Firstly, it doesn’t explain why philosophy has a much worse problem than other academic subjects (e.g. English Literature; Developmental Psychology) that don’t have direct practical consequences for helping others either. Secondly, it means you would expect to have few women in research-oriented careers, but for them to be well represented in teaching-focused institutions and jobs (teaching-focused jobs aren’t really an option in the UK, since all Universities are assessed by the government in terms of research output, but there are lots of teaching-focused and not research-focused streams in the US). I also do think that the two-body problem is rather distinctive of academia (though not of philosophy within academia). If you’re interested in research on underrepresentation of women in philosophy that can make sense of problems that are discipline-specific, the psychological research on gender stereotypes surrounding “innate brilliance” vs “learned skill” to be worth looking into. That can’t be a *full* explanation of course, but the research so far is quite compelling – the bottom line of the research is that women’s success tends to be attributed more to “learned skill”, and women tend to be more underrepresented in those same disciplines where “innate brilliance” as opposed to “learned skill” is seen as important.Report

Thracian servant girl
Reply to  Junior woman
4 months ago

Thanks, yes – I am of course familiar with this literature. My explanation was not meant to exclude the role of ‘innate brilliance’ as a factor.Report

Linda Barclay
Reply to  Thracian servant girl
4 months ago

Oh gosh. I nearly fell off my chair at that rosy picture of Scandinavian academia! I had a job in philosophy in Denmark between 2000-2006 and I found academia shockingly sexist. I was the 2nd or 3rd woman to ever (EVER) have had a tenured position in Philosophy in the country and the first ever (EVER) in my own department (Aarhus, the second largest in the country). I won’t recount all the sordid stories, and I’ll certainly note that there were a lot of good men in Philosophy who (almost) made my life bearable. But, my lord, some extraordinary levels of sexism that went without challenge. It was such a relief to come back to Australia (like, hardly a feminist paradise!!). Here’s what I learned: it makes very little sense to talk about whole countries or whole populations being more or less sexist. It depends on the context, the domain, the triggers and so on. Because of quotas women have done well in politics in Scandinavia, and that has led to lots of excellent public policy regarding gender equality. But in many other respects I certainly found Denmark to be much more sexist and much more hostile to feminism than Australia.

I also want to support ‘junior scholar”s comments. Talking about things like maternity leave, sexual harassment, the two-body problem etc, doesn’t single out Philosophy from other cognate disciplines that do much better in terms of gender balance. The well-rehearsed literature on this topic rightly tells us that there is also something additionally very particular/peculiar going on with Philosophy, which is what a lot of the recent research has tried to flush out.

Also, because we are discussing a report written by a British philosopher, I had assumed this was not just a discussion of the U.S. context. As such, it is worth pointing out that all other developed economies outside the U.S. have paid parental leave (at various levels), and legal entitlement to be on leave from work for lengthy periods of time. Yet gender in philosophy is a problem in these countries too (and remains a disaster in Denmark, with its minimum of 12 months fully paid parental leave!). Nor is sexual harassment at higher levels in Philosophy, or at least I’ve never seen any research to suggest it is (correct me if I’m wrong on this one). Another commentator said ‘tenure’ protects harassers, but this is again just taking the U.S. experience as universal. We don’t have the equivalent of U.S. tenure in the UK, Scandinavia or Australia: it’s much easier to get rid of people. But just like everywhere else in the world, sexual harassers are rarely held to account in our countries either, especially if they are powerful. Nothing unique to philosophy or even academia here as far as I am aware, at least not if we take a perspective a little broader than just the U.S.Report

Thracian servant girl
Reply to  Linda Barclay
4 months ago

Thanks for sharing your experiences at Aarhus in 2000-2006, Linda. It confirms one of my points, as does your second paragraph: that women have been and continue to be underrepresented in Scandinavian philosophy departments *despite the fact* that these countries top of the tables on most measures of gender equality (I take it you don’t dispute that fact despite your misgivings). I am of course not denying that there’s sexism in Scandinavian departments.That would be silly – I can give recent examples. I can also give recent examples of rank sexism in other parts of Scandinavian societies. But Scandinavian men tend, *on the whole*, to have far more progressive views and habits than men in the U.S. and U.K. (and Australia, based on what I have been told: I have worked in many countries, but not there).

While we’re in the business of offering anecdata: the Scandinavian male chair of my department offered to look after my diapered baby for a weekend while I attended a job interview abroad. I had a permanent post in his department at the time, so this was really an attempt to make a move. He had nothing to gain from it. Men stepping up that way isn’t common. It made a great difference to my career.Report

A Fed Up Woman Grad Student
4 months ago

I am a woman graduate student at a famous university in the UK and I feel like the situation is bad – I also feel like it’s even worse depending on the area of philosophy you are in. Historical and practical areas of philosophy tend to be much better than theoretical areas. I’ve literally been through everything in my not even long at all philosophy career – sexual harassment by faculty, being silenced in classes, being ridiculed for questions, and then being ridiculed when speaking up about being silenced. I’ve been the only woman in a room many times. It sucks. I hope change comes but I am pessimistic.Report

Sophie
4 months ago

I finished my PhD a few years ago at a top department in the US and I think things are bad. Most male graduate students were happy and thriving, while most women graduate students were unhappy and at times avoiding the department for climate reasons. I have not experienced sexual harassment (knock on wood), but I think more subtle forms of discrimination are wide-spread and damaging. Women just aren’t integrated in the community and conversation the same way men are. It often felt like professors were enjoying conversations with their male students and actively building mentoring relationships and friendships, while talking to a female student was regarded as a duty or chore.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Sophie
4 months ago

Did you notice that male and female faculty seemed to regard conversations with female students as a chore? Or was it only the males? I’ve noticed that male faculty tend to enjoy conversations with their male students more than conversations with their female students, but female faculty enjoy conversations with their female students more.Report

Sophie
Reply to  Jen
4 months ago

That is a good point! I did feel more respected and valued by some of the female professors. We had very few female professors in my department (<20%), though, and none working in my AOS, which made the strategy “Work with female profs” less viable.

I think the pattern actually also applies to relationships among grad students. The men in my program built close friendships, at times living together and collaborating on papers. Women were in the minority and not integrated in these friendships in the same way. It was hard for me to build a community in my program, in part because there were few women in the cohorts that started just before or just after mine. I was ultimately able to find friendship and community, but it took effort and time. I did not feel like I had a community until the fourth or so year in my program. I think that was a common issue for women, but not an issue for most men.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Sophie
4 months ago

Your experiences seem to be similar to mine. I wish I had some useful advice for you. If you’re like me, you’ll adapt to working in relative isolation from others. But I’m sure this doesn’t work out well for most people. So I hope you eventually settle into a friendly community or begin to cultivate one for yourself once you have a permanent position. Good luck!Report

Recently tenured
4 months ago

Sorry I am late to this. What deeply frustrates me is that in my experience, the improvements there have been are largely on the back of women who have exhausted themselves, mentally, physically, emotionally, to bring them about. Yes, men are more likely to acquiesce to initiatives designed to improve representation, or will even like to be seen to support them. But it is still largely women (and other minorities) who have to push for them in the first place. Yes, graduate students feel more empowered to complain about discrimination and sexual harassment. But it’s largely women they feel comfortable taking their complaints to, and it’s largely women who push for these to be taken seriously. And so on. Being in a position of some responsibility and power now, I feel so incredibly exhausted. Some male colleagues will say “let me know what I can do to help”, but not take any initiative themselves. For even the most well-meaning male colleagues it’s easy to compartmentalize. They will agree about the despicable behaviour of a serial sexual harassed one minute, and have no problem being publicly congratulatory towards them in the next. For me, and I think for many women colleagues, it feels more personal. Every complaint reminds me of all the times I have been sexually harassed or belittled, and of the exploitative relationship I found myself in as a graduate student. On balance, I like my job, but I see no way I can shed this considerable burden. The main way in which tenure helps is that at least I can be much more selective now in who I surround myself with. And there are plenty of great people in my field.Report

AA.GradStudent
3 months ago

So I agree, in hearing how it’s been historically, that it is better for women in the field. I’ve been fairly lucky in this sense. However, without considering the historical baggage, it’s not great – especially by way of comparison to other fields I’ve been in. I’ve had men in male dominated fields not like my personality, and we butted heads, but ultimately they trusted and respected my decisions which created mutual respect. 

I don’t see this in philosophy.

For example, I confided in a fellow graduate student I was experiencing some anxiety, because he had been fairly depressed as well. So I wanted to let him know from a place of camaraderie.We’re in 2021 babyyy, we all have problems right!!

A separate male colleague had been saying disparaging things to me for a while. Examples-when I got a second job offer he implied I wasn’t qualified, or when it was clear I had passed a certain milestone (with really nice critical, though ultimately positive, feedback) there was shock by this colleague, or interrupting me when I was in the middle of a thought, etc.. 

 Finally, I confronted him when I was offered a summer teaching position over a male colleague (who is definitely a very smart person well qualified for the job, but objectively had less qualifications for the job than I) and mentioned the department made a mistake and I should work as a food delivery driver (a job I was working for in the previous summer to pay my bills). I don’t mind doing what I need to do to do the things I love to do, but it was really offensive to be told that I’m not qualified to do a job I’m overqualified for, and that I should do something that has nothing to do with what will help me achieve the career I want to achieve.

When I confronted him, he was apologetic but in denial the he intended to say anything bad (though he explicitly said some shitty things to me). If I’m honest, it seemed like a message one would send to cover ass rather than genuinely reflective. However, that was fine, I just wanted to set some boundaries and ultimately I wanted to keep it between us so that we could hash it out and not have it be a big thing. I’m a measured person, rarely get offended, and communicate when I need to, so if I am at the point that I am hurt, it’s usually a good indication that something about the environment or the people has gone wrong.

Instead, (I’ll admit this is from whispers from others, so it may have been a bad case of the game of telephone) from what I understand he went to another male colleague that I confided in previously and that colleague attributed it to my mental health. Previously, I had remembered telling this male colleague that this male colleague I was having issues with at the time said crappy things to me, but to me attributed it to his culture. There’s a long history of men misusing women’s mental health so it was really disappointing to hear. And now, I understand the excusing of shitty behavior by other colleagues as a microaggression (really important conceptual term for me to have, considering I let myself get gaslit over the couple of years and was experiencing increasing anxiety. Realizing what was happening helped substantially relieve the anxiety). 

I know he’s done similar things to two other female colleagues when they confided in me (though they don’t spend as much time with him so they attributed it to a misunderstanding).

I don’t think it’s malicious, but it’s definitely something that I’ve never experienced in any other field and can see why women in the field have to be either distant, aggressive, or drop out. I think one of the problems is that though there is bias training, there are still well meaning people who are a little intellectually arrogant or vain and assume that they couldn’t possibly have unconscious bias. I think some folks still think they’re too smart or aware to have it. These same male colleagues mentioned I could always go to them if anything ever happened. But when it did, it was something not to be dealt with or dismissed. 

And I see these same male colleagues gush over other male colleagues ideas or capacities but really don’t give the same reverence, or even respect, to the female colleagues in out department.

These are the people that will ultimately go on and succeed in academia, and so I worry that the cycle will continue. These are the people who will be making hiring decisions, and giving work to people who are less qualified because of biases.

I’ll be fine no matter what, but it’s exhausting dealing with it, in combination with dealing with the history of the landscape. Increasingly, I feel like I have to hide what I take to be really positive features of myself because people around me have missed it. I was in other fields that are famously toxic, but experienced nothing like this. There are a lot of intellectually beautiful and funny people that I’m around and I feel very lucky. The pros outweigh the cons for now. However, it’s hard to not get drained by it. I was lucky to have background outside of the field, so I have some small metric to objectively weigh my capacities both intellectually and practically, when occasionally I come across toxic people. But I don’t know how long that will last.Report

Santana
2 months ago

As a philosophy undergrad, I have experienced disrespect as regards my views, and a lot of mansplaining. Our undergrad syllabus still has yet to incorporate women philosophers, let alone feminist philosophyReport

Advanced undergrad
2 months ago

I’ll add a younger perspective here – so far, I feel incredibly privileged to be entering philosophy right now. I’m studying in a small, warm, and very supportive department whose most recent batch of “star students” in grad school were all women. Yes, I have had few women professors and mentors, but there has been a conscious effort in recent years to hire more women, and I’ve never felt that my male professors valued me less than my male peers. But perhaps most importantly from the perspective of a student – last year the professors in the department started trying to make their syllabi gender equal. This suddenly made me realize that there were amazing women in the field already, that I wasn’t alone, that I had role models, and that there was absolutely no reason why analytic philosophy couldn’t be for me just because of my sex.Report