What explains the recent sharp increase in women philosophy majors?
In the following, Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) presents data showing an increase in the percentage of women majoring in philosophy over the past six years, and puzzles over some possible explanations for the change.
(A version of this post previously appeared at The Splintered Mind.)
Percentage of Women Philosophy Majors Has Risen Sharply Since 2016 — Why?
Or: The 2017 Knuckle
by Eric Schwitzgebel
Back in 2017, I noticed that the percentage of women philosophy majors in the U.S. had been 30%-34% for “approximately forever”. That is, despite the increasing percentage of Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women overall and in most other majors, the percentage of philosophy Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women had been remarkably steady from the first available years (1986-1987) in the NCES IPEDS database through the then-most-recent data year (2016).
In the past few years, however, I have noticed some signs of change. The most recent NCES IPEDS data release, which I analyzed recently, statistically solidifies the trend. Women now constitute over 40% of philosophy Bachelor’s degree recipients.
I would argue that this is a very material change from the long-standing trend of 30-34%. If parity is 50%, a change from 32% women to 41% women constitutes a halving of the disparity. Furthermore, the change has been entirely in the most recent six years’ of data—remarkably swift for this type of demographic shift.
The chart below shows the historical trend through the most recent available year (2022). I’ve marked the 30%-34% band with thick horizontal lines. A thin vertical line marks 2017, the first year to cross the 34% mark (34.9%). The most recent years are 41.4% and 41.3% respectively.
Given the knuckle-like change in the slope of the graph, let’s call this the 2017 Knuckle.
What I find puzzling is why?
This doesn’t reflect an overall trend of increasing percentages of women across majors. Overall, women have been 56%-58% of Bachelor’s degree recipients throughout the 21st century. Most other humanities and social sciences had a much earlier increase in the proportion of women.
However, interestingly, the physical sciences and engineering, which have also tended to be disproportionately men, have showed some similar trends. Since 2010, physics majors have increased from 40% to 45% women—with all of that increase being since 2017. Since 2010, Engineering has increased from 18% to 25% women, with the bulk of the increase since 2016. Since 2010, “Engineering Technologies and Engineering-related Fields” (which NCES classifies separately from Engineering) has also increased from 10% to 15% women, again with most of the increase since 2016. Among the humanities and social sciences, Economics is maybe the only large major similar to Philosophy in gender disparity, and in Economics we see a similar trend, though smaller: an increase from 31% to 35% women between 2010 and 2022, again with most of the gain since 2016.
Since people tend to decide their majors a few years before graduating, whatever explains these trends must have begun in approximately 2013-2016, then increased through at least 2020. Any hypotheses?
It’s probably not a result of change in the percentage of women faculty: Faculty turnover is slow, and at least in philosophy the evidence suggests a slow increase over the decades, rather than a knuckle. (Data are sparser and less reliable on this issue, but see here, here and here.) There also wasn’t much change in the 2010s in the percentage of women earning Philosophy PhDs in the U.S.
A modeling hypothesis would suggest that change in the percentage of women philosophy majors is driven by a change in the percentage of women faculty and TAs in Philosophy. In contrast, a pipeline hypothesis predicts that change in the percentage of women philosophy majors leads to a change in the percentage of women graduate students and (years later) faculty. Both hypotheses posit a relationship between women undergraduates and women instructors, but with different directions of causation. (The hypotheses aren’t, of course, incompatible: Causation might flow both ways.) At least in Philosophy, the modeling hypothesis doesn’t seem to explain the 2017 Knuckle. Concerning the pipeline, it’s too early to tell, but when the NSF releases their data on doctorates in October, I’ll look for preliminary signs.
I’m also inclined to think—though I’m certainly open to evidence—that feminism has been slowly, steadily increasing in U.S. culture, rather than being more or less flat since the late 1980s and recently increasing again. So a general cultural increase in feminist attitudes wouldn’t specifically explain the 2017 Knuckle. Now it is true that 2015-2017 saw the rise of Trump, and the backlash against Trump, as well as the explosion of the #MeToo movement. Maybe that’s important? It would be pretty remarkable if those cultural events had a substantial effect on the percentage of women undergraduates declaring Philosophy, Economics, Physics, and Engineering majors.
Further thoughts? What explains the 2017 Knuckle?
It could be interesting to look at other countries, and at race/ethnicity data, and at majors that tend to be disproportionately women—patterns there could potentially cast light on the effect—but enough for today.
NCES IPEDS attempts to collect data on every graduating student in accredited Bachelor’s programs in the U.S., using administrator-supplied statistics. Gender categories are binary “men” and “women” with no unclassified students. Data are limited to “U.S. only” institutions in classification category 38.01 (“Philosophy”) and include both first and second majors back through 2001. Before 2001, only first majors are available. Each year includes all graduates during the academic year ending in that year (e.g., 2022 includes all students from the 2021-2022 academic year). For engineering and physical sciences, I used major catories 15, 16, and 40; and for Economics, 45.06.