Tania Lombrozo reflects on her experience at the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, held at Brown University:
Daniel Dennett was in the seat just ahead of me; additional luminaries were scattered about the room. A quick count revealed about equal numbers of men and women in the audience — an unusual figure for an event in philosophy, where women make up less than 20 percent of full-time faculty.
That was precisely the topic we’d gathered to discuss: the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, where numbers mirror those for math, engineering, and the physical sciences, making philosophy an outlier within the humanities.
There’s been no shortage of speculation about why. Perhaps, to quote Hegel, women’s “minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts.” Perhaps women are turned off by philosophy’s confrontational style. Perhaps women are more inclined toward careers with practical applications.
But the most plausible hypothesis is that various forms of explicit and implicit bias operate in philosophy, as they do within and beyond other academic disciplines. Unfortunately, though, this explanation refines our question rather than answering it.
Two Georgia State University masters students, Toni Adleberg and Morgan Thompson, and their professor Eddy Nahmias, collected data from over 700 male and female students on their experiences in the Introduction to Philosophy course at their university, aiming to solve for the why in the case of women being turned off and away by the discipline. Lombrozo shares their findings:
Overall, female students found the course less enjoyable and the material less interesting and relevant to their lives than male students. Compared to male students, they also felt that they had less in common with typical philosophy majors or with their instructors, reported feeling less able and likely to succeed in philosophy, were less comfortable participating in class discussions and were less inclined to take a second philosophy course or to major in philosophy. (Interestingly, however, they didn’t anticipate receiving lower grades.)
A possible solution to this is something proposed by Nahmias in an email to Lombrozo, “philosophy can do a better job introducing itself to incoming students.”
(Photo by flickr user Charlie Phillips)