Why are some academic fields still male-dominated?

After graduating college, I worked for a bit, then went into grad school for an MA in a field in the humanities. About 60% of the grad students there were female. I have no stats on that field, but I gather those numbers were not atypical. The number of female tenured professors was certainly lower than that, but one sensed it was rising and would continue to rise as more grad students came in.

Then I switched to philosophy. Which, as it turns out, is a whole other ball of wax. In a 2007 look at the stats, 27% of philosophy PhDs are awarded to women. 21% of employed philosophers are women (18.5% in top-rated departments). By comparison, women earned more PhDs than men overall in 2008-2009, and 53% of PhDs in the humanities as a whole. Some people don’t count philosophy as one of the humanities. If percentage of women are any indication of a difference in kind, there’s something to that. There’s a lower percentage of women in engineering (22%), but the same in math and computer science, and actually higher in physical and earth sciences (33%).

Why should this be? Why is the percentage of women the same as their proportion of the population, or why does it even exceed it, in, say, English, but not philosophy or chemistry? I have heard several possible explanations. I personally doubt there’s one single reason, and I don’t endorse any one reason. Below are the reasons I’ve heard, and my thoughts about their various merits.

Sexism perpetrated by the field’s scholars: I have no doubt this plays some role. I have had numerous sexist comments made to me. It has been suggested that one person liked my work because he wanted to sleep with me. That my teaching evaluations were good because students like female teachers better. My husband is in the same program as me and at the exact same stage in his philosophical career. When we had children, I was subject to repeated questions whether I was able to stick with philosophy. I heard about even more serious questioning behind my back. Not a single person questioned my husband about this. I should say here that I have a wonderful male advisor who has been encouraging and supportive. I know not everyone has that.

I am not alone. Here’s a great piece on the topic of sexism as practiced by the field. Here’s a site where women in philosophy recount the sexism they encounter. And let us never forget the charming l’Affaire Hendricks. And, moving to another male-dominated field, here’s a recent report about what female chemistry grad students say dissuades them from pursuing an academic career. And of course, having children and family responsibilities can be both a genuine strain on one’s career for women, and can also lead people to suspect you cannot succeed.

I am not persuaded that the question ends there, however. Why the difference between the humanities and philosophy and hard sciences? Were male English professors really any more welcoming to women back when women started to earn PhDs in bigger numbers? Was it any less of a men’s club? Are there really more unmitigated louts in philosophy than comparative literature? Maybe there are, but that still raises the question of why that should be the case. Also, while I have experienced sexism, I don’t know that I am either unusually persistent or self-confident. The sexism in the field didn’t chase me off. While sexism is there, it doesn’t feel to me (from my undeniably limited perspective with an unusually supportive advisor) extensive enough to explain a nearly 3-1 male to female ratio. I certainly don’t rule out that there is such an explanation, I just don’t know what it is.

Women lack an innate talent for quantitative or abstract reasoning: I actually agree with Larry Summers that this is a question worth raising. That said, I sincerely doubt it is true. First of all, after reading this study and some others, I have recently been persuaded that there really is no such thing as innate talent at all (I plan another post on the topic of innate talent soon). The study claims that there is no innate talent; that expertise in any field, whether it be scholarship or athletics or chess or music, comes from sufficient practice time by oneself (alas, not in fun group work). If these guys are right, and it seems very persuasive to me (and I did not hold that view when I started looking at this issue), any woman who spent the requisite hours practicing philosophy, or physics, or engineering by herself should be just as talented as any man.

Furthermore, plenty of fields that require quantitative or abstract reasoning have a much higher percentage of women. Med schools grads are much closer to 50-50, as are law school grads. And here again: PhDs awarded in social and behavioral sciences are 60% female, biological and agricultural sciences are 51% female, business is 39% female. Lack of quantitative or abstract reasoning abilities don’t seem to be holding women back in plenty of fields that require quantitative or abstract reasoning abilities.

There is some nefarious connection between Marxism and women: Okay. I haven’t heard this put forward as a serious explanation until today, when I was researching some stats for this post. I came across this lovely nugget:

While it may be derogatory to characterize the above fields as “softer” or less intellectually rigorous than mathematics or the hard sciences, the fact remains that none of them demands a level of mastery of mathematics or a capacity for abstract reasoning that approaches the demands of physics or chemistry. And they are the fields in which female graduate students are enrolling in ever-increasing numbers.

Second, all of the above fields have proved to be far more susceptible to infiltration by feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, and other left-of-center ideologies than the hard sciences. “Cultural studies,” a kind of Marxist analysis that views artistic expression as a means of social control by elites is now the dominant mode of thinking in English departments. The revolution-promoting ideas of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian pedagogical theorist who believed that traditional teaching methods oppressed the poor, are impossible to escape in many graduate-level education programs. It may be that women are peculiarly susceptible to intellectual fads in general and to fashionable leftist ideology in particular, or it may be that there are simply more of them in the less quantitatively-based academic fields that are responsible for the lion’s share of doctorates these days. (Three times as many graduate students in education and public administration and twice as many graduate students in the social sciences are female as male, according to Council of Graduate Schools statistics.) Whatever the reason, the feminization of post-graduate education has gone hand in hand with the hijacking of entire academic specialties by leftist ideologues.

Emphasis mine. I adore the word “susceptible,” as if women were not capable of generating scholarship in faddish areas, just being swayed by it. Since no possible cause or even correlative factor is given, I assume this is not worth addressing. Except insofar as it insinuates females lack a talent for abstract or quantitative reasoning, which I addressed above. I just found it so outlandish I had to include it.

Sexism that happens at a much younger age results in disparities later: This is hard to study. At least, I know there are data about the different ways people discuss science and math with young boys than they do with young girls but I don’t know of any that can connect it convincingly to outcomes in careers (if anyone has such info, I’d be curious). This explanation seems quite plausible to me as a factor based on my experience. I realized recently that I describe my eldest son’s interest in things such as worms, and the way water goes down the drain, and dinosaurs as “scientific,” whereas I never used that word with similar interests shown by my intellectually disabled son. I sincerely wonder if I had a daughter if I would be less inclined to use that word to describe what she is finding interesting.

My mother was definitely part of the second-wave feminist consciousness-raising movement. Nonetheless, I was always told growing up that my brother was good at math and science, and I was good at English and creative writing. I later found some report cards from my early grades, and it was clear that my grades were actually higher in math than in English-related activities. Again, I have my doubts that I had special abilities either way. But being told one is a certain way from a young age seems likely to become a prophecy.

I wonder why philosophy, though, is grouped with math and science in this regard. After all, I don’t think my parents even once mentioned philosophy when I was growing up, much less suggested it was something only males can do. Maybe there’s a generalization from math to philosophy because the study of formal logic is required? Or perhaps girls are not left alone as frequently to practice such things by themselves, and are more encouraged to study them with others (according to the study cited above, this is not the path to expertise).

Women are innately less motivated to pursue these kinds of fields: Whenever people discuss innate differences between men and women in the sciences and math, the discussion seems to be limited to innate abilities. But what if the difference comes from innate interests? I have always wondered if my relative success in school was actually due to the fact that from a very early age I simply loved reading, and read everything I could get my hands on, and read more than anyone else I know. The study I cite above does not rule out genetic differences in motivation, just in abilities. Perhaps men are more motivated than women to devote themselves to certain subjects, while women are more motivated by others. When women are motivated (and given access to the time and materials to practice!), they are as capable. I can’t see any reason to rule this out completely as a factor.

At any rate, I do think women have a valuable perspective for any field, but perhaps especially (of the currently male-dominated fields) in philosophy. Here’s hoping more work is done to figure out the reasons for the disparity, and address any problems if necessary.




Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Before I read this I just want to say thank you. I was afraid I would have nothing to read this weekend with so many people in Vegas.

    • I know, right? And Russell’s cell is dead, so he can’t even text me updates!

        • Oh, good. I dropped my smart phone in the ocean a few days ago and yelling and cursing did nothing to bring it back to life. I got my new one rush ordered to me and I feel whole again.

          • I am thankfully cell-phone free at the moment, but when I graduate (or get kicked out of) grad school this fall, I’ll probably have to buy one to be more accessible to potential employers.

          • Pierre, are you going on the market this fall? I am, too.

  2. Intelligence is something that can be trained. Certain people are … essentially trained out of it. Football players, even before the head injuries, tend to have a sort of learned helplessness about thinking. It doesn’t fit everyone’s attitude for what the “da big guy” should be, and thus it doesn’t pay off as well when he does it, even if he is good at it. So he doesn’t get any better.

    Genetic difference is the wrong term. A key component to male success is the rechanneling of sex drive (hell, look at Tesla). I’m certain that there is such a thing as “innate talent” — but that doesn’t evade work.

    Women, by and large, are trained to succeed — but not try too damn hard at it. If you told a woman, as many women are told, that “science is hard”, many just don’t attempt it (me? I had a blast in physics class as a freshman, and you couldn’t pull me away).

    Medicine is by far more of a “memorization game” than physics is. (Likewise, biology has tended to reward steady work over flashes of insight — Darwin versus Feynman. Women are much more likely to be Darwins…).

    I think philosophy is something peculiar, though. It doesn’t get the “hard” stereotype that the others do. I think what’s going on is that philosophy gets the “abstruse, abstract, irrelevant” stereotype. And I think that if you looked at data, you’d find women much more involved in “things with practical applicatiosn”. Maybe I’m wrong??

    • I’ll write on innate talent soon. Even within philosophy, women don’t necessarily drift toward practical applications. They are overrepresented in ethics, which does have practical applications, but not other areas of philosophy that have more practical applications: philosophy of science, AI, political philosophy, formal logic. And they are overrepresented in history of philosophy, which has the least applicability of any area of philosophy.

  3. Also, I vehemently disagree with the study on memory training. Perhaps it may be possible to create a fully functioning photographic memory… but certain people can commit full scenes to memory wtihout using a one hundredth the processing these mneumonics would take (or the time!).

    Perhaps if they were training people to perceive images through their subconscious (*snort* anyone really reading? this means less than 1/5 s to percieve images, well before they get assembled and passed to the conscious mind), and then identify whether a particular image they saw later was in the earlier set… then I’d actually say… okay, maybe everyone can train their subconscious to be space awesome.
    I know one guy who can pull that off (it did require training).

    • I’d rather get into it on the other post. But is it not possible that people who are able to retain a scene like that practiced more? Not formally, but just had more of an interest and did it on their own?

      • … at the age of three? That’s how early (at least) he remembers. Clearly (perhaps too clearly… his vision was better then).

        He thinks in pictures (has to translate into any language he uses to speak). I don’t think that’s something you come across because you “develop an interest” in it.

        It may be possible that persistent ear infections created a “personal world” where he was more likely to interpret things visually… But everybody sees the world for about the same amount of time each day, and he didn’t do specific exercises to create a perfect memory.

        I find it impossible to believe that there are no gradations between dysgraphic/dyscalcula and your best idiot savant in either subject. I find it impossible to believe that people aren’t innately better and worse. However, I do grant that for many subjects, the ability to improve yourself may very well be able to wash out the innate.

        • I’m not sure they are 100% right either, but far more right than I had ever thought.

  4. many things can be trained… but there are critical windows. if you haven’t started playing hockey intensively by about age 7, you aren’t going to be any good. Inertia is a hard thing to intuit, and best developed young.

  5. I didn’t read the link on “innate talent” so maybe my question is answered there, but I’ll pose it to you here for now:

    While there might be anything that exists that we can rightly call “innate talent”, do you think there is “innate potential” or “innate limits” or some other things that dictates the heights that an individual can reach? Looking at athletics, I doubt there is any amount of practice that I could have engaged in that would have made me LeBron James. Even if I gained a certain level of skill, I couldn’t “practice” my way to being 6’8″ or 260 pounds or fast as lightning. I simply wasn’t born with the genes that LeBron was and that matters. Of course, LeBron James wasn’t born LeBron James (or, he was, but he wasn’t born LeBron James, dominator of basketball). Did he have a higher potential than I, or I a lower limit than he?

    Going a step farther (and willing to risk offense, though I trust you “know” me well enough to know I mean nothing of the sort), what do we make of individuals with mental or physical disabilities? The guy born with no legs is *NEVER* going to be LeBron James. The girl born with limited brain function is *NEVER* going to be Stephen Hawking.

    Perhaps it depends on how we define talent. Maybe I could reach a point where my footwork is as precise as LeBron’s and my jump shot is as accurate, with the difference that remains between us purely a function of size and speed. Still, I doubt it. Part of the reason someone like Allen Iverson or Pedro Martinez could handle their respective balls as well as they did was that had unnaturally large hands and fingers. Can’t develop that, last I checked.

    I just struggle with the notion as I’ve seen it thus far (and, again, I haven’t read the linked study), as it seems too tabula rasa for all that I see and do on a regular basis working with children. I can’t imagine that the range of talents and skills present amongst my students (and I’ve worked with kids as young as 2.9) are solely a function of the “practice” they’ve put into it to that point.

    • I’ll post more on this. But he does specify that we should not include people with genetic disorders, brain injuries, etc. Other than that, the only two genetic factors that may matter to expertise are height and body size (which I assume is not an issue in philosophy). Thinking abilities are not innate doesn’t mean that nothing is innate. And he does discuss how the abilities of toddlers are actually not predictive of their future.

      • Looking forward to the post. I’ll try to read and digest the study in the interim.

      • reflexes and coordination are also an issue. Some people have better reflexes and coordination than others. I’m fairly bad on the reflexes department. I tend to be a few hundred milliseconds slower than most of my peers. In the army, I knew guys in basic training who were so uncoordinated that they couldn’t march in time. Just as some people find it harder to lose weight than others (and this is due to genetic factors) some people are bad at other physical things than others. For example I am so uncoordinated that I can’t dribble a ball across the field.

        When I was in junior college, I was able to understand mathematical concepts just by skimming the notes. I rarely did my homework and there was often a storybook secreted in between my textbook. Many of my friends who did their homework regularly and actually paid attention in class were not able to do as well as I did on tests.

        i.e. there are things that I have done easily with less time and effort and there are things which I have needed more time and effort than my friends. It seems implausible that there is no such thing as innate talent. I only read the abstract of the paper, and it may be that talent may not make a significant difference wen it comes to elite performance, but being a proffessional philosopher is not exactly like becoming a proffessional sportsman. Given that everyone tries their hand at sports (PE anyone?) and few people try their hand at philosophy, professional sportsman represent a real outlier in performance in the field. Whereas professional academics do not really represent outliers so much as those in the upper range of performance. I’m willing to bet that within the normal range of performance, talent matters more than in the really elite stuff.

  6. If there’s no such thing as innate talent, then the only thing that stopped me from writing symphonies at 8 is not working at it hard enough. I am dubious.

  7. I was going to ask a question about the talent thing, but you’ve made it pretty clear that you prefer to address that later 🙂 So now I’ll talk about history.

    I haven’t researched any of the stats, but from my anecdotal (and male) perspective, the grad student population seems to be about 60/40 male/female in the department I’m currently in, and maybe 70/30 male/female in the department where I got my masters. As for tenure and tenure track faculty, my rough guess is that it’s 80/20 in my current program, 70/30 in my MA program, and maybe 90/10 in my undergrad program.

    As to the why’s and wherefore’s, I simply don’t have much of a clue. I’m sure there is sexism. I have a female friend who was advised by a couple professors (but not her advisor) to not have children before getting her degree and going on the job market. That may very well have been only regrettable but real world advice on the way things work, but I hazard that the same professors wouldn’t have presumed to tell a male grad student whether to have children or not. I don’t know how pervasive that is and how welcoming/unwelcoming that pervasiveness or lack thereof makes the department for women grad students.

    I have a hard time thinking about attributes specific to history that might be gender selecting. There is a stereotype (how universal, I am uncertain) that certain kinds of history are more “women” or “men.” Under this rubric, cultural, gender/sexuality, and working-class history tend to be “feminine”; and social, political, business, “labor” (unions, as opposed to “working-class” history),. diplomatic history tend to be “masculine.” (I don’t know what to do with immigration history other than to pronounce that I find it incredibly boring.) But as both programs I’ve been in have offered a mix of both the “feminine” and “masculine,” along with stereotyping example breakers among grad students.

    Well, I’ve certainly taken a lot of time. My well-wishes to all the Las Vegas-ites. My girlfriend and I are going to Northwest Indiana this weekend to attend a friend’s nephew’s birthday party. We might even get some White Castle!

    • And I’m surprised the disparity is so great in history. Interesting. What’s the difference between cultural and social history?

      There are male and female areas of philosophy, too. Ethics and history of philosophy are female. Metaphysics, epistemology, logic are male. Interestingly, aesthetics is considered to be one of the female areas, but I have not found that to be the case. Philosophy of mind and language are thought to be male areas, but I see just as many women in those fields. Also, the fields with which they overlap, i.e., cog sci, psych, and linguistics, have more females than males.

      I did also have a phil grad student say to me that women couldn’t do logic. Most wouldn’t dream of saying something like that directly. He was drunk. He also had a female logician on his dissertation committee, and seemed concerned with being able to meet her standards.

      • I’m not so sure the disparity is as great as my anecdotal evidence makes it out to be. In fact, I’m not even sure how accurate my anecdotal evidence is, so it might be important to take it with a grain of salt.

        Social history vs. cultural history. Hard to tell, and there’s a lot of overlap, and they have changed a lot in recent years, but here goes. Cultural history lays more emphasis on “representations” and language. A cultural historian is much more likely to examine things like the evolution of discourse and social constructions of gender, sexuality, race, and sometimes class. A social historian is more likely to examine the lived experiences of people, and generally those not well-represented in politics or “traditional” history, and social historians tend to focus more on material circumstances than on discourses. Social historians used to be very concerned with numbers, such as combing census data, to come up with conclusions about the lived experiences of people who otherwise did not leave behind many sources.

        I am probably over-distinguishing the two, and perhaps my characterization of one as “feminine” and the other as “masculine” draws too fine a line and perhaps the stereotype is not as widely shared as I claim.

  8. Do high school AP math classes still skew male? They certainly did 20 years ago, but I have no idea what they do now. But if your starting with only 2 females out of 15 students in BC calculus, it’s not really surprising (and hard to reverse) a substantial gender imbalance in (many) STEM majors in college.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the disparity occurs much earlier. Obviously not the case, though, for philosophy.

  9. I wonder if the male/female differences may be a timing thing. Just sorta thinking out loud here…

    Don’t males and females develop socialization skills at different paces? With females leading males on that score? Maybe the ladies are just more distracted with the social stuff at the age that boys are still goofing with nerdy stuff.

    I know I was a nerdy kid and my height of nerd-dom was probably in middle school which seems to be when the girls are starting to go all… well, girly. Maybe a lot of girls just sort of miss the prime window for either developing geek skills or the interest in geek stuff.

    Or maybe not. Like I said, just spitballin’ here.

    • I think that’s something that could be made up for. But it’s certainly possible that girls were less interested, then realized they were behind, and became even less interested. Or are just always less interested in certain things.

  10. How much of this might be due to inter-generational gaps? That is, maybe the other humanities subjects were more welcoming to female applicants earlier, and thus they have a higher share of PhD holders teaching the subjects, which lead to more of them mentoring young students during the undergrad process.

    You can always see the delay here, for example when you look at political science departments. IIRC women now make up the majority of Poli-Sci MAJORS, but the faculty (particularly tenured) are still held largely by men, with a few notable high profile female exceptions. As the current crop of boomer professors start retiring, I’m betting we’ll start seeing more female department heads and deans, leading to more female professors etc. I wouldn’t be surprised say in 2050 if the majority of high profile poli-sci and policy studies faculty were women.

    I think philosophy is also a bit of a sticky wicket, because women who practice philosophy might be more inclined to actually do a gender studies degree or something equivalent, under a different rubric, if only to be able to do studies that are closer to what they actually care about. (And avoid much of the ossification of some philosophy departments.)

    As for the “hard” sciences, anyone making those arguments is a joke. In policy programs about 60-70% of the MPP/MPA graduates are women. And in terms of quantitative reasoning and argumentation, policy economics and modeling is as rigorous (and probably in some cases moreso) than comparable economic fields. It may be, however, that economics vs. policy debates make women more likely to pursue the latter, because of the obsessive overemphasis on market mechanisms to the exclusion of many other causal factors in the former.

    • I don’t have the stats in front of me now, but I’ve cited the study before. Women are almost as likely to show implicit bias against female job candidates, and mothers in particular. Also, I just don’t see why other humanities departments would have been more welcoming.

      Yes, I think innate or cultivated difference in interests might be a real possibility.

      • This is anecdotal, but I seem to recall there being more female job candidates for our faculty recruitment job talks than male ones. Though the male ones weren’t grilled nearly as hard.

        • There was a study in phil. Women get invited to more on-campus interviews, yet being a female is no advantage when it comes to actually getting a job. I think departments are supposed to be able to report to the administration that they at least interviewed female or minority candidates.

  11. I am an MS Chemist that can teach in CC (in MN). I explored HS teaching but ended up back in college teaching after 3 years. In other states I would have to have a PhD, so I guess I am lucky to be where I am doing what I love to do. My sister is a PhD physicist who has 3 children, several jobs and now is semi-retired due to lay offs. I cannot say that her degree (and the several long years it took to obtain it) has made her any more (or less) successful.

    As for Paulo Freire, I came across his writings when I was “susceptible” to his teachings. Or as I like to say, “Seeing for myself what terror and distruction was being wrought by the Reagan Administration in CA (particularly in Nicaragua) during the revolutions that were being fought there.” Sorry, say what you will about the Sandanistas, but Somoza was a pig. If that makes me a communist chemist, so be it.

    • Yeah, I’d forgotten about that study. I read it at the time, I tended to discount it for a few reasons. First, there’s absolutely no understanding of how and to what degree this actually turns anyone off the field. Second, anecdotally, in my experience as a student, no prof ever criticized me for having a different intuition than expected, except when two intuitions required inconsistent sets of belief ( in which case, I should be criticized). Also, my students, male and female, seem to have no problem telling me that they have different intuitions (except, of course, introverts of both sexes). Also, what Jennifer Nagel (comment 17) said.

      Maybe I was too quick to blow it off, however. I’m sure some profs discourage disagreement about intuitions or are more likely to dismiss women’s intuitions.

    • Thanks, Lucas. That’s interesting to know. And that is seriously the best blog name ever for a blog about Turkish philosophy!

  12. I’m so excited to have found your site. I work in a male dominated field as well: sculpture. Growing up I was always interested in art and science and, like you, I read whatever I could get my hands on. I went to all sorts of “Girls in Math and Science” conferences and even attended a Math and Science Center for high school. Yet, I still went into art. YET, the art that I do is a bit more like engineering and architecture than painting. So, why didn’t I go into science? Not sure. I actually miss learning about the way the world works. Now that I’m done with grad school, I might pick up a math book for enjoyment. (Is that possible?)

    • As a former dean of STEM and a lifelong teacher of chemistry, I recommend signing up for a class. Even an online class would be better than “picking up a book.” When I faced the possibility of teaching Astronomy in HS, I took a summer class at my local U. It was really fun to be in a class with students that were nonscience majors instead of facing them. I think you would enjoy it too since you could bring your art perspective to the class. Good luck!

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