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.