Update On Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

UPDATE: Decided to post this on the main page.

I was never quite sure about what might be the cause of the extreme disparity of males to females in philosophy. Women make up 21% of professional philosophers. This is nowhere near their representation in other fields of the humanities. But the issue has been on my mind for a couple of reasons. First, I’m looking for a job and am unlikely to get one (glut of PhDs, horrible market). And a few other things I happened to read.

There’s this guy. See screen shot. A prominent psychobiologist who complained on Facebook that women at a conference he was attending were not hot enough. I do dearly love “no offense.” Of course, people talk like this all the time. Even in front of women! His only mistake was posting it on Facebook.I remember a lunch with a very prominent (male) philosopher (who only asked me along to the lunch because he was hitting on me) and a super-prominent ethicist and another prominent (male) philosopher. Dr. Prominent Philosopher 1 was going on pretty much exactly like this neuroscientist jerk — except with more body part descriptions and more imagined interactions — and Dr. Bigwig in Ethics was just chuckling. (Other prominent philosopher was frowning.) And I ate my soup. Because they were both prominent and might be in a position to help me further down the road. (As it happens, the frowning prominent philosopher did just write me a letter of recommendation.) This was not at all unusual in itself, notable only because of the extreme prominence of the people involved.

And then I just yesterday read this recent article on the state of women in philosophy, which changed a lot of my thoughts on the issue. I knew about implicit bias (a CV with a female name is likely to be ranked lower, letters of recommendation for females tend to emphasize stereotypically female traits, etc.)

Here’s another issue that I knew less about, stereotype threat:

[Stereotype threat] manifests itself when members of a group that is negatively stigmatised at some task are made aware of their group membership in a high stakes situation where they care about doing well. In such situations, we see underperformance from groups as diverse as white men at Princeton doing sports, girls doing mathematics and black students engaging in a test of academic ability. The reminder of group membership can come from many sources – ticking a box indicating gender, engaging in a stereotyped task (colouring in a picture of a girl holding a doll, for example) or simply being one of very few women in the room. When this happens, people who normally perform just as well as those from positively stereotyped groups see their performance decline precipitously.

Although we don’t yet have studies of philosophers, there is good reason to suppose that both implicit biases and stereotype threat play a role in perpetuating the under-representation of women in the field. In addition to biases against women that are widespread in the culture, it seems likely that philosophy as a field is stereotyped as male. Feminist philosophers have argued this point for decades (as in Sally Haslanger’s landmark “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy”). But it’s frankly what one would expect in a field that is nearly 80% male – it would be very surprising, given these demographics, if philosophy wasn’t associated with maleness. Add to this the fact that philosophy makes heavy use of logic (often requiring it for an undergraduate degree) and the well-established fact that mathematics isstereotyped, quite strongly, as male.

If this is right, then it’s very likely that women face a lot of barriers due to implicit bias. Their work is likely to be taken less seriously at every stage if not dealt with anonymously – from early student comments in discussions to work being marked and submitted for publication. (Although most refereeing in philosophy is anonymous, very little editing is and editors reject up to 65% of submissions without sending them to referees.) And these biases will continue to work against them as they apply for jobs, tenure and promotion. It bears emphasising that these biases will cause all sorts of people to fail to appreciate the quality of womens’ work – of all genders and political persuasions, including even those who are actively fighting for equality.

Stereotype threat will also cause women in philosophy to underperform. It will be regularly triggered – by exclusively or nearly exclusively male reading lists, overwhelmingly male lecturers, department seminar speakers and conference programmes. As they progress further in their careers, their colleagues will become increasingly male as well. Combine this with implicit biases, and it is not at all surprising that those who are not white males should have difficulty flourishing in philosophy.

This makes perfect sense to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’m the only female in the room. Then I wondered: this was once true in other humanities. How was it overcome there? It seems to me there are two other factors, one cited by the author of the article, one not. She writes:

[I suggest] it’s to stop talking about “who’s smart”, a widespread vice of philosophers in my experience. As Eric Schwitzgebel notes, these sweeping judgements are really very problematic: “I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as ‘seeming smart’. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male …. Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people’s associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn’t exactly in one’s expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody –all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men.”

Smartness claims are also remarkably immune to counter-evidence (“He’s smart, he just doesn’t work very hard”; “She’s not really smart, she just works very hard”). Moreover, smartness judgements are deeply tied to the notion that there is such a thing as smartness, of which some people are lucky enough to have a big dose while the unlucky get less. And this view of intelligence, Carol Dweck has shown, makes it easier for stereotype threat and implicit bias to do their nasty work. Teaching people instead that intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort helps to insulate against both phenomena. It also helps to motivate people to seek out challenges and to work hard.

This is absolutely right. I do not think other fields are as concerned with who’s really got “the stuff,” where the stuff is some innate ability granted by the naturalistic heavens and identifiable only by the kingmakers who have similar abilities. Who’s smart, and who’s smarter than who, is a constant question at grad school and beyond. I’m sure it is in other fields, too, but I think in other fields it’s actually based more on work than on some undefinable je ne sais quoi (at least, that was the case in the other field in which I got an MA and was 60% female).

The other thing I thought about was the chuckling ethicist. We philosophers think we’re especially good at seeing without bias. We think we’ve taught ourselves to look past rhetoric and irrelevant reasons and focus on the reasons that really matter. And we think that’s what we’re teaching to undergrads. Some of us even teach and write about ethics. But I wonder if this is pride that goeth before a fall. Because we think we already are better than the average Joe at seeing without bias, we think we don’t have to examine our own biases.

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. Excellent post.

    Knitting Niki often has had to counsel female students in doctoral programs whose overseers tend to view their role as errand runners and note takers.

    One of the things I’ve wondered about is why litigious action, which has played such a large role in combatting this type of treatment in the private sector, has been so absent in academia.

    • I’m curious to what extent you see a difference in the private sector.

      Back in my first job (~15 years ago) I had a manager who would literally come up behind me and stroke my hair. He’d back off when I turned around and gave him a WTF? look, usually with some half-baked apology like ‘Sorry, your hair just looks so soft and pretty.’ Now engineers are notoriously bad at social interaction, but this was beyond awkward attempt at a come-on (which would have been wrong from my supervisor no matter what). It was even creepier given that I was married and so was he.

      Did I file a complaint? No.

      Why? I didn’t want my career to end when I was barely out of school and it was pretty accepted that a complaint might result in him getting a slap on the wrist, but I would essentially become a pariah.

      Now, I’d love to think that this has changed. However, both the treatment of a number of women bloggers who actually speak out on these things and private conversations with other women in my field indicate that it has not.

      • And here we see why it’s “so prevalent in academia”. Because everyone agrees that it’s bad but nobody wants to be the first to jump.

        • Since part of the topic is ‘smartness’, I’ll point out that a no smart person jumps off a building knowing that there is nothing but pavement to break her fall.

          If there was some evidence of a safety net stronger than tissue paper, it might be different. However, when you see the skeletons of those who’ve tried it lying there below, it tends to give you pause.

          • You can choose to leave. “No I can’t! My life would suck if I did!” Oh, so you could leave; you just don’t want to.

          • True. And many do. But, DD, fascinatingly, some people who remain in the field (even men), think that’s a shame.

          • The strong incentive to to just put up with it. I thought conservatives believed that people respond to incentives (except for Anita Hill, who must have been lying.)

          • Nobody said that life’s choices would always be “fun” and “shit”. Sometimes the choices are “shit” and “more shit”.

          • That’s why I’m glad I didn’t have to vote in a GOP primary.

          • DD, you always seem to think I’m saying something I’m not. I’m not saying anything here but: “Perhaps this is why there’s a disparity.” I am not complaining about anything, I am not saying I need redress – nothing.

            I do worry, but did not argue here, that the field is potentially chasing away a certain point of view and certain talented people.

          • “DD, you always seem to think I’m saying something I’m not.”

            That’s charitable. I always assume he’s always saying whatever he thinks might push your button. In this case, you’re not being man enough to succeed in your chosen field.

            I don’t even think he necessarily thinks this, just that he thinks it might get a rise out of you.

          • I love just randomly reading comments and assuming that they’re replying to me. It’s great. I get to have all sorts of fun little mad feelings.

            Since it’s apparently a question: My comment was a reply to Schilling’s snark about “the strong incentive is to just put up with it”.

    • Really enjoyed this, thanks for writing it.

      I agree with Burt. Except that part he was walking back on. But Burt’s not a bad commenter for a man, right?

      But the other part, the part about it being excellent, I endorse that.

  2. Rose, I’d encourage you to put this post on the front page. It’s good enough and it should draw as many eyeballs as it can.

    • Please edit out any implications of patronization in the phrase “good enough” in my hasty comment above. The post is good. Period. Front page material.

        • You’ve never seen a terrible implication in a comment IMMEDIATELY after clicking on “submit,” and cried “Noooooooooooooooo!” but it was too late?

          Ugh. I was trying to praise the post. Made a mess of it. Let’s not talk about my foot in my mouth, and allow me to stew in my own chagrinedness please.

          • Burt,

            Presumably, you’re powerful enough to edit a comment that didn’t communicate the message you intended it to, right? (Or should that not be done?)

          • On this sub-blog, I lack that power. All I can do here is offer an apology to Rose and attempt to clarify my original meaning.

            On the front page and my own sub-blog, I could do that if I chose. There’s an open question as to whether someone in this position OUGHT to do something like that. I don’t have a problem with editing my grammar or spelling mistakes, but it seems a little bit… revisionist, dishonest, Orwellian, take your pick… to go back and unsay something substantive which one has already said.

            For my part, I think that when I goof up, I should own it. I goofed yesterday in my own front page post too (and in my own claimed field of expertise to make it worse). While I did correct the post, I left the evidence of my goof up for the world to see.

          • It occurs to me that for all my hand-wringing, I did not directly offer an apology to Rose. I do so now: Rose, I’m sorry to even have hinted, inadvertently or not, that your post was “good, for one written by a woman.” Your post was, and is, “good.” Period. While I may have not intended to, I probably did evidence a degree of demeaning patronization which was inappropriate. Indeed, I may have demonstrated the very attitude that you complained of in the post itself. The term, I think, is “microaggression.” I shall reflect on that, with a palpable degree of self-recrmination.

          • It’s good enough and it should draw as many eyeballs as it can.

            I don’t understand the hand wringing, Burt. It’s entirely obvious to me that “it’s good enough” was a dig at all the other substandard dreck that passes for FP-worthy.

            So, no harm done!

          • That is hilarious. I’m a bit nervous about eyeballs. Will put it on front page with some fewer identifiers.

    • “You can really draw some eyeballs, Rose. Know what I mean? Eh? Know what I mean? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”

  3. I always get a little weirded out when I see a male coworker following a female coworker with his eyes as they pass in the hallway. It’s like, dude, that is not an appropriate subject for that sort of consideration. Setting aside the crass nature of it, you’re giving the impression that the important aspects of someone’s value as a contributor are professional competence, engineering ability, and whether her ass has gotta be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake like dat.

  4. “Smartness claims are also remarkably immune to counter-evidence (“He’s smart, he just doesn’t work very hard”; “She’s not really smart, she just works very hard”). ”

    Although this doesn’t only apply to “smart”. It’s pretty constant for every field in which humans can excel, that a common dualistic criticism is “talented but fails because doesn’t work hard”/”works hard but limited because not talented”. You see it in sports, art, anything. Sexism might make one more likely to assign someone to the “untalented tryhard” category, but it’s not as though the category exists solely due to sexism.

    • This leads to the discussion of why only white athletes are “scrappy”. And this favorite of mine by Willie Mays:

      Wertz hits it. A solid sound. I learned a lot from the sound of the ball on the bat. Always did. I could tell from the sound whether to come in or go back. This time I’m going back, a long way back, but there is never any doubt in my mind. I am going to catch this ball. I turn and run for the bleachers. But I got it. Maybe you didn’t know that, but I knew it. Soon as it got hit, I knew I’d catch this ball.
      But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was Lary Doby on second base. On a deep fly to center field at the Polo Grounds, a runner could score all the way from second. I’ve done that myself and more than once. So if I make the catch, which I will, and Larry scores from second, they still get the run that puts them ahead.
      All the time I’m running back, I’m thinking, ‘Willie, you’ve got to get this ball back to the infield.’
      I run fifty or seventy-five yards–right to the warning track–and I take the ball a little toward my left shoulder. Suppose I stop and turn and throw. I will get nothing on the ball. No momentum going into my throw. What I have to do is this: after I make the catch, turn. Put all my momentum into that turn.
      To keep my momentum, to get it working for me, I have to turn very hard and short and throw the ball from exactly the point that I caught it. The momentum goes into my turn and up through my legs and into my throw.
      That’s what I did. I got my momentum and my legs into that throw. Larry Doby ran to third, but he couldn’t score. Al Rosen didn’t even advance from first.
      All the while I was running back, I was planning how to get off that throw.
      Then some of them wrote, I made that throw by instinct.

  5. This is interesting, but to me it doesn’t really answer the question of why philosophy differs from the rest of the humanities in this respect.

    The problems you describe seem like they’re applicable to all highly-male-dominated fields. At one point decades ago, when universities were disinclined to accept women, all fields of study would have been overwhelmingly male-dominated. Since then, most fields in the humanities have overcome the above-noted biases to become less male-dominated (and possibly female-dominated, if the composition of my undergrad courses is anything to go by). So the question is, to me is, why hasn’t philosophy?

    It’s an curious disparity, because usually the fields where you see heavy female underrepresentation are the hard sciences (a friend of mine did her degree in computer science, and was the only woman in a lot of her classes) and – no offence meant – in my perception philosophy is probably the “softest” subject there is, due to having the most subjectivity: no other field feels the need to start off with establishing whether we do, in fact, exist.

    • my perception philosophy is probably the “softest” subject there is, due to having the most subjectivity: no other field feels the need to start off with establishing whether we do, in fact, exist.


    • I think you have a misperception there. I left another field in the humanities because of the lack of rigor. If by subjective, you mean less likely to be responsive to empirical data or you mean having fewer standards about what counts as worthy scholarship or you mean less likely to be realist about mind-independent facts, philosophy’s probably the least subjective of the humanities.

      Indeed, people usually argue the other way. Because of formal logic, etc, philosophy too closely resembles math and chases women away.

      I gave two reasons why I thought philosophy in particular susceptible. 1) greater emphasis on who’s smart. 2) philosophers do not examine their biases because they think that that’s what they do for a living, I.e., distinguish good arguments from bad.

      The only time I ever talk about whether there is an external world is when I teach intro.

      • Good to know! Thank you.

        If by subjective, you mean less likely to be responsive to empirical data.

        That’s a large part of what I was thinking of, along with more non-replicability of results by different researchers. I didn’t use “soft” as a derogatory term, and certainly not to suggest low standards, but as a description of fields where viewpoint as opposed to data has a greater role.

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