‘Women’s under-representation in philosophy has been well known for decades’
The Four Philosophers, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1611 – 1612
Sally Haslanger is angry. “I entered philosophy about 30 years ago,” she told me at the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meeting in Boston. “I had a budding feminist consciousness, and I thought then that there weren’t enough women on the reading lists in my classes or among my teachers. But I thought things would certainly change, given the importance of the feminist movement. I’ve been though the profession now and worked hard on the Committee on the Status of Women. I’ve worked hard in other forums like SWIP – the Society for Women in Philosophy – that were trying to advance women’s interests. After 30 years I was seeing that there wasn’t really that much change, and that made me mad.”
Haslanger is not alone. Women’s under-representation in philosophy has been well known for decades, but there does not seem to have been sufficient collective will to really grapple with the problem. Now, however, there are signs that things are changing. “There’s been a lot of momentum gathering in the UK dealing to a great extent with the under-representation of women in philosophy,” says Jules Holyroyd, one of the organisers of a well-attended conference in Cardiff last November, on the issue of all under-represented groups, not just women.
Although the dearth of women is obvious, until recently no one had tried to analyse the data to establish the facts. Two years ago, tpm conducted its own survey and found that only 18 percent of full-time permanent academic philosophers working in leading higher education institutions in the UK were female. The comparable figure in the USA was 22 percent.
One reason philosophy has been less successful than other disciplines in overcoming these biases could be that the subject’s self-image actually makes it more vulnerable. “Philosophers have this special relationship with objectivity,” says Saul, “where we think that we’re better and more rational than everyone else. It’s very well confirmed that people are really bad at judging their own objectivity and systematically over-estimate it. But really interestingly, it’s also been shown that thinking about how objective one is increases bias rather than decreases it. If you form the explicit intention to be unbiased and not affected by gender and race, you will be more affected by these things.”
Philosophy has also been peculiarly indifferent to feminist thinking. “We are the anomaly in the humanities,” says Haslanger. “You can’t go through a graduate programme [in other humanities subjects] and be considered competent in those fields unless you’ve done some work on gender and race issues. Feminist work is mainstream. In philosophy that’s just not true. You could go through a philosophy degree to this day and never have a class by a woman, never have to encounter anything having to do with feminism or gender or race.”
One reason for this is that “many philosophers have the view that in order to be objective you have to be value-free or value-neutral and feminism is by its nature not value-free or value-neutral. So there are a lot of philosophers to this day who think there’s an inherent contradiction in the idea of feminist philosophy or feminist epistemology.