Brian Weatherson points us blogaholics to Julie Van Camp’s piece on the female-friendliness of the Philosophical Gourmet Report and philosophy graduate departments. (The piece is in the Spring 2004 APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy.) She notes a broad phenomenon that many of us find troubling, namely that “Philosophy remains the most male-dominated field of the humanities in the academy.”

My own experience with graduate students and junior faculty indicates that this troubling fact is changing, but perhaps that’s just because I’ve been lucky enough to be around female-friendly departments and areas of study, where the ratio of women to men is at, near, or in some cases even better than an even split. In any case, while some robust discussion of Van Camp’s piece is going on over at Weatherson’s blog, I wanted to raise a related fact that troubles me: as discouraging, gender-balance-wise, as the make-up of the profession is, the philosophical blogosphere seems even worse. Again, my evidence is only anecdotal, but we’ve seen very few female commentators on PEA Soup, and the ratio of female to male blog authors also seems disproportional. (That’s not to say that there are no female philosophers taking advantage of this medium, of course: Jessica Wilson is a blogger, for example.)

So this prompts two questions: why is this the case, and how might we change it? (Let me be the first to state the obvious: PEA Soup does not (yet) have any female contributors, a fact that will hopefully change as our roster expands.) One woman philosopher and feminist I know suggested that the philosophical blogosphere’s gender-imbalance might be a symptom of “boys and toys,” that is, that men tend to have more of a hankering for “toys” like blogs. I’m not sure I find that wholly convincing. After all, the philosophical blogosphere is booming right now, and it strikes me as an extremely rich resource for anyone doing philosophy. Blogging is a new way to make use of all of the benefits of the interpersonal side of philosophy, from testing new papers and arguments to finding references to meeting others with similar interests. It is, in many ways, like one very large discussion group.

Given that PEA Soup is concerned not only with ethics as an area of study, but also with the ethics of the profession, it seems that this site is a natural place for discussing these questions. If anyone out there has any diagnostic or reparative suggestions on the gender-imbalance of the philosophical blogosphere, please chime in.

18 Replies to “Gender, Philosophy, and Blogging

  1. According to LiveJournal.com, which maintains almost 4 million blogger accounts, the blogging scence in general has a different landscape: LiveJournal Statistics.
    According to their numbers, 66.6% of those who maintain blogs are female. (Although a majority of their users are between the ages of 15 and 20.)
    This would seem to refute the “boys with toys” theory.

  2. Here’s an argument that occurred to me while reading Van Camp’s piece.
    What exactly is bad about having fewer women than men in the philosophical blogosphere or in philosophy in general? (Note that this is a different question than the question “What exactly is bad about *systematically excluding* women from the blogosphere or from philosophy in general?”) It seems to me that there is no reason to suppose that women, as a group, should be any better (or any worse) than men, as a group, at philosophy. It also seems to me that there are no philosophical insights available to, or more readily available to, women than to men. In this, philosophy differs from many other areas. In politics, for example, we might guess that female leaders or female lawmakers will have insights (into the plight of single working mothers, for instance) that male leaders or lawmakers cannot have, or cannot have as easily. This may be because, for instance, a female lawmaker might more easily imagine what it would be like to be a single mother. But I do not think that there are any valuable perspectives or insights in philosophy which are not just as available to men (as a group) as to women (as a group). Any perspectives available exclusively to women are likely to be beneath the level of abstraction at which philosophy is supposed to take place. If this is the case, I do not see why it should be a problem if there are not very many women in philosophy. Not having many women philosophers, in that case, is like not having many blonde-headed carpenters. Just as there is no reason to suppose that increasing the number of blonde-headed carpenters will improve carpentry, there is no reason to suppose that increasing the number of women philosophers will improve philosophy.
    Philosophy ought to be a meritocracy: The best philosophers ought to be the most prominent. If women are being systematically excluded from philosophy, then it is likely that male philosopher X will be more prominent than female philosopher Y, even if X is not as good a philosopher as Y. If this happens, philosophy suffers. So I can see why we ought to eliminate any ways in which women *as* women are actively discouraged from pursuing a career in philosophy, or are actively discriminated against once they have chosen that career. But eliminating these “systematic exclusions” of women (if they exist) is not the same as working to even out the number of women and men in philosophy. Indeed, it might turn out that if all systematic exclusions were eliminated, there would still be more male philosophers than female ones. Or it might turn out that once they are all eliminated, we would end up with mostly female philosophers. Either of these outcomes does not seem to me to be bad. Even if all philosophers were female, or all philosophers were male, philosophy as a “discipline” might be just as successful (or unsuccessful) as if there were exactly as many female philosophers as male ones.

  3. David,
    The worry is that this is a symptom of the problem. That there are not women in philosophy is not, in and of itself, a bad thing (with regard to the advancement of the field anyway), but that it indicative of a greater problem… that women are systematically excluded from philosophy. The follow your argument, if women are no more capable or less capable than men at philosophical investigation (though I do not necessarily agree… and explain in a moment), then given that they equal us in number of people, and exceed us in numbers attending college, it should only follow that the same number of women take up philosophy as men. Hence, because they do not, there must be a kink in the gears.
    I do think women, and their addition to the philosophical community, can help to advance the goals of philosophy. The think that we can actually perform the kind of phenomenological reduction that most think is the standpoint from which philosophy is done is a bit presumptuous. To a large degree, we can set aside or bracket our particular standpoint; shed our own traits to bring more objectivity to our thinking… But, there is a sense in which our thought processes and the connection we make (moment of insight) are shaped by the experiences in our lives, so the more diverse the population of philosophers, the more of a diverse set of possible insights we will have. I think women, given their place in society can hold a unique sort of insight-contributing life experience that would work to the above mentioned aim.
    Philosophy, and the world’s professions for that matter, should be merit based, but again… Using your premises that women seem no better of worse at philosophizing, then there should be no reason why we do not more merit-worthy female-philosophers.


  4. The follow your argument, if women are no more capable or less capable than men at philosophical investigation (though I do not necessarily agree… and explain in a moment), then given that they equal us in number of people, and exceed us in numbers attending college, it should only follow that the same number of women take up philosophy as men. Hence, because they do not, there must be a kink in the gears.

    No, there are all sorts of possible explanations. Maybe women are not as interested in philosophy as men are. Maybe there are other fields in the neighborhood that women find much more interesting than men. Those aren’t kinks.
    I do think philosophy would be better off with more women, though, also for a number of reasons, some of which have been mentioned here already.

  5. “No, there are all sorts of possible explanations. Maybe women are not as interested in philosophy as men are. Maybe there are other fields in the neighborhood that women find much more interesting than men. Those aren’t kinks.”
    But then why aren’t women interested in philosophy…? If they are not kinks in the philosophical field, then they are at least kinks in our culture, either of which should be cause for concern… in that regard, they are indeed kinks…

  6. Let’s assume (as seems reasonable to assume) that women are capable of doing philosophy just as well as men are. That does not mean that there are no differences at all between men and women. And it may be that these other differences (whatever they may be) explain the dearth of female philosophers better than the supposition of systematic “kinks” does.
    Here’s a wild tangent. I gather that for several years now the South African team has won the marathon events in the Olympics. (I may be wrong about this, but I think I did overhear it somewhere.) Now I think it’s reasonable to assume that South Africans, as a group, are no more or less capable of winning marathons than Mexicans or Australians. Does this mean that there is some systematic exclusion of Mexicans or Australians from the Olympic marathon events, or that there is some “kink” in the system which determines the winner? Perhaps. But more likely, to my mind, is the explanation that there is simply more interest among South Africans in running for sport than there is among Mexicans or Australians. And if this is the explanation, then the fact that South Africans win every year seems to be neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Different groups of people seem to latch onto different sports, and it is probably interesting from a sociological point of view to ask why. But I’m not sure we should want to try to “correct” this “problem”, because there’s no reason to want each country to be equally involved in each and every sport.
    Likewise, I’d expect that, even if all “kinks,” both those which are culturally endemic and those which are limited to the philosophical profession, were ironed out, so that men and women had an exactly equal “shot” at becoming philosophers, there would still be some groups of people more interested in philosophy, and therefore better represented in philosophy depts., than other groups of people. At any rate, it would indeed be surprising if every group of people registered *exactly the same* level of interest in doing philosophy. So I’m not sure that we should take the fact that there are more women than men in philosophy as constituting, on its own, a call for alarm. None of this means, of course, that there *aren’t* systematic “kinks” that need to be ironed out. I only want to show that it is possible that less women are interested in philosophy than men for perfectly benign reasons.

  7. Chris,

    But then why aren’t women interested in philosophy…? If they are not kinks in the philosophical field, then they are at least kinks in our culture, either of which should be cause for concern… in that regard, they are indeed kinks..

    I don’t know why. Maybe because they find other things more interesting? Maybe because the unpleasant features of academic philosophy seem more important to women than to men? We can only speculate.
    But why is it automatically cause for concern? I don’t get it. Is there some reason that all kinds of people should be equally interested in all kinds of things? I don’t think there is.
    David,
    I wonder if you’re thinking of East Africans. Kenyans always seem to be winning international distance running competitions. Some people think their success has to do with their genetic endowment. Some people think it has to do with their living at 6000 feet. Nobody thinks it has to do with invidious exclusion of Nigerians.
    But the situation with women in philosophy seems quite different. We know that for many years women were systematically and systemically excluded from academic philosophy and academia in general, and it’s reasonable to be suspicious that there are significant traces of that heritage remaining. Still, I agree with you that disproportionate numbers is not per se a problem.

  8. Are women less interested in philosophy? I doubt it. Actually, they do engage in philosophical discussions with other women but I wonder if women might be hesitant to enter into such discussions in a “coed” situation. To be honest with you, it’s intimidating and far easier just to keep quiet rather than make yourself so vulnerable.

  9. From personal experience, I am a woman who left a philosophy grad program after receiving my MA. I LOVE philosophy, and it will always be the thing I wish I was doing. However, I don’t feel like it’s female-friendly.
    In my first grad class ever, I was the only first year, and the only female. I didn’t volunteer the entire semester, because many of the more arrogant males in my class made me feel really intimidated and basically shut me out. I eventually became more comfortable, but there were only 4 females in my entire program (representing about 6-8% or so), and I felt really alone most of the time.
    One of the top men in my department told me once, as we were talking about our post-PhD lives, “you can teach ethics, or you can teach ancient philosophy. I’m pretty sure that’s all girl philosophers can do.” I didn’t need that, and now I’m at a top law school, where half my class is female.

  10. “Let’s assume (as seems reasonable to assume) that women are capable of doing philosophy just as well as men are. That does not mean that there are no differences at all between men and women. And it may be that these other differences (whatever they may be) explain the dearth of female philosophers better than the supposition of systematic “kinks” does.”
    What difference I’m curious? There are clear distinctions between men and women that are a function of social roles, and the development of genders lines. Beyond this, I really do not see a difference that would constitute the reason for women’s under-representation in philosophy. As a feminist, I think gender boundaries out not exist in the codified roles that they currently do, and this is why I think that the lack of female philosophers is per se a reason to worry. If it does not represent a systematic problem within the philosophical world, it does reflect a problem with patriarchal gender construction. And yes, I do think that should be eliminated.
    In regard to the Kenyan or African marathon teams, it’s one thing to win a race, it’s another thing to not be competing. If it were such that only African teams were competing, then there would be cause for alarm, but that they are winning more regularly is only an indication that they are doing something to focus more heavily on the sport. It’s comparable to the fact that more post-modern philosophy comes from Europe than anywhere else. It’s a regional distinction, based on cultural history and social progress etc. With women, within the same cultural, it makes little sense to say that women, just as a whole, do not prefer philosophical discourse. If that preference is engendered, in all probability it stems from patriarchal norms. Of course this is not deductive, bur that does not mean it’s incorrect, and it also does not mean that women’s distinct lack of representation is not cause for alarm prima facie.
    “One of the top men in my department told me once, as we were talking about our post-PhD lives, “you can teach ethics, or you can teach ancient philosophy. I’m pretty sure that’s all girl philosophers can do.” I didn’t need that, and now I’m at a top law school, where half my class is female.” -Anon
    This sounds like a representation of what I’ve just been discussing. TO me this seems to be a textbook example of how patriarchal gender roles can influence “preference” in the way that may appear benign. Given the history of patriarchal oppression in our culture, I really cannot see why the scarcity of women in philosophy would be anything but cause for concern.

  11. Hello All,
    My name is Jessica Bohn (female, as you may have guessed) and I am (well, was) a student of Dr. Shoemakers at California State University Northridge. I have been reading PEA soup for some time, and I must admit, I am a little nervous about posting. But this subject seemed too good to pass up, given that I am a female, and I do on occasion, (on a very very basic level) blog about Philosophy.
    I hesitate even mentioning it, since on my site, when I do talk about philosophy, it is presented in a way that is A)geared towards 20 year old punk kids, (like myself???) and B) mostly a regurgitation of arguments I have heard in class and how I feel about them. Though my thoughts are open to commentary for all, my site isn’t a Jr. PEA soup by ANY means.
    That being said, in the commenting sections of my posts, I would say the number of men to women is actually about even. Though the men seem to make more abrasively phrased arguments, both seem to have equal input into what I have brought to the table. I honestly think part of that is because I don’t present the site as a philosophical site, so none of the women there feel like they have been “told” to not participate.
    Let me explain: When I started out as a phil student, no one had told me that girls just don’t do philosophy. The thought had just never crossed my mind. I found my self a constant minority in my classes, and couldn’t help but wonder why. A friend had to tell me that girls aren’t usually philosophy students because girls can’t think logically. Of course, to cover how offended I was, I laughed, but in retrospect, he has an interesting point. If he was told that girls can’t think logically, and he believed it, why wouldn’t women (girls) being told the same thing believe it as well?
    Now, obviously, why women are told they can’t think in a way that would allow them to be philosophers is a different issue. My point is, I think most of them are (told that), which seems to be bad for philosophy. It takes away what could potentially be a great resource for the philosophical community when just under half of the people able to make meaningful contributions on the same issues from what could potentially be the complete opposite side of the coin, don’t.
    Thanks to all. I think PEA soup is awesome, and when I can keep up, I have a great time reading.
    -jes

  12. Jes and “anon,”
    Your stories are discouraging, and I know there are other similar stories out there. (Here’s an incredible one: a woman philosopher I know got a rejection letter from a PhD program, when she was applying several decades ago. This was a very prestigious program (thankfully, she ended up getting into another prestigious program), and their printed, public reason for rejecting her, so the story goes, is that “we just don’t think philosophy is an appropriate field for women”, or something close to that.)
    I hope, though, that women out there who are following this discussion won’t be too discouraged by these negative stories. For it seems reasonable to think that the female-friendliness of professional philosophy has improved greatly over recent decades, and continues to improve, in part because many of us take the concern quite seriously. I’d stress, again, that in my experience there are several graduate departments and areas of study that are extremely female-friendly. My guess is that this is one of those things that one could find out about by visiting a grad program before enrolling, and keeping an eye out for the type of troubling dynamics that have been discussed here.

  13. To reify Josh’s statement,
    I too think the gender dynamic in philosophy is changing as those who hold old world intutitions about the role of women begin retiring, and new faculty, with a more contemporary understanding of gender take the floor. While the numbers are still not there, I think the apporiate attitudes are. There was a story not too long ago regarding a female graduate student who was so sought out by a number of highy regarded schools that she turned down offers from UCLA, NYU and Standford, choosing to goto a mid-west school whose name escapes me, because they were willing to offer her husband a professorship also in order to secure her position on the faculty. So, the head of the pack seems to be of an enlightend mind-set about the gender issue, and the future looks to hold a posetive outlook.

  14. And an enlightened mindset is all that is needed. As a female philosophy major, I don’t really care if people say that all females don’t think logically, or if people say that all men who are philosophy majors are arrogant. What matters to me is that I am in a society where I at least have the right to read as a female, and that’s all the right I need. The beauty of thought has carried me far already in my young life, and other people’s hollow generalizations are hardly enough to bring me down. Such great strides have been made to make it legal for me, as a woman, to study whatever I want, that a few people’s opinions is water under the bridge and meaningless. Therefore, I salute all the other female philosophers, and I salute the males, the truth is always inside us, as individuals, anyways.

  15. Chris,
    The story you mention was from the chronical of higher ed from a few years ago and involved Carolina Sartorio and her husband (who’s name escapes me). They are both (as far as I know) tenure track at U Wisconson-Madison, so it’s not like they had to slum taking the job. (He had only been offered post-docs at the other places, so it was completely reasonable for them to go to Madison, I’d think.)

  16. Um, I didn’t say it wasn’t a reasonable choice, and the CoHE article was less then a year old (though I can’t seem to find it). My point was merely that she was in high enough demand on the job market that she could strong-arm a department into hiring her husband too… I wasn’t at all insinuating that they made a wrong choice, merely illustrating that women are well recieved in the upper echelons of the philosophy world.

  17. In reading through the responses, it brought to mind a discussion from a med school class of mine in the late-80’s. The particular class was psychiatry (perhaps as close to philosophy or philosophical discussion as one gets in medical school). The professor spent the better part of three lectures explaining to us why women just weren’t “designed from a neurochemical standpoint” to excel at math, engineering, music, or art. He them proceeded to ask if any of us could name women who could rival Beethovan, Bach, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, or (his favorite) Mozart. One women named Georgia O’Keefe. Most of us were silent…..mind you, this was a British expat who would bite your head off without so much as a moment’s notice. Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mozart’s father would have taken (her) all around Europe if Mozart had been a little girl. Ability plus opportunity is the key. I think there are generations of women who have not been given the opportunity, whether we’re talking about philosophy, art, music, or engineering. I believe it will take literally hundreds of years for some balance between the genders to be achieved.

  18. “I do not think that there are any valuable perspectives or insights in philosophy which are not just as available to men (as a group) as to women (as a group). Any perspectives available exclusively to women are likely to be beneath the level of abstraction at which philosophy is supposed to take place. If this is the case, I do not see why it should be a problem if there are not very many women in philosophy…. [T]here is no reason to suppose that increasing the number of women philosophers will improve philosophy.”
    A couple of points are worth making here. First off, whether or not *philosophy* will be better off for having more women involved is hardly the only thing worth worrying about. It’s also important to ask whether women themselves will be better off for having hospitable opportunities for self-actualization, and whether students will be better off for having female as well as male intellectual role models.
    Second, it seems to me a serious mistake to suppose that all philosophy takes place, and/or should take place, at such a high level of abstraction that personal insights, experiences and perspectives, including those that might be more available to women than to men (or vice versa), are irrelevant. A great deal of recent work in ethics and political philosophy deals with the concrete circumstances of individual lives, and ethicists are increasingly arguing that morality is agent-relative, or dependent on the individual’s particular circumstances, traits, relationships, etc. If this is correct, we should expect that women will have philosophically valuable perspectives that are not available to men (or that men simply tend not to occupy for a variety of reasons). It is no coincidence, I think, that Justice, Gender and the Family (to take just one outstanding example) was written by a woman (Susan Moller Okin).
    In any case, as other respondents have pointed out, it is pretty clear that women are still, to this day, being systematically discouraged from pursuing careers in philosophy. I am a recent female Ph.D. graduate of a top (perhaps the top) philosophy program in the U.S. While I was studying there, a male faculty member tended to have drinks with a few male graduate students in the local bar. In the presence of a female grad student who had stopped by their table, they suggested that women entering the program should be asked to sign an acknowledgement that they were entering a male-dominated environment. This was just one of a number of petty insults that women experienced from time to time in my program.
    So I would say we are still rather far from the day when it can reasonably be suggested that if there are fewer women in philosophy, it’s simply because women are less interested or have better things to do. The fact is, we don’t know how many women there will be in philosophy, or what philosophy itself will be like, when it is finally the case that men and women are equally respected within the discipline. So let’s try to achieve that, and then we’ll see.
    A postscript to women contemplating graduate study in philosophy who may be feeling discouraged on reading these posts: as others have pointed out, there are many programs that are quite female-friendly. By choosing to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy you need not condemn yourself to several years in a hostile environment. But you will need to do a little research, talking to graduate students in the programs you’re considering to make sure they are being well-treated. (You can do this by making a campus visit once you’ve been accepted to the program.) Also, it’s important not to overestimate the thickness of your skin. You might go in thinking, “I’m tough, and a few sexist remarks here and there aren’t going to affect me.” But doing a Ph.D. is grueling and emotionally exhausting for most people, and you don’t need any extra obstacles in your way.

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