Women in Philosophy

I guess a day spent reading Beyond Good and Evil is not the best time to post on women and philosophy. But I caught this piece —thanks Infinite Thought!—on the dearth of women in the profession. Brooke Lewis, a freelance journalist, reports two views that she links together but are wholly different claims (by the way, having married a now-free lancer extraordinaire, I’m not dumping on Lewis, since I know this is how the piece could have been edited, or is simply a quick shift from one graf to the next):

Helen Beebee, a University of Birmingham lecturer and director of the British Philosophical Association (BPA) … says her impression is that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women graduating with good bachelor degrees in philosophy and that the numbers of women start to drop off at MA level and then again at PhD level. Beebee says this tapering off of women may be at least partly caused by a culture of aggressive argument that is particular to philosophy and which begins to become more prominent at postgraduate level. “I can remember being a PhD student and giving seminar papers and just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience,” she says. “I can easily imagine someone thinking, ‘this is just ridiculous, why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?’”

Jennifer Saul, a Sheffield University lecturer and president of the UK division of the Society of Women in Philosophy (SWIP), says that relative to post-graduate students, there is a significant drop in the number of women going on to become temporary lecturer….

Lewis also notes something that we, alas, all know if we’ve spent anytime in philosophy: the numbers are bad everywhere–not just the UK. But is this true of every part of philosophy? I see far more of a percentage of women at SPEP than at the APA, and it seems to me that one should not discount that certain types of work speak to people who might want work that speaks to them, given the disadvantages they face. It’s also the case, as we all also know, that if you’re a woman phenomenologist, that means you’re pigeon-holed as a feminist philosopher, whether or not you’ve ever worked in that area or not. I can’t even begin to hypothesize on the reasons for the low numbers of female philosophers now. But it’s also clear that philosophy does much worse at this than, say, other fields in the humanities. (And I should add, of course, that there are great female professors in other fields doing philosophy, which complicates this a bit.)

Two points to add: Helen Beebee, though I’m sure you’re a wonderful director of the BPA, please think of handing over the reigns. Unless you were wildly misquoted (again—freelancers of the world unite!—you probably weren’t) you don’t know the first thing about (a) the fallacious use of anecdotal evidence, (b) the problems of shitty causal inferences that (c) reinforce naturalist assumptions dominant in the culture. And (d) please tell me that you don’t think the problem is that women can’t cut it. Because men like getting their work trashed? 

Or better: maybe if we had more women in place at various universities, you know, getting hired, as Saul suggests, we could find someone to head the BPA (male or female or non-normed gender) who can “easily imagine” ways to work for different modes of philosophizing, say, as head of something like the BPA.

Excuse my tone for this evening, but this is the kind of BS that shouldn’t stand. It’s the same excuse trotted out for why people of color don’t make it through. Now instead of asking—from what you can “easily imagine”—what a PhD student would be thinking, how about asking about a culture that needs to be changed so you can “easily imagine” this?

I was lucky: I graduated from DePaul University, and the year I came in was the year that Tina Chanter was hired there from Memphis. Now here’s what I can “easily imagine”: I took something like five courses from Chanter over a few years and, believe me, Chanter did not tread lightly on anyone and thus I could say that perhaps I could “easily imagine” “just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp,” to borrow from Beebee again. I could imagine what she would do with a claim like Beebee’s. (Which was good for me. I did a terrible Kristeva paper for her. She gave me great comments. Later I reworked it based on that and got a publication. And later, just to finish that story, she was a great help to me and others when I was on the job market; that is, she helped me get my job) But I also took classes with Peg Birmingham—quite a different personality from Chanter and doing different work, which means it’s not just about doing feminist philosophy—who served on my committee and has been crucial in my career. And with those two, along with so many others in the DePaul Department, we had a thriving, diverse, and, more crucially, intellectually vibrant grad community. So putting women in power—beyond whatever crying you might hear about identity politics—matters. Just look at the Collegium this year, which Peg headed up. 

Of course, we have to graduate female PhDs to get professors like Birmingham and Chanter and Goswami (thanks for serving on that Gilroy panel of mine this year!) and, what, five other professors at DePaul? If you don’t think it matters, compare this list (DePaul faculty ) with this list (alumni ) and this list (grad students ). Sure, it’s a woolly-headed Continental program. (What is woolly-headed anyway?) But then what needs to be answered is why a continental program can do this and an analytic philosophy program can’t. And yes, it’s one program. But maybe now it’s easier to imagine.


  1. The sciences, well, to be more exact, physics, chemistry, and math suffer from similar problems. A large number of women get BSs in those fields, and a large number of women start grad school in those fields. But after that, there is a large shift in the numbers. A lot don’t finish their PhDs, and those that do, there is a drop of those that go on to be university professors.

    That claim is not to justify our lack in philosophy departments, which is larger by far than most humanities programs. I am just adding it as more information. (Also, both philosophy programs at Binghamton have quite a few female grad students, and we also have a number of women in both departments who are in positions of authority in the programs.

    1. It’s called a glass ceiling. Though not all that “glass”, as we women can see it just fine. It’s the men who find the realization to be ohhhhhhh so mysterious and evasive.

      Interesting, right?

      Also, school is not the way to learn this stuff. Only the independent scholar will find the keys and break the codes. Yes math is encoded. The standard model is just a quilt of equations duct taped together.. Space is actually infinitely dense and chaotic…go on that.

  2. Not related to the matter of the post but I’m rather saddened that one of the highlights of my own undergraduate career in DePaul’s Philosophy program wasn’t the establishment of a particularly strong relationship with any one of the faculty. Only a few members are familiar with my name (really only Rottenberg, Kirkland [a recent hire], Krell [now retired], and Pellauer) and none are familiar with any of my most recent work.

    1. Yeah, that often happens as an undergraduate. I went to Stony Brook U. (then SUNY-Stony Brook) and I got to know a few faculty pretty well, and I’ve kept in touch with them easily since then. I don’t know if undergraduates at USD have any better experience–many majors probably pick one or two favorites and stick with them. I have a number of great students I’m proud to work with and see back in my classes, but my bet is that since they’re in my class, that means that they’re not able to take another and get to know professors better. But you know, it’s always worth dropping a hi to any of those profs. I’m sure they’d be glad to here from a former undergrad and you’ll be surprised at how much they remember–especially given the ones that you mentioned–about you and would like to hear about your work.

  3. I was in the non-traditional in the field computer programming/development (but not as non-traditional, I think, for Indian women, for some reason) before I returned to complete a masters in philosophy. I now work again for a large corporation. I still do some limited academic work, but I can’t speak for the atmosphere in philosophy depts. But I have noticed a marked difference in the style of employees, even at the executive level, at my company. Fewer women than men tend to speak up and participate in strenuous debates over the details of projects (which occur very often). I attribute my experiences in philosophy as that which has allowed me to contribute regularly to these discussions, and it’s a shame that the women seem less confident in presenting ideas, and more sensitive to possible criticism of the ideas. While these observations are limited, they lead me to think this issue of fewer women in philosophy is due to a lack of confidence in intellectual abilities that could be overcome with practice, exposure to philosophical styles of thinking, and willingness to let oneself ‘feel stupid’ in order to learn from one’s mistakes.

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