By now, it is no news to the readers of this blog that I (among many other people) worry about the gender imbalance among professional philosophers. In several fora, and notably in the Feminist Philosophers blog, we try both to unearth the causes of imbalance, and to figure out measures that might be effective in countering it. Usually, it is features of how the profession is organized that come to the fore, in particular the possible effects of implicit biases and stereotypes. But today, I would like to outline domestic factors that may be contributing to the situation of imbalance. Lest anyone should think otherwise, I am *not* claiming that the domestic factors I will be discussing here are more significant and have more impact than the institutional factors that are usually discussed; I am also not suggesting that nothing should be done on the institutional front as long as the domestic aspects involved in gender imbalance are not redressed. But I think that, if we really want to understand what is going on, we need to look at the situation globally (I am with Eric Schliesser in disliking mono-causal explanations for social phenomena).
Actually, it was upon reading Cordelia Fine’s wonderful book that some of the vague intuitions I had on what seems to be happening on the domestic front became substantiated by her informed analysis. So let me discuss two aspects specifically, namely women’s presence at conferences, and their willingness to relocate so as to take up new jobs (the second point will be discussed in a next installment). (Also, let me add the proviso that my comments below apply mainly to heterosexual couples in a stable relationship, in particular those with children. While this is of course not the situation of many female philosophers, I take it that the proportion of women in this situation is sufficiently high for the observations here to apply to a significant number of them.)
Women’s presence at conferences. You’ve probably all heard of the ‘Gendered Conference Campaign’, which is based on the observations that implicit biases may be involved in the fact that women are (presumably) less often invited to be (keynote) speakers at conferences, and that a small number of female keynote speakers reinforces the stereotype of a philosopher as a (white) male individual. Recently, when confronted with the fact that their conferences have a 100% (or nearly 100%) male lineup of speakers, many conference organizers claim to have invited female speakers, who then declined the invitation. This raises the question: are women more likely to decline invitations to attend conferences? Some say this is not their experience, but I must say that I do recognize this pattern in the events that I organize. There are several possible reasons why women may be more likely to decline such invitations, such as: the few female ‘big names’ in a given area are overwhelmed by the number of invitations they receive (now that having a 100% male lineup of speakers is becoming less socially acceptable); women are simply too caught up in domestic endeavors, and thus cannot easily make the necessary arrangements for even a short absence from home.
Let me focus on the second possible reason, which applies in particular to women with children. Indeed, I have heard of many talented female philosophers that they did not travel *at all* for conferences or otherwise while their children were still young (what counts as ‘young’ is of course highly relative). Interestingly, in chap. 8 of ‘Delusions of Gender’, Cordelia Fine reports on a study of faculty at the University of California, which revealed that female faculty with children reported “working fifty-one hours a week at their jobs and another fifty-one hours a week doing housework and childcare – that’s a 102-hour week, accounting for more than fourteen hours per day. […] Faculty fathers, by contrast, put in only thirty-two unpaid work hours a week.” (p. 92/3) No wonder that these women cannot be absent for a few days for conferences and other work-related trips: they are responsible for the largest chunk of the domestic endeavors, and the general perception is that things would simply just fall apart if they are not there. Chaps. 7 and 8 offer additional data on how gender equality on the domestic front is still far from being a reality.
In one of the discussions at the Feminist Philosophers blog (I can’t quite remember which one), it was suggested at some point that the fact that conference attendance plays such an important role in the development of one’s career in philosophy (networking, visibility etc.) already introduces a bias against women in the profession, insofar as they simply cannot afford to travel as much as men. Some people suggested that there should be more online conferences and other arrangements that wouldn’t require the physical presence of participants, so as to compensate for the bias. When I read that discussion, it just did not sound right to me. I thought to myself: rather than resigning yourself to the fact that women cannot afford to travel as much as men, wouldn’t it be better to create situations of better gender balance on the domestic front, so that women would be able to travel to conferences and other events on a regular basis? Recently, some conferences have been offering childcare possibilities, which is a great idea of course. But other than that, isn’t it a matter of making different arrangements with your partner, so that you can be absent for a couple of days? (Of course, this does not apply straightforwardly to single parents, both male and female.) In other words, it is at least to some extent a matter of how things are organized and negotiated on the domestic front too. On a personal note, I can say that, when I started traveling regularly to attend conferences again (once my children were sufficiently ‘old’), this was a major boost for their relationship with my husband (their father). When I’m around, the natural tendency is to rely on mommy to solve all the issues; but if I am not there, they have to figure things out all together (father and children), and this turned out to be a great incentive for their intimacy.
In sum, I concur that attending conferences and other academic events is an important part of the profession, and that it is generally more difficult for women to be away from home for this purpose. But it need not be so; women can and should negotiate things with their partners so as to be able to be away for a few days. I can speak from experience that things do not fall apart when I’m not there… And for the men reading this, maybe it is time to think about how things can be organized so that your female partner can travel for work on a regular basis? As the title of Chap. 7 of Cordelia Fine’s book has it, “Gender equality begins (or ends) at home”.