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06 May 2011


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Helen De Cruz

Interesting graph, Catarina. To understand the causes for this, it might be interesting to consider qualitative data. My sister is working on a PhD in theoretical medium energy physics, a very male-oriented department. But (and I must say this to my chagrin, as our profession does not come out very favorably), at her department they are putting a lot of effort to attract more women in their PhD program, and to keep women in afterwards.
My sister was approached by her advisor after he read (and was impressed) by her master's thesis. He has encouraged her to try to get more women undergraduates to continue working in the field because (his words) "we need qualified people for our discipline, and if we lose the women, we lose half of our potential brilliant candidates already on beforehand". In this department, they recently hired a woman (mother of, I think, three children, and former postdoc) as a permanent professor. I expect that the graph on the picture will change dramatically over the next few years for physics, but alas, I fear not for philosophy.
In my own department, the number of women working on a PhD, the number of postdocs, and the number of women professors has even gone down compared to 2008. We are not putting enough effort into it. We are losing women because of the perceived maleness of the discipline. I am the only of two (untenured and non-tenure track) female postdocs who lecture to undergraduates. This provides little incentive to my female undergraduates to pursue a career in philosophy.
To give another example: I have a lot of friends in developmental psychology, a field where the most notorious shapers of the field are women (think of Liz Spelke, Deborah Kelemen, Renée Baillargeon etc., etc.). There are a lot of female doctoral students in this field. One PhD student in developmental psychology told me "I was doubting between experimental and developmental psychology, but I chose developmental, because I feel that in this field, women can really advance". This, according to me, is the bottom line. More visibility of women as lecturers, or as role models in general, is absolutely essential. Without this, we will continue to lose half of the qualified candidates.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

Great points, Helen, thanks! I am myself also thoroughly convinced that it's crucial to offer exposure to positive role models so as to let women feel 'at home' in a given area. As an undergrad in Brazil, about half of my professors were women, which certainly had a very good impact on me. Your department is a particularly bad example: there simply are NO tenured female faculty, as far as I remember.
And it's only with a conscious effort, such as what you describe in physics, that we may be able to counter the vicious circle of women leaving the field, which then means that students are not exposed to female role models, which again means they will be likely to leave the field etc etc.

Eric Schliesser

Helen's department will soon have one tenured female professor. But the point still stands!
It would be nice to have some such data for the low countries, too. Not sure philosophy even attains the (dismal) US numbers.
The comparison with economics is useful (and sobering) because that is a discipline that also has a very aggressive public culture. (There folk often start 'shooting at' a speaker after the first or second slide!)

David Wallace

What I find interesting about the graph is that across academia as a whole - at PhD level, at any case - the overall field is nearly balanced (53-47 male/female). And so, unsurprisingly, we find subjects that are about as uneven female/male as philosophy is male/female: psychology appears to be 72-28 female/male.

So: ought we to be concerned about gender imbalance in philosophy because it's per se a bad thing (in which case presumably psychology should be equally worried about underrepresentation of men)? Or is it rather that we have grounds to think that the underrepresentation of women at PhD level is at least partially due to independently bad features of philosophy as an academic environment (e.g. sexual harassment), whereas the imbalance in psychology just reflects preferences? Or is it that the real problem is a much more extreme inequality at higher levels (and the suspicion, as mentioned in Catarina's post, is that the graph would move systematically to the left as one went from PhDs to tenure-track to tenure)?

(I've phrased that as a set of questions, but it's more an attempt to think about the framework of the discussion, not something that I think anyone has to give a definitive answer to!)

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

David, here's a first stab at an answer. I tend to think that gender imbalance in either direction is a sign that something's 'wrong', and the possible reasons why more women go into psychology (I think at the undergrad level it's something like 90% in some places), which then translates into more women with PhDs, are very similar to the reasons why they don't go into physics or don't stay in philosophy. The stereotype of women as 'caring' individuals seem to be one of the factors why they are over-represented in 'caring' professions, such as among nurses or psychologists. But by the same token, given that a research career is less about caring for others than, say, clinical psychology, it wouldn't be surprising that many of the women psychologists then go on to work with something else. (And please don't get me wrong, I'm all for caring! I consider myself to be a rather caring person, and certainly don't intend to change that about my personality.)

In fact, it may well be that some men would like to go into these 'female' professions, and yet end up not doing it because it doesn't fit the stereotype of what a man should be doing. This is equally deplorable, and in fact men who don't conform to certain standards of maleness tend to have a much harder time than women who don't conform to certain standards of femaleness (just think of the difference in connotation between 'tomboy' and 'sissy'...)

So there is a sense in which it's all part of the same story, of a cultural construction of gender roles and gender identity which ultimately often prevents individuals from making the choices they might otherwise want to make.

Margaret Atherton

Explanations for gender imbalances based on gender stereotypes are extremely popular (philosophers are battle-ready! english professors are empathetic!) but so far as I know, more anecdotal than based on hard evidence, which is still lacking. In the interesting graph above, I call attention to neuroscience and molecular biology which don't display obvious gender cues but which have crept up over the 50% mark for women. In the past, people have talked about a critical mass, generally somewhere over 30% which allows the minority gender to flourish, and there may be something like a tipping point too, as in neighborhoods, after which the previous majority gender starts to flee. But it does seem as though what seems to make the difference is concerted efforts to recruit women, not altering the way disciplines are practiced, although, as the work of my colleague Nadya Fouad on why women leave engineering suggests, if, once the women are recruited, they encounter a hostile climate, they are more likely to leave.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

I didn't mean to suggest an explanation in terms of 'male' and 'female' archetypes, but rather something along the lines of the 'critical mass' hypothesis, including a considerable degree of plasticity in the 'construction of gender roles' (possibly, with quite some variation in e.g. different places). The key thing is to have enough people around who don't fit the implicit association of, e.g. a philosopher as a white male, for the association to become less prevalent.

I certainly don't buy the explanation of women not going into philosophy because of the 'confrontational' aspect of the discipline. But I do think it is interesting to notice that in psychology, for example, there is a steady decay in the proportion of women as people move up in the career, which certainly cannot be explained in terms of the 'minority' hypothesis (since even at the PhD level women are the majority). I'd be curious to see more precise data on this, if anyone has some to offer.

Margaret Atherton

With respect to your last point, doesn't the percentage of women in the higher ranks of psychology reflect the size of the pool when those women entered the profession? It does seem that even disciplines that are leaning heavily women in the percentage of the new PHD pools, like English, still have very heavily male departments because of the larger number of men at the higher ranks. But maybe I am missing your point? Are you talking about a steady drop-off in the number of women who stay in the profession?

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

Yes, that was my understanding from informal conversation with psychologists, i.e. a steady drop-off of women following the academic path (especially as psychology has many more prospects to offer outside academia than philosophy). But as I said, I'd be interested to see actual data on academic psychology, rather than relying on what I heard in conversation only.

Troy Camplin

I'm appalled at the gender disparity among English Ph.D.'s. `

I mean, yes, there is a gender disparity. Short of affirmative action, though, what is to be done? Is there something that attracts women to subjects other than philosophy? Perhaps subjects not unrelated to philosophy? (English/literary theory, women's studies, and psychology all come to mind.)

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