The case of McGinn's leaving Miami about sexually explicit e-mails to his female research assistant, and the many testimonies about sexual harassment on the What's it like to be a woman in philosophy blog make one think: is there more sexual harassment in philosophy than in other fields with a low ratio of women to men, such as say, economics, physics or mathematics? Jennifer Saul writes here:
I am firmly convinced that there are multiple factors involved in causing the under-representation of women, factors that interact with and compound each other. One important one is the likelihood that women in philosophy experience an unusually high level of sexual harassment. It is very hard to get good data, comparative or otherwise on prevalence of sexual harassment due to very low rates of official reporting. However, many have been shocked by the stories reported at What is it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy (beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com). As the editor of this blog, I have been even more shocked by the large number of cases I have been contacted about which never appeared on the blog due to fear of identification.
As far as I'm aware, there is no what's it like to be a woman in physics blog, but perhaps this is because there is no initiative for such a blog in physics, not because female physicists do not get harassed or discriminated. Perhaps there are fewer feminist physicists than feminist philosophers? Perhaps it takes feminist philosophers to start a blog like What's it like to be a woman in philosophy? If that is the case, sexual harassment might well be a significant contributing factor in many disciplines that have low percentages of women.
But alternatively, there might be reasons to assume that philosophy in particular has a problem, that, as Saul puts it "women in philosophy experience an unusually high level of sexual harassment." If this is the case (and - I want to stress - we don't know whether it is the case), what might be the causes?
- Moral self-licensing and the bias blind spot: philosophers are in the business of thinking deep thoughts, and thus might believe, erroneously, that they are less susceptible to biases and morally objectionable behavior. If anything, cognitively sophisticated individuals are more likely to be blind to their own prejudices and biases. Now, mathematicians and physicists are obviously smart as well, but their field is presumably more removed from the sorts of behaviors and prejudices that are detrimental to women in particular. Perhaps explicitly thinking about these things when engaged in philosophy makes philosophers more immune to thinking about these things in other contexts, e.g., in how they should behave towards colleagues and students. I've written about this topic here.
- The research topics of philosophy lead themselves more to sexual innuendos than research topics in fields like physics, economics and mathematics. While one could imagine a clever sexual sous-entendu around a mathematical theme, say topology, it seems that philosophy more directly engages with sexually explicit material, which might easily give rise to what some might regard as innocent banter but others perceive as uncomfortably explicit.
- The culture of aggressive and direct forms of interlocution in philosophy as opposed to other fields. A lot has been said on this topic, see for instance, here: philosophers place "a high premium on verbal sparring and cleverness", as Rebecca Kukla puts it. I do notice that Q&A in other fields I am familiar with, such as cognitive science, are often a lot more polite, indirect, and attempt to be more constructive. Perhaps it is difficult for philosophers to always draw the line between verbal sparring and cleverness and being insulting or insensitive.
I am not sure whether any of these factors can explain why philosophers would experience higher levels of sexual harassment than other fields. It would be interesting to hear from people in other fields with a low percentage of women to weigh in on this.