Sunday, October 10, 2010

REPOST: Picking A Fight... Like A Girl

[NOTE: This is a post that was originally published on this blog a year ago (10/08/09), which I am re-posting now because of recent interest in the newly-developed and eminently revealing What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? blog. It is interesting to me to see this issue resurface with such force a year after I originally addressed it here. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, I suppose.]

The interwebs are all a-buzz right now about women in philosophy. Wait, correction: they're all a-buzz about the LACK OF women in philosophy.

An article by Brooke Lewis in The Philosopher's Magazine entitled "Where are all the women?" confirms what just about anybody could have guessed: Philosophy departments in the U.S. and U.K. trail FAR behind the other humanities in female faculty. Brian Leiter picked up the story on his philosophy blog (here and here), and the SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) list-serv has been on fire with the topic. One suggestion, present in the original article and repeated endlessly in the commentaries on it, is that the discipline of Philosophy has an intrinsically "masculine"-- i.e., agressive and argumentative-- culture, which is ill-suited and off-putting to many women. This is the explanation for why, despite the fact that almost equal numbers of men and women graduate with B.A.'s in Philosophy, the number of women drops off dramatically at the M.A. level, and even more dramatically at the Ph.D. level. At present, only about 1 in 5 full-time professors of Philosophy are women, meaning that it is not only possible, but very likely, that if you are an employed female philosopher, you could be the only one in your department. (That's the situation in my department, for example.) The knee-jerk explanation showing up all over the place goes something like this: Philosophy is rigorous and demanding, not soft and womanish, so it's not surprising that the ladies can't hack it.


A part of me feels like this is not even worth entertaining, but since I've somehow managed to make it through the professional-training-in-verbal-sparring gauntlet and thus proven that I ain't skeered of an argument, here are a few retorts:

(1) Philosophy, as a discipline and as an intellectual practice, is not "intrinsically" argumentative and aggressive. That's just one way of doing philosophy-- a way that has its virtues and its vices. It's not the only way of doing philosophy and it's not always even the best way of doing philosophy.

(2) The argument that women are less inclined to engage in argumentative and aggressive scholarship than men, that they are turned-off by rigorous and demanding intellectual exercise, and that they don't possess the "natural" aptitude for philosophy depends, of course, on an essentialist account of gender-determined affects and abilities that has absolutely no reasonable or scientific basis. Women flourish in plenty of other disciplines that could be characterized in the same way as Philosophy-- law, the "hard" sciences, and almost all of the other humanities. Surely, we don't want to say that those are all "soft" disciplines. Seriously.

(3) The discipline of Philosophy DOES, however, have a protracted and sedimented institutional culture. That culture includes-- along with actual and explicit sexist prejudices-- a kind of default devaluation of women's thought and abilities and a gross underrrepresentation of women who might correct that devaluation. If you're color-blind, you can't complain that the world isn't popping and sparkling with more color.

(4) The characterization of Philosophy that we see in these apologetics is more indicative of how (particularly male, "analytic") philosophers WANT to see themselves and their work than it is of women's aptitude or inclinations. So, the more felicitous question to ask would be: why are we so invested in seeing "Philosophy" this way?

I feel very fortunate to work in a department with enlightened and progressive-thinking male colleagues, but I know that many of our conversations would be VERY different if I weren't the sole representative of my gender-group. I also know, though, that my own disposition and personality tend toward the kind of Type-A characterization of Philosophy that many men want to preserve. (I can be, admittedly, "agressive and argumentative," to put it mildly.) But I would hope, and I think my colleagues would also hope, that philosophers would be attuned enough to the complex operations of social constructions to realize that what we see in the recent spate of articles on gender disparity in Philosophy is not only a red herring, but a terribly unreasonable and uncritical account of an relatively easily-explainable phenomenon.

[Unfortunately, I am not able to repost readers' comments to the first iteration of this post. If you're interested to see them, go here.]


anotherpanacea said...

The fact that philosophy has managed to stay as misogynist as the blog (and my own experience) demonstrates isn't necessarily the cause of women avoiding philosophy. In fact, I think it's an effect of women pursuing other fields and leaving male philosophers to waste their time wondering about the sorites paradox.

I mean this seriously: maybe philosophy isn't really rigorous and demanding enough for most of the women considering going to graduate school? It strikes me that women are now getting more PhDs than men, so they're flourishing elsewhere.

Part of the decision for a lot of undergraduate women I've met seems like it's, "Why bother with philosophy?" That's why it's incumbent on both men and women in philosophy to return the discipline to relevance. Otherwise, Howard University won't be the last to simply dissolve its philosophy department.

DOCTOR J said...

First of all: Please, PLEASE, readers of this blog, write an email in support of !

Second: Although I kind of, in part at least, agree with AnPan about the reasons that female undergraduates may decide against Philosophy, the statistics show that the undergraduate-to-graduate moment is not really the site of the most gross gender disparity. There are almost equal numbers of female and male B.A.'s in philosophy, and only a slightly greater number of male than female M.A.'s in philosophy. The GREATEST disparity is evidenced at the two levels that make the most difference in the profession: namely, the ratio of male-to-female PhD's and the ratio of male-to-female employed, tenured or tenure-track philosophers. So, although I do think there is ample reason for undergraduate women to decide against Philosophy at the get-go, I'm much more concerned about a discipline that somehow manages to weed out SO many women who have already chosen it (against all odds!).

And, at least for those of us who have stuck around, I'm not satisfied with saying "well, at least the women are flourishing elsewhere." Because, as I tried to elucidate in this post, the translation of that among professional philosophers is (regrattably) not "our loss!," but rather "I guess they're better off elsewhere." Sigh.

DOCTOR J said...

Sorry for the truncated Point 1 above: Support Howard University Philosophy, I meant to say.

anotherpanacea said...

Very good points, Dr. J. Do you know why it is that women aren't finishing their PhDs in equal numbers with men?

The point I was trying to make is that women have chosen not to face misogyny in philosophy, and have instead turned to other disciplines. There's a serious brain-drain to the social sciences and law, which are our competitors for talented scholars and teachers, and women with MAs in philosophy can get into the top law schools and make six figures without jumping through any tenure hoops. They'll still face misogyny in law firms, but it's more manageable precisely because women aren't so much of a minority. That's not the same thing as saying "well, at least they're flourishing elsewhere." I'm saying, "Hey, women are flourishing everywhere but here, even in the face of intellectual rigor, demanding workloads, and stupid boys clubs. What are we doing wrong that those other fields got right?"