Women and the Culture of Philosophy

19 October 2018

A report commissioned in 2008 by the Committee of Senior Academics Addressing the Status of Women in the Philosophy Profession examines an often neglected problem: the underrepresentation of women in philosophy.

The number of women in bachelor’s degrees majoring in philosophy in 2006 was 55 per cent. The percentage of these students who actually complete their degree is 40 per cent. By the time one gets to doctorate level, the figure is down to 38. At the University of Melbourne, currently only 26 per cent of postgraduate philosophy students are women.

Essentially, while many women enrol in philosophy, they drop out at high rates, and far more often than their male counterparts. Figuring out why is difficult; people hold widely varying perspectives on the causes and effects of the disparity. A third-year undergraduate student Farrago spoke with acknowledged that there is often a gender gap in classes, but doubted that the imbalance is all that harmful.

“If it was the case that there were less women, I never felt like I was in a minority in a class … Never have I felt not listened to.”

She said that while the imbalance is quite prominent, it is unclear what is causing it.

Dana Goswick, a lecturer in the philosophy department, expressed similar views.

“A gender imbalance exists. However, I am unsure what the causes of the gender imbalance are. I’m a female staff member teaching readings by female authors and I still have a large imbalance in my subjects, particularly at honours level. I believe that, if we want to understand specifically why female students at the University of Melbourne take such subjects less often than male students do, we need more empirical data specific to students at the University of Melbourne.” Goswick added that while a gender imbalance existed in the leadership structure of the University, she was unsure if students were aware of it.

“Obviously, if students aren’t aware of such hierarchical imbalances, it’s not influencing their subject and major choices,” she said.
This notion seems to be confirmed by the fact that while the representation of women among academic staff at universities appears to be slowly improving, there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of women staying in philosophy.

Explaining why so many women drop out from philosophy degrees is complex. While many structural problems exist that may contribute to this exodus, similar problems previously existed in other areas of study that have become much more balanced in representation. Why is philosophy so resistant to change?

An explanation often provided is that the method of philosophy often does not support the inclusion of minorities. It was in response to this problem that the Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) chapter was started at the University this year, a group aiming to examine and address the low participation of minorities in philosophy.

Farrago spoke with Antonia Smyth, a postgraduate student and secretary treasurer of the new chapter of MAP, about the issue. Many different explanations were given, but the overriding concern was participation.

Philosophy classrooms are focused on the discussion of ideas. Yet, even when women are present in the class, they often feel hesitant to voice their opinion. They may remain silent through the entire semester, not because they have nothing to say, but because they do not feel confident speaking.

Smyth blamed much of this reticence on how philosophy classes operate. While the ideal is a fruitful discussion of ideas, often it can break down into confrontational debate that is “more aggressive than collaborative”. This environment can be particularly difficult for women, who are often socialised to be more reserved, and to avoid speaking over others.

“It can require a lot of confidence to speak up in class and women might find it hard. A lot of women think they aren’t cut out for philosophy because they don’t feel sure of themselves when making their point,” she said.

But such rules of engagement are not just bad for women, they are bad pedagogy. Not giving people time to formulate their response, not trying to accurately characterise an opponent’s views and not having everyone contribute equally is all to the detriment of intellectual discovery.

For thousands of years, reasoned debate has functioned as a great tool for advancing human knowledge and understanding. For much of that time, however, it was thought to be solely the preserve of educated men.

The idea that men are the only group capable of intellectual discourse has unduly restricted much of philosophy to a single parochial perspective. It is a view that is now rightly seen as outmoded and erroneous. Perhaps it is time to recognise that to fully accommodate marginalised perspectives we must change how philosophy itself operates.

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