“This post presents a video and transcript by philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, originally posted on her YouTube channel “The Factual Feminist”. Because this episode deals with issues of diversity in the academy and presents arguments and data relevant to many academic fields, we have retained permission to reblog it for the Heterodox Academy audience.” – Jonathan Haidt


Does Philosophy Have a Woman Problem?

By Christina Hoff Sommers

In 2014, women earned 28% of the PhDs in philosophy. By contrast, they earned close to 60% in English, anthropology, and sociology—and 75% in psychology. When it comes to gender, philosophy looks more like math and physics. What explains the numbers?

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A group of feminist philosophers is persuaded it knows the answer: Women are kept away by sexism, both overt and unconscious. These philosophers have ascended to power in the American Philosophical Association (APA) and are hard at work addressing the alleged crisis. In the past few years, there has been a surge of alarmist articles, blogs, and conferences on the precarious state of women in philosophy. There is even a song! Anyone who is concerned about the current state of academia should be troubled. Academic philosophy prides itself on logic and analytical rigor, but the women-in-philosophy movement appears to prefer dogma and pop-psychology.

In 2008, MIT feminist philosopher Sally Haslanger published a cri de coeur in an academic journal lamenting that philosophy is combative, judgmental, and “hyper-masculine.” Now, I was a philosopher. My husband was a philosopher. My stepson is a philosopher. I’ve been around a lot of philosophers. They are many things—“hyper-masculine” isn’t one of them.

Nonetheless, Haslanger was passionate—actually combative.  She attacked analytic philosophy for favoring masculine terms such as “penetrating,” “seminal,” and “rigorous.” And she spoke of the “deep well of rage” inside her—rage over how she and others have been treated. Haslanger called on “established feminists,” to organize and resist “the masculinization of philosophy spaces.”

Haslanger expected a backlash. Instead she ignited a hostile takeover. By 2013, she attained a top position in the American Philosophical Association, and wrote in the New York Times that her group’s “persistent activism . . . is becoming institutionalized.” Her article ended with these words: “We are the winning side now. We will not relent; so it is only a matter of time.”

picture2But Haslanger’s winning side is based on a double standard. It treats the gender disparity in philosophy as self-evidently wrong—even “tragic,” according to Yale philosopher Joshua Knobe. But much larger disparities that favor women, in fields like sociology, anthropology, psychology and veterinary medicine, are ignored. If disciplines with more men are ipso facto unjust, then how can fields with more women be acceptable? To be consistent, activists should be calling for gender parity across the curriculum. APA-sponsored posters with the word PhilosopHER are turning up in philosophy departments. Perhaps psychology and anthropology departments should have posters with the words PsychoBROS or Anthropolo-HE.

The movement also ignores the finding—consistently documented by a large empirical literature—that, on average, men have stronger interests in investigative and theoretical pursuits and women stronger preferences for social and artistic pursuits. One especially interesting study tracked the career choices of child prodigies with IQs in the top one or two percent of the population. Among these gifted children, most went on to pursue advanced degrees—but the boys tended to pursue different kinds of degrees, mostly in math and science, than the girls, who tended to opt for fields with less abstraction and more of a human dimension, like psychology and medicine. These are just group tendencies of course, and we should be careful not to over-generalize, but they are pronounced and persistent. The research helps explain why different fields show different proportions of men and women—as in these numbers for undergraduate majors in the Princeton class of 2016:

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Although philosophy is grouped in the humanities, the field has strong affinities with math and science. It is no coincidence that many great philosophers were also mathematicians, e.g. Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Rene Descartes.  Tradition has it that visitors to Plato’s Academy were warned: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” There are formidable women among the great analytic philosophers—Elizabeth Anscombe and Ruth Barcan Marcus, for example—but they are fewer in number.. My friend Camille Paglia was characteristically astringent when she said: “It’s not that women lack the talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated.”

Yet when The New York Times invited five feminist philosophers to discuss the gender gap in 2013, not one even entertained the possibility that women might tend to find other subjects more interesting. Instead, the group talked exclusively about things like male privilege, harassment, and stereotypes. But plenty of other fields in which women are now outperforming men once had stereotypes and harassment. If these weren’t barriers to women elsewhere, why is philosophy different?

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The philosopher Louise Anthony did try to give an answer. She suggests the field of philosophy is uniquely resistant to gender reform. Problems like stereotypes and male privilege combine and reinforce one another in uniquely powerful ways, creating what she calls a “perfect storm” of bias. She says, for example, that philosophers think of themselves as smarter than others and less vulnerable to confused thinking. This makes them especially resistant to correcting their unconscious biases about women. But she offers no evidence that philosophers are more or prone to feelings of superiority or infallibility than, say, professors of French literature.

Anthony’s other arguments are similarly impressionistic. She notes that female faculty often take on more service work, such as organizing events and attending ceremonies, because of stereotypes of women as domestic. But, according to Antony, women in philosophy pay a higher price for such “departmental housework” because philosophers hold themselves “especially aloof” from this sort of work and “even look vaguely askance at those of their colleagues who do it.” For evidence, she cites her personal experience as a professor. As long as that is the evidentiary standard here, I must say, as a former philosophy professor, I never noticed this aloofness in my male colleagues. In fact, a few of them wanted careers in college administration—and they, bless them, did most of the “housework.” The “perfect storm” hypothesis is a possibility, but Antony’s impressions do not come close to proving it.

Let us turn from anecdote and psychologizing and consider a few facts.

First: It makes sense that women received only 28% of the philosophy PhDs in 2014, because in the same year they received only 29% of undergraduate degrees in philosophy. Why so few female majors? To find out, Australian researchers conducted a survey of students in the most popular introductory philosophy class at the University of Sydney. The female students were less likely to pursue philosophy than the men, but not because they were put off by the argumentative style. Rather, it was because they were less interested in the field—from the start. This didn’t change when a professor focused on women in the coursework and always used female pronouns.

Second: Philosophy departments are not biased against women in hiring. There may be fewer women interested enough in philosophy to pursue it as a career, but those who do are more likely to get hired. According to a study by the APA, between 2012 and 2015, other things being equal, female PhDs were 65% more likely than men to find a permanent academic job within two years of graduating.

And look at the APA itself. Over the past 5 years, more than half of its divisional presidents have been women. For 2016—women hold all the top positions! It is difficult to see how a profession that hires women at a higher rate than men and awards them its top leadership positions is rigged against women.

Without pushback, this movement could mire academic philosophy in divisive gender politics for years—and actually scare women away. The way they describe philosophy—hyper-masculine, unsupportive, filling women with rage—why would any woman want to enter such a field?

In my senior year of high school, my mother gave me Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I relished that book. It was written by a man, and it was about men—Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Nietzsche. But I thought it was written for me. I wasn’t aware I had entered an unsafe hyper-masculine space—to me it felt like a sacred space. I pursued a BA and PhD in philosophy and taught it for more than 20 years. It never crossed my mind, in high school or as my academic career progressed, that I would be unwelcome because I was a woman. There were some unsavory characters along the way, but the vast majority of my professors and colleagues were supportive and encouraging. I am glad that today’s grievance blogs, alarmist theories, and angry tirades weren’t around back then to discourage me—and sorry to think of their influence today on young women who are drawn to this great and difficult calling.