Academic Culture and the Climate for Women in Philosophy

Philosophy stands out in humanities as the lone field in which gender equality remains a goal, not a reality. In the August 10th article in the National Post, Philosophy gender war sparked by call for larger role for women, we can find at best a half-hearted attempt to think though this problem. This article purports to address the “gender war in philosophy,” but in reality amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to provide fodder for opponents of affirmative action, and spends the bulk of its words assessing Eric Schliesser’s and Mark Lance’s tactics. It is surprising that so little is said about the climate for women in philosophy since a general audience can be expected to be mostly, if not completely, ignorant of this problem. (More criticisms of the article here.)

As the article correctly pointed out, philosophy is a male dominated discipline. This is not news (see this article from The New York Times Blog, and for a variety of personal experiences check out this blog). There are significant and persistent questions of marginalization of women, the general status of women in the discipline, failures to challenge sexism and discrimination. All of these issues contribute to a complex and deeply problematic landscape, but one that is important to contextualizing call to boycott over at New APPS (which is not new). Given the complex and often local nature of the problems I just mentioned, there are not many visible, public, ways of developing solutions. Boycotting all male conferences, (more on the appropriateness question later), at least achieves these ends and forces the philosophical community to have a conversation that it should have been seriously engaging in decades ago.

Turning our attention back to the article, Kathryn Blaze Carlson, the author of the National Post article chose to focus on the following questions:
“And while outsiders might assume the move successfully quashed the controversy, the debate rages on in the global philosophy community and raises broader questions around affirmative action: Does this kind of boycott go too far? Is naming-and-shaming appropriate? Is it a man’s responsibility to fight what some say is a woman’s fight?”

A gendered response?

Let’s begin with the last question first: Is it a man’s responsibility to fight “a woman’s fight?” There is an important assumption locked into this question, and that is the assumption and subsequent reification of a gender binary in the context of this problem and its possible solutions. There are male philosophers and female philosophers, with responsibility lurking somewhere in the conceptual nexus, as suggested by the author. This is a key assumption to address because as soon as it is granted we have already set some key and problematic terms of the debate, especially as they relate to the nature of responsibility.

I would like to begin by suggesting that we ought to think of this problem on a communal and cultural level and not at the level of gender and individuals. Which is to say that before even seriously attempting to understand the problem, we ought not to assume that a response constructed within the bounds of gender is appropriate.

What is the problem?

It would be pseudo-rational to assume that there is an easy answer to this question. Of course, the gender imbalance in philosophy is the broad issue that we are concerning ourselves with. But, on the other hand, gender imbalance is something which is itself socially understood. We come to know it by studying society, or in this case, micro-segments in society. When is it asserted that women are not treated fairly, we point to things like high levels of discrimination and harassment, the wage gap, the disproportionate attention paid to male students, etc. This is to say that we make sense of the general phrase “gender imbalance” by pointing to concrete evidence.

But such studies only highlight effects, and not causes. And that’s a key point to recognize for it entails that we are not tracking causes, are not tracking the sources of the problems. This isn’t a failing of these studies. Rather, it’s the case that it is unclear how these problems emerge. On a large scale we can measure what I am here calling imbalance, but on the local level, how it emerges varies. Some people are straightforwardly biased, but most people aren’t.

I won’t pretend to know how aptly pick out the sources for gender imbalances in philosophy. But, I do want to argue that because we don’t know, it behooves us to think of the problem in a broad way, and to therefore frame the debate as one for which there are many kinds of solutions, some involving gender, some involving structural changes, some involving economic changes, some involving inter-personal changes, and some involving cultural changes.

Further, given that philosophy is a male dominated discipline, then men are required to contribute to the eventual solution of the problem. For without their involvement the majority of philosophers will not be involved in contributing to a possible solution or responsible for seeing it though. And if that were to be the case, then we can expect any attempt to deal with this problem to fail.

And regarding Professor Matthen’s response to Schliesser: It is absolutely his responsibility to care. His response, “[m]aybe X is thoughtless about gender issues, but is it up to me to quiz him (or her)?” seems to miss the point since responsibility is again parsed on an individual level. Not only does this seem to belie his assumptions, but he also—like the National Post author—artificially narrows the field of solutions. Why would it just be a speaker’s responsibility to care about gender issues? It seems to me that the onus of responsibility could easily be placed on conference organizers (to encourage women to attend, to develop, make available, and effectively implement policy on women’s participation) or the onus could fall on the community of philosophers as a whole (to demand such policies, to push for their adoption at large governing bodies such as the APA and the CPA). Matthen’s response is primarily concerned whether or not it is right to ask philosophers to “police” each other when there is no clear “fiduciary responsibility” of individual philosophers to just that. But the fact is that that kind of responsibility hardly exists in the philosophical community anyway, and this is especially true when it comes to women’s issues.

And, what’s more, the argument that Matthen gives (discouraging invited conference guests from inquiring about gender parity) strikes me as a misplaced concern. Matthen argues that such demands seek to limit the autonomy of conference organizers. For example, when the south was desegregating, the autonomy of white business owners was restricted. And when the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was

passed in the states, the autonomy of individuals was again restricted. But many of us support these measures because they help to create a more equitable, fair community. The question here should not be one of autonomy, it ought to be about the climate for women philosophers. Not only is that the point of the discussion at hand, but it is also the case that when new reforms are implemented they will in fact be implemented against the will of some members of a community. And the problem is even more pressing since the funding of many departments is tied to their undergraduate enrollment. If we cannot find some way of having this conversation, and of producing real solutions—one’s which extend beyond slaps on the wrist and sensitivity training—then our discipline is in more dire straits than we might realize.

The benefit of Schliesser’s and Lance’s tactics are that they are in fact calling for us to make the situation at all male conferences uncomfortable. And maybe it’s not fair, but at the same time, it’s hardly fair to women philosophers to continue this culture of doing nothing in the face of a clearly identified problem and to renounce responsibility when many of us are not only allowing it to continue, but are likely contributing to it. Applying negative pressure can bring attention to the problem, and unfortunately there are not many other options currently being seriously pursued. As a community we need to do something to bring about a serious discussion regarding how to begin addressing the problem and then follow through on solutions with teeth. I worry that by not focusing on the problem and instead wasting time debating which tactic is best, we may ultimately languor in the status quo.

So, I would like to point out what I think is obvious: That this article is fundamentally misleading (and perhaps even slants the view Matthen gives). It gives a cursory overview of the issue and devotes most of it’s attention to a discussion of “name-and-shame,” a topic to which I would now like to turn my attention.

Naming-and-shaming? Is this the appropriate response? Is it too harsh?

The tactic is appropriate, but I argue that its scope might be too narrow. The target of such an action could and should be broader, for it should not only identify those people who’s name lends credibility to male-only conferences, but also the organizing committee and the attendees. If responsibility is here functioning at the level of a community, we (either as organizers or as attendees) should all feel at least a little ashamed of ourselves for standing by and allowing the problem to persist.

There is no reason to err on the side of caution either. It is in the interest of woman to call these acts what they are, to point them out honestly, and to discuss them fairly (more on what I mean by that below). And what are they? The systematic continuation of an academic culture which is okay with the second-class status of women. And culture made up of philosophers who are happy to hide behind their own research when there is a role for everyone to play in improving the status of women. We should be bothered by all male conferences, especially when they are large well funded conferences. And we should not hesitate to point out those facts when they occur and we should be even less hesitant to seriously discuss the problem.

When is shaming appropriate or fair?

Throughout this piece I have gesturing at perhaps a more prudent way to organize this boycott.  And now I would like to finally elaborate on what that might look like.

1.) Precedent: What is the history of this conference regarding gender? Is it generally representative?
In order to begin to understand how this problem is occurring, we first need to begin to try to understand it in its local historical context. Is an all male line-up a one time occurrence? If so, perhaps the organizers are aware of the need for equal representation, but were unable to meet this requirement (more on this in the following points). If not, if unequal representation is a continual problem, then we must begin to ask how and why it’s been occurring for so long. Is the organizing body theoretically opposed to considering gender? Are they hostile to women in the field? Do they just not feel that they have any responsibility to care? And upon the answers to these questions, we can begin to organize a thoughtful, and forceful response in addition to a boycott.

2.) Selection: What’s the selection pool like? How many submissions did the conference have? Did woman apply?
This question is primarily included in my discussion in order to respond to the objection that I’ve heard many times: There was a small selection pool and an insufficient number of women applicants. However, I completely disagree with such suggestions. There are, if anything, too many philosophers. And there are too many truly gifted female graduate students for me to believe that not one would be qualified to speak on whatever topic. This event is even more unlikely to obtain when inviting speakers. But, it is ultimately an empirical question, so if evidence can be produced that such a situation occurred, then I would accept it. Personally, I have helped to plan conferences for which we had few female applicants, but even in that case, women have made the cut.

3.) Funding: What resources are available to the organizing committee? How easy would it be for them to bring in a woman speaker?
This is likely a problem for smaller conferences or for graduate student conferences. Perhaps there is a conference organized to promote a not very popular sub-field in philosophy. And, further, perhaps there is a woman who the conference organizers would like to invite, but they lack the funds to fly her from the west-coast to the east-coast, say. I’d like not to punish such small conferences, and further hurt their chances of gaining enough funding to invite such a speaker. But I think that there is a policy response to this as well. As most universities have caucuses and committees for women’s concerns, they could perhaps offer a grant application to smaller conferences that seek to invite such a speaker. Faculties could also provide money to ameliorate such concerns. Likewise with student organizations. But for conferences with a $100 registration fee, I find this excuse rather weak.

There are probably other qualifications that I could make, but these three seem to be the most likely to raise problems for an organizing committee.

It’s surely impossible to understand and accurately diagnose all of the problems that face women in philosophy. And I didn’t expect the National Post to go very far in contributing to that end. But, it was disheartening to read an article about “gender wars” spend so much time discussing tactics, and so little time discussing the problem. Perhaps then it should have been no surprise that this article stokes the fires of sexism in the comments that followed. But it was surprising. And depressing. Let’s not continue that trend in the philosophical community. Let’s turn our attention to the problem, discuss it fairly, call the gender issues what they are, and finally turn our attention to solutions.


By: Amy Wuest

Resident Member

Rotman Institute of Philosophy