Women in Philosophy: What’s Changed?

Helen Beebee looks back on the last ten years.

Ten years ago, Jenny Saul and I – as Directors of the Society for Women in Philosophy (UK) and the British Philosophical Association respectively – wrote a report, Women in Philosophy in the UK. We wrote it because anyone with a cursory acquaintance with UK philosophy departments could see that at graduate student and staff levels women were woefully underrepresented, and yet the situation was one that most philosophers either seemed not to have noticed or else had noticed but were uninterested in addressing – or indeed even talking about. We thought the time had come to do something about that.

The report presented some statistics, which didn’t make for pretty reading. On the basis of a large-scale survey of philosophy departments we discovered that, while some 44% of undergraduate philosophy students were women, the numbers rapidly declined – to 33% at Master’s level, 31% at PhD level, 26% at permanent lecturer level and just 19% at professorial level. We floated some potential explanations for why women were leaving the profession at such an alarming rate – implicit bias, stereotype threat, sexual harassment – and briefly explained why these barriers to women’s participation was unfair. And we made some suggestions for addressing the situation: better representation of women on reading lists, websites, conference speakers and hiring panels, more use of anonymous procedures in student admissions and assessment, provision of childcare at conferences, and so on.

One positive change that’s happened in the last ten years is that all of this is now old hat. That women are significantly underrepresented is pretty much universally known; and that it is a problem, rather than merely a fact,is (to most people) not a claim that needs to be justified. And very many of the suggestions we made are now both widely implemented by individuals and widely enshrined in departmental policies and practices. (We followed up the report with the BPA/SWIP “Good Practice Scheme”, launched in 2014, to which some 28 UK departments and 13 learned societies currently subscribe. We like to think that this has helped to provide both a framework and an incentive for departments to think about how to address the problem.)

Of course, we can’t take all the credit for kick-starting those change – or the other positive changes that I’ll talk about in due course – because another thing that’s happened in the last ten years is a massive increase in the amount of attention that’s been given to issues surrounding diversity and inclusion more broadly: by the media, by universities, by the government, and so on. To name a few: the #MeToo movement became a major focus of activism and media attention in 2017. Students and students’ unions have become much more vocal about – and the media has started to pay attention to – sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus. The many and various ways in which women are victims of discrimination and harassment have been brought to a wider audience through Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project, and books such as her Everyday Sexism and Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. In 2017, the government brought in legislation requiring employers with more than 250 employees to report annually on the gender pay gap. A light has been shone on the racism that permeates British society – and universities in particular – by high-profile activism and campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter and the National Union of Students’ Decolonise Education campaign, as well as widespread media reporting of campus incidents. Same-sex marriage was introduced in 2014. And so on.

One upshot of all of this is that – whether merely as an attempt to minimise bad press or for more noble aims, or both – universities have started to take equality, diversity and inclusion (“EDI”) much more seriously. Unconscious bias, consent and bystander training for students and staff are now widespread rather than unheard-of. In 2016, Universities UK produced a report, Changing the Culture, on campus violence against women, harassment and hate crimes, with a range of recommendations. Universities’ senior leadership teams increasingly include a senior academic – sometimes at Pro-Vice Chancellor level – with responsibility for EDI. AdvanceHE’s Athena SWAN scheme, introduced in 2005 to address the underrepresentation of women in university science, technology, engineering and medicine, was rolled out to include all academic disciplines in 2015. Some (though not many) universities have taken dramatic steps to reduce the gender pay gap; for example, in 2016 Essex removed the pay gap between male and female professors by simply giving all their female professors a one-off pay rise. Turns out some supposedly hard problems are in fact easy to solve: you just need to choose the easy solution.

(I am not meaning to suggest that absolutely everything has got better on the equality and diversity front in the last ten years. That definitely wouldn’t be true. I’m just focusing on the positives.)

But let’s get back to philosophy – and women – in particular. In many ways, of course – philosophers are just people, after all; philosophy students are just students; and philosophy departments are just academic departments – you’d expect the obstacles to gender equality in philosophy to be pretty much the same as those facing wider society in general and universities in particular. Doubtless that’s true to an extent. For example, there’s no reason to think that sexual harassment is any more of a problem in philosophy than it is in any other male-dominated discipline; hence institution-wide approaches, if they work in general, ought to work in philosophy in particular. But even where a problem isn’t distinctively a problem for philosophy, it doesn’t follow that we can just leave the problem to Them Upstairs to sort out. If one of your students is sexually harassed by a delegate at your conference, then that’s your problem. Are there steps you or your department could have taken that would have made it not happen? And, now that it has happened, what have you done to maximise the chances that she will report it, and that – having reported it – it’s dealt with appropriately?

In many respects, though, philosophy does have its own distinctive constellation of features that make the underrepresentation of women more of a problem than it is in, say, linguistics or history or psychology, where women are much better represented. And, while it may not be more of a problem in philosophy than it is in, say, maths or engineering, the reasons why it’s a problem in philosophy might differ from the reasons in those other disciplines – and hence the solutions might be different too.

Fortunately, another thing that’s changed in the last ten years is that there has been an explosion of interest in just this question. And not just an explosion of interest, but also a dramatic shift in the willingness of journal editors and referees and academic publishers to publish research on it. For example, there have been large-scale empirical studies of philosophy undergraduates (though sadly none that I know of in the UK) and detailed analysis of their results, trying to understand why female students in the US and Australia taking introductory philosophy courses are less likely than their male counterparts to go on and study philosophy as their major (in the US) or at Honours level (in Australia). Unfortunately, results so far haven’t thrown up much by way of clear answers – but it’s early days, and there is much to be learned from the existing studies about which areas might be probed further and how one might design and carry out surveys which will do that. There has also been research on, for example, citation rates in philosophy (e.g. does work by men tend to get cited more often than work by women?), and acceptance and publication rates in philosophy journals. (Women are even worse represented amongst papers published by the major international general philosophy journals than they are amongst permanent philosophy staff. Is that because they are submitting fewer papers to these journals, or because the journals are rejecting more of their work? And – in either case – why might that be?)

My favourite piece of empirical research to date is by Sarah Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer and Edward Freedland in the US. They designed a survey aimed at eliciting what they call “field-specific ability beliefs”: beliefs about the extent to which “fixed, innate talent” is required in order to be successful in different disciplines. The survey measured this by asking academics (in discipline X) to rate their level of agreement with statements such as “Being a top scholar of X requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught,” and “If you want to succeed in X, hard work alone just won’t cut it; you need to have an innate gift or talent.” And then they correlated the results of the survey, for each discipline, with the percentage of PhD students in that discipline who are women.

So: think about what the resulting graph might look like. On the y-axis you have the percentage of PhD students in discipline X who are women (low at the bottom, high at the top). On the x-axis you have the extent (low on the left, high on the right) to which X-academics think that innate talent is required to succeed in X – that is, the strength, within discipline X, of field-specific ability beliefs about X. So each discipline gets its own point on the graph – e.g. strength of field-specific ability beliefs about linguistics on the x-axis; % of PhD students in linguistics who are women on the y-axis. And then you can draw a line of best fit that shows, very roughly, how – across all the disciplines – strength of field-specific ability beliefs correlates with how well represented women are amongst PhD students.

Done that? Good. Here are two questions for you. First, what does that line of best fit look like? I’ve asked groups of first-year undergraduates this question, and students who volunteer an answer have never got this one wrong: the line slopes from the top left to the bottom right. In other words: stronger field-specific ability beliefs correlate with lower representation of women.

Second question: in which disciplines do people have the strongest field-specific ability beliefs (again, about their own discipline)? Students who have volunteered answers to this question tend to be in the right ballpark. They tend to say: physics, maths, engineering, computer science and ... well, philosophy. Though it may be that they say “philosophy” only because they’re being asked the question by a philosopher, in the context of a presentation on gender equality, and they rightly surmise that I’m asking them the question in order to make some sort of point.

As I say, that answer’s in the right ballpark – but in fact the results are startling. Physics scored roughly the same as music composition, and not much higher than English literature, classics and economics. Maths is a fair bit further over to the right of (so: stronger field-specific ability beliefs than) physics. And then – way over to the right, further away from maths than maths is to all the other disciplines – is ... you guessed it: philosophy.

Well now. I think that’s a very interesting result. And, while I’m well aware that we should be very careful about inferring causation from statistical correlation, I’m going to go right ahead and do it anyway. Somehow or other, believing – and/or being surrounded by folk who believe – that being good at philosophy requires you to be innately brilliant at it is not conducive to women sticking around. Let’s just suppose I’m right. (Though of course that’s not to rule out the existence of lots of other causes of women’s underrepresentation as well.) That presents quite a lot of potential ways of addressing the underrepresentation problem when it comes to encouraging female undergraduates to keep on going – but I’ll leave it to you to think about what those ways might be, if you’re interested.

So much for empirical research. There’s also been a lot of theoretical work on what the potential causes of the underrepresentation of women might be, how we might usefully classify them, and what ameliorative strategies they suggest. To some extent, some of this is armchair science – but not, I don’t think, in a bad way. You need some hypotheses to test – and to think hard about how you might test them – before you can sensibly do any empirical work. You also need to think about which hypotheses are worth testing: testing is time-consuming and costly, and you don’t want to waste time or money. So you need to make some judgements about which hypotheses are more or less prima facie plausible. (And, while you’re doing this from the armchair, your plausibility judgements are presumably not going to be based on no evidence whatsoever.) And – since the point of all of this is to figure out ways of solving a real-world problem – you also need to consider which of the hypotheses would, if confirmed, lend themselves to practically feasible ways of fixing the problem.

For example, some philosophers think we should focus on explanatory hypotheses of the kind that can be used to explain discrimination against women more generally: that is, on things like implicit bias (roughly: unconscious generalisations about women and men that cause people – women and men alike – to unwittingly give preferential treatment to men, e.g. hiring them or giving them higher essay marks) and stereotype threat. (Roughly: being a member of a demographic group that is on the sharp end of implicit biases is claimed to impose an additional psychological or cognitive burden on you. Like, for example, you’re the only woman in the seminar, and that puts extra pressure on you to perform well because you think that a poor performance will make everyone else think, “see? Women, they’re just no good at this.”) Others think that we should pay attention to the content of philosophy, and not just to the ways in which we conduct ourselves in our teaching, our seminars, our hiring practices, and so on. Feminist philosophers have in fact been saying this for decades – but one of the things that has changed in the last ten years is that feminist philosophy itself has become decidedly more mainstream: it’s more often taught at undergraduate and Master’s levels, it’s more often seen in major generalist philosophy journals, and so on.

What else has changed in philosophy the last ten years? Quite a lot. Women are now vastly better represented on undergraduate reading lists, on conference programmes and in seminar series. Women in the history of philosophy have started to come out from the shadows, with conferences, papers, books and edited collections devoted to the work of women such as Anne Conway, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Margaret Cavendish, Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Astell. (They’re still not exactly household names, but maybe they will become so eventually.) In line with the broader societal awareness of EDI issues more generally, books, papers, conferences, workshops and undergraduate courses on the philosophy of race, gender, disability and other social identities are hugely more prevalent than they were. People teaching (say) Kant are much more likely to draw attention to his racist views and consider how they comport with his views about universal human nature and ethics, rather than simply not mentioning them and hoping that none of the students do either. I could go on.

One final change I do want to highlight, though, is the atmosphere in philosophy research seminars. Some things that used to happen relatively frequently: questions asked in an incredibly aggressive manner. (I’ve seen people in a state of near apoplexy, so insulted were they by the speaker’s outrageous suggestion that metaphysical realism is false, or that maybe knowledge is justified true belief after all. I mean, what is wrong with the speaker? Is he or she an idiot?) Someone hogging an enormous slab of the Q&A time by asking repeated follow-up questions. (Because their question must just be so much more important than the questions the other members of the audience want to ask.) Or failing to shut up despite the fact that the seminar was supposed to end ten minutes ago and the chair is very clearly starting to look desperate. I’ve come out of seminars I’ve presented papers at – and as a professor, not in the olden days as a graduate student – feeling like everyone in the room thought I was completely stupid. (I’m not completely stupid. And even if I am, they shouldn’t have made it quite so clear that they thought that. That’s just lack of basic politeness.) I won’t say that such things never happen now, but they happen massively less frequently. People are just nicer to each other, in general, in that setting. That’s most definitely a change for the better.

Of course, the million-dollar question is: have any of the various things I’ve talked about actually made a difference to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy? Well, Jenny Saul and I ran the same survey recently. In our (large) sample, women now make up 48% of philosophy undergraduates (up from 44%), 37% of Master’s students (up from 33%), 33% of PhD entrants (up from 31%), 32% of permanent lecturers (up from 26%), and 25% of professors (up from 19%). Interestingly the biggest leak in the leaky pipeline is still between undergraduate and Master’s study: there’s still the same drop of eleven percentage points at that stage. Clearly more work needs to be done to figure out why that happens and what we can do about it.

That’s not an earth-shattering improvement, but it’s definitely progress – and I’m optimistic that much more progress can be made. After all, there was never going to be a quick fix. Unlike the perennial problems of philosophy – free will, scepticism about the external world, the mind-body problem – I think the problem of women’s underrepresentation, and indeed the underrepresentation of other marginalised groups, can be fixed. And we’re making some headway.


Helen Beebee is Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester and is the co-author of Philosophy: Why it Matters (2019, with Michael Rush). Her interests include metaphysics and metaphilosophy.