BERGER: Equality is the best philosophy

The dearth of female philosophy majors across the country stems from discrimination, a lack of role models and sexual harassment

Last summer, well known philosopher Colin McGinn resigned from his tenured post at the University of Miami, where a graduate student accused him of sexually harassing her.

This is not an isolated incident. The University of Colorado recently made public an independent investigation that found sexual harassment and bullying within their own philosophy department, a report that has now led administrators to remove the chairman and suspend all graduate student admissions into the department until at least fall 2015.

Sexual harassment is apparently occurring in college philosophy departments around the country. Such behavior on the part of professors and the high proportion of men in the discipline demonstrate that women are discriminated against in academic philosophy.

This discrimination, or at least discomfort among women trying to succeed in philosophy, is seen in the Society for Philosophy and Psychology-supported research by Molly Paxton, Carrie Figdor and Valerie Tiberius, who collected data from over 700 male and female students on their experiences in the Introduction to Philosophy course at their university. From this research, it is apparent that women most often drop philosophy between enrollment in an introductory philosophy class and declaring a philosophy major. For example, according to a separate study, women at Georgia State make up about 55 percent of Introduction to Philosophy students, but that number drops to 33 percent by the time students have declared a philosophy major.In addition, the research shows that the course reading for philosophy classes was at 89 percent male authors, with a small minority of time alotted to studying female philsophers.

The findings from the Georgia State study above also show that overall, female students found the philosophy course less enjoyable than male students. They also found that female students believed the material wasn’t as relevant to their lives, compared with their male peers. Females also said they felt that they had less in common with typical philosophy majors or with their instructors, and reported feeling less able and likely to succeed in philosophy. Finally, the females in the study said they were less comfortable participating in class discussions and that they were less inclined to take a second philosophy course or to major in philosophy than male students. Significantly, the study by Paxton, Figdor and Tiberius also found a significant, positive correlation between the proportion of female faculty in an institution’s philosophy department and the proportion of females in the philosophy major. Such a finding is strong evidence for the power of positive role models to address gender imbalances.

Masculinity is frequently associated with rationality and independence, so it makes sense that this reason-centric and highly individualistic discipline perpetuates masculine and sometimes misogynistic practices. Most philosophers these days are, in fact, white men. And statistics show that since 2010, philosophy has had a lower percentage of women doctorates than math, chemistry and economics. Some argue it is intentional — that male philosophers do not want women to succeed in their profession. Some say that men believe women are, as the famous philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel so nicely put it, “not adapted to the higher sciences” like philosophy. While that was a sentiment of the 18th century, sexism indeed exists in society still, and these discriminatory notions may very well live on today in some people’s minds.

There is no concrete evidence proving discrimination in the field of philosophy, but the statistics aforementioned, in addition to the several recent alleged sexual assaults, lead to the conclusion that women studying philosophy are indeed feeling uncomfortable and mistreated. The philosophy departments at the University of Colorado and the University of Miami should therefore reevaluate their structure and work to incorporate women and to make female students feel like they are safe to explore philosophical questions. A self-fulfilling prophecy exists that causes women in philosophy to underperform. From the overwhelmingly male professors to the large proportion of male students, women can become overwhelmed — a feeling which is only exacerbated by the fear of sexual assault and the worry that unspoken biases exist against them.

Philosophy departments with large male majorities need to consider hiring and admitting women scholars. Many women tend to lean toward more “female friendly” philosophies, such as comparative literature and women’s studies. However, women would be more willing to branch out and try other concentrations in philosophy if the philosophy departments hired more women professors, and if the male faculty were more welcoming and respectful of female students. Such changes could pave the way for more women to get their doctorates in philosophy.

It is not just the rampant sexual assault of women studying philosophy that deters women from studying it, but also the feeling of solitude, the hostility from male faculty and students and the bias that appears to exist against women. These things can easily drive interested undergraduate and graduate students away, intentionally or not.

Therefore, as the University of Colorado restructures its philosophy department, it should consider acknowledging and abolishing the bias that exists against women. Universities would do well to support women with brilliant minds and to instill in them the confidence they need to pursue a major and career in philosophy. By doing so, an entirely new perspective could be discovered and a new dimension added to the study of philosophy.

Meredith Berger is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Mondays.

Published February 16, 2014 in Opinion

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