“Mind the Gap”: How to Close Professional Philosophy’s Gender-Gap and Minority-Gap. With a Critical Postscript by X and Y.

I think it’s obvious that contemporary professional philosophy has a gender-gap and a minority-gap, no matter how one calculates the percentages of women or members of minority groups (ethnic and racial, economic class, sexual-orientation, disability, etc.) in the field: that is, whether it’s in relation to all current tenure-track faculty of any age-cohort (including emeritus/a professors), or, say, only in relation to all tenure-track faculty hired over the last 30 years, or 20 years, or whatever.

In any case, the serious problem with most thinking in this area, it seems to me, is a normatively-loaded version of conceptual atomism. For example, we look at the natural sciences or mathematics, see that women and members of minority groups are significantly under-represented, and then ask the normative question: “So what’s the problem in the natural sciences, or mathematics?” Or we look at philosophy, see the gaps, and ask: “So what’s the problem in philosophy?”

But that way of isolating cases tends to hide unchallenged assumptions that are being made about the natural sciences/mathematics, or philosophy in the first place.

I think that a much more intellectually creative and illuminating way of going at the problem is to ask:  “What precisely is it about certain professions and disciplines/subjects that already have gender-parity or minority-proportionality, that makes them different from natural science/mathematics and/or philosophy?”

In other words, instead of looking at the situations atomistically, we look at them relationally, and use pairwise, three-ways, four-ways, etc., comparisons and contrasts, in order to answer our normative questions.

In the following argument, I will make one basic assumption: that there is a more or less constant dual factor of gender-bias and anti-minority bias across society as a whole. It’s bad and it’s all-too-familiar, but it’s also universal and therefore in a real sense “structural.” So I will hold this dual factor fixed across all the comparisons and contrasts.

And also one caveat: with one exception as noted below, the data I’m using to evaluate gender parity or non-parity, and minority-proportionality or non-proportionality, are all drawn from my own university, a public university somewhere in North America. But since there is no reason to think that this university differs appreciably from other North American public univerities, so too there is no reason to think that the data would be appreciably different at any other North American public university.

For the purposes of my argument, what I did was focus on these disciplines/subjects or professions:

  1. Natural Sciences/Mathematics
  2. Philosophy
  3. Law
  4. Asian Studies
  5. French and Italian Languages and Literatures
  6. Women’s Studies
  7. Ethnicity, Race, & Sexuality studies

Then I asked the gender-parity and minority-proportionality questions. And here are the answers, one-by-one.

  1. Natural Sciences/Mathematics: gender non-parity; minority non-proportional.
  2. Philosophy: gender non-parity; minority non-proportional.
  3. Law: gender parity; minority non-proportional, according to this.
  4. Asian Studies: gender non-parity; minority super-proportional for Asians, but otherwise minority non-proportional.
  5. French and Italian Languages and Literatures: gender parity; minority non-proportional.
  6. Women’s Studies: gender super-parity; minority proportional.
  7. Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality studies: gender parity, minority super-proportional.

Then I looked at several pair-wise or n-wise comparisons and contrasts.

Holding fixed, as I said, a constant dual factor of gender-bias and anti-minority bias, then I think that the the obvious explanation for the significant difference in gender/minority group situations between Natural Sciences/Mathematics and Philosophy on the one hand, and Law on the other, is that whereas Law takes only 3 or 4 years beyond a BA to get the credentials for starting a working career, has relatively good job prospects, relatively high salaries, and pretty good social status (especially in relation to what one’s own family and friends think about how one is “doing” in life), on the contrary, Natural Sciences/Mathematics and Philosophy normally take up to twice as long to get the credentials for starting a working career, have relatively bad job prospects, relatively low salaries, and not-so-good social status.

One interesting pair-wise difference in this particular connection is that although the social status element of the Natural Sciences is somewhat better than that of Philosophy, the working-culture in the Natural Sciences, in particular, is much worse for having a real life and/or a family: 18-20 hour days in the lab, 6-7 days a week, etc. So correspondingly, we would expect that as between the Natural Sciences on the one hand, and Philosophy on the other, the gender/minority group situations in Philosophy would be somewhat better than in the Natural Sciences: at least you can have a life. And that’s supported by the facts.

Now what about comparing and contrasting Natural Sciences/Mathematics or Philosophy on the one hand, with subjects/disciplines that, like Natural Sciences/Mathematics and Philosophy, ALSO take at least twice as long to get the credentials, have relatively bad job prospects, relatively low salaries, and not-so-good social status, and YET on the other hand have significantly different gender and/or minority group situations?

I think that the obvious explanation for the disparities between the Natural Sciences/Mathematics on the one hand, and Asian Studies/Women’s Studies/Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality Studies on the other hand—not to mention the obvious explanation for the various pair-wise differences between them—is that whereas the subject matter of Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality Studies will clearly have special appeal to women and/or members of minority groups, the subject matter of the Natural Sciences/Mathematics clearly doesn’t have any special appeal to women and/or members of minority groups, whatever the intrinsic appeal of the subject matters of the Natural Sciences/Mathematics might be. So, again holding fixed the constant dual factor of gender-bias and anti-minority bias, but given the other important downsides of the Natural Sciences/Mathematics, it’s very clear why women and members of minority groups stay away from the Natural Sciences/Mathematics in droves.

Now for the really interesting three-ways comparison and contrast cases: Law, French and Italian Languages and Literatures, and Philosophy.

Yet again holding fixed the constant dual factor of gender-bias and anti-minority bias, in view of what we’ve seen above, it’s now obvious why Law would be at gender-parity and minority-proportionality, whereas Philosophy wouldn’t be.

But what about French and Italian Languages and Literatures vs. Philosophy? In comparison to Law, they BOTH take normally up to twice as long to get the credentials to start a working career, have relatively bad job prospects, relatively low salaries, and not-so-good social status. So what accounts for the fact that there’s gender-parity in French and Italian Languages and Literatures, but not in Philosophy?

I think that the answer had got to be: crucial differences in their subject matters. French and Italian Languages and Literatures is all about people, the human condition, and cultural facts and themes of various kinds, whereas contemporary professional Philosophy mostly isn’t.

On the contrary, contemporary professional Philosophy is centrally about logic, highly abstract M&E, and other subject-matters that mimic or are hand-maidens to the Natural Sciences. Of course it does also cover issues in Values (ethics, social/political, aesthetics), History of Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy, but not nearly as centrally.

So in relation to what’s taken to be central to the discipline/subject of contemporary professional Philosophy by its mainstream practitioners, then Philosophy is much more like Mathematics than it is like French and Italian Languages and Literatures, and even less like Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality Studies.

Now of the relatively few women and minorities who are in professional Philosophy, most of them are not specialists in M&E, but rather specialists in Values (ethics/social political/aesthetics), History of Philosophy, or Continental philosophy, in that order. And that almost perfectly reflects the pecking-order and power-structure in contemporary professional Philosophy: M&E, Values, History, and lowliest of all, Continental.

Almost perfectly. Ironically, the most widely-cited and -quoted feminists in contemporary professional Philosophy are all Ivy League PhDs who started out as successful specialists in M&E.

So although it’s lovely that they were able to Stick It To The Man, at the same time the unfortunate implicit message to other women and minority-group members in contemporary professional philosophy is that in order to earn a “voice,” you have to accept and conform to the patterns of the current professional pecking-order and power-structure.

In any case, and all things considered, the normative question we should be asking is:  “How can we make contemporary professional Philosophy more like French and Italian Languages and Literatures, and also more like Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality Studies?”

By way of answering that question, my general conclusion is that if we REALLY want significantly to increase the numbers of women and members of minority groups in contemporary professional Philosophy, and not merely pay LIP-SERVICE to that goal, then we need to change the subject matter of contemporary professional Philosophy radically, and more specifically we should do the following six things:

1. Drop all logic requirements at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. If one finds logic fascinating, fine; otherwise don’t force young philosophers to study it, reify it, or valorize it.

2. Do LOTS more History of Philosophy at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, especially non-Western and/or non-European philosophy, and philosophy written by women or by members of minority groups, and stop treating the History of Philosophy as either an antiquarian pastime or a place where would-be philosophers go if they’re too stupid to do M&E or Values.

3. Do LOTS more Continental philosophy at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and stop treating it as either the haven of pathetic relativists or a place where would-be philosophers go if they’re too stupid to do either M&E, Values, OR History.

4. Stop treating people who do M&E as Masters of the Universe. There’s nothing inherently better about doing M&E than about doing Values, History of Philosophy, or Continental Philosophy. They’re all of equal intellectual value.

5. Stop falsely insulating Values from M&E, History of Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy. On the contrary, let them all run together and become thoroughly mixed and intellectually cross-fertilized. To hell with the fact/value dichotomy.

6. Let young philosophers, especially, but more advanced philosophers too, work on whatever most interests them, without any regard whatsoever for the intellectual straight-jacket of the M&E, Values, History of Philosophy, Continental Philosophy division, and its highly tendentious associated professional pecking-order and power-structure.

One last comment. I fully expect that each and all of these proposals will meet with disapproval, and perhaps even intense disdain, by a great many contemporary professional philosophers at the so-called top-ranked 100 departments of philosophy.

I mean, did the proposal to drop all logic requirements make your head spin? Did the proposal to treat Continental Philosophy as having equal value with M&E or Values make you laugh derisively? Did the proposal to stop treating people who do M&E as Masters of the Universe piss you off? And did the whole package of proposals strike you as crazy?

If so, then the right question to be asking yourself is: Why?, because I think it’s obvious that these proposals, if actually implemented, would effectively close the gender-gap and the minority-gap in contemporary professional philosophy.

I leave the answer to that Why? question as a “hard problem” for the reader to solve.

Postscript: Critical Replies by X and Y

X2 says:

1. Could you say more about why women and minorities are more unlikely to become professional philosophers given the pecking order? You say that most women and minorities are interested in values, history, or continental. I think your reasoning goes: then given the pecking order, more women and minorities are going to be either pushed out of the profession or they will not want to have anything to do with it. You might make this last point more explicit.

2. I think it should be obvious why you give most of your six suggestions (even if people are not happy with them or disagree or whatever), but I wonder whether you ought to add a sentence or two about the logic one. I think I agree with you here, but I wonder if what you’re thinking is the following:

Students of philosophy mostly take courses in which the metaphysics/epistemology/logic/values stuff is all pretty much equally relevant to the questions at hand (although usually not so much for values). So whatever basic logic students need to learn should be learned in just this way. In other words, there is no need for a special requirement for logic independently of what we already use in these other courses.

3. You think that if in order to solve philosophy’s Gap problem, we have to fix contemporary society first, then we’re screwed.

Yes, BUT fortunately (or at least ideally) that could be a two-way street. Make more advances in philosophy (and academia in general). See in your classroom that women or stigmatized racial minorities can be smart and hardworking! And so have more and more people think that that’s feasible/totally normal and get rid of some internalized biases — i.e., fix contemporary society a bit more. And so have underrepresented groups be slightly less underrepresented. Rinse, wash, repeat.

As to the rest of your points — yes, I’m more and more convinced you’re right, but not much change in conviction/hope of this actually happening.

Y says:

1. I tend to think we should keep the logic requirement. Exposure to logic helps you to be a better philosopher and trains your mind to think in a particular way.  I don’t think the requirement needs to be extensive, but I doubt that taking one course in logic is really what is preventing more women and minorities from pursuing Philosophy.

2. I agree with the other recommendations. However, I think it’s also important to emphasize that there is way of doing M&E that is currently very widespread, but by no means inevitable. This widespread study of M&E often involves focusing on minutiae in a very technical and abstract sort of way.  Often the topics being explored seem pointless not only to non-philosophers, but also to someone like ME!  (Much of what the “Masters of the Universe” M&E folk are producing bores me to tears. Even if it’s “good” philosophy in the sense that it is well-argued, it is “bad” writing in the sense that most everyone just doesn’t care about what is being said.)

However, there is another way of doing M&E that involves asking bigger questions that pertain to the human condition, the mind, cognition, personal identity, etc. and that links up very naturally to the work done in the Continental tradition. Exploring the connections between M&E and issues that real-life people find interesting will make Philosophy more accessible to everyone, not just women and minorities.  It seems like more and more people working in philosophy of mind, for example, are drawing these sorts of connections to continental philosophy.

3. What you seem to say, at least implicitly, is that women (more than men) stay away from subject matter that does not pertain to the human condition.  That strikes me as odd, though. I wonder why this is? Socialization?  Or do women just tend to be more sensible?

W

About W

W is a 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, or even 50-something non-tenure track philosopher currently teaching at a private or public institution of higher education somewhere in North America. Different people will contribute to W’s diary. Like X, W is a philosophical persona composed by several real persons.
X

About X

X is a 20-something graduate student doing her/his PhD in philosophy at a university somewhere in North America. Different people will contribute to X’s diary. So X is a philosophical persona composed by several real persons.
Y

About Y

Y is a 30-something female tenured associate professor of philosophy at a liberal arts college somewhere in North America.
Z

About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.