Women in Philosophy

Kathryn Norlock of St. Mary’s College notes some interesting pieces that have sprung up all at once about the situation of women in philosophy.  Took them a while…

Here’s her post, copied with her permission from a message sent to the Society for Women in Philosophy email list:


It’s a great day when the Philosopher’s Magazine, the New York Times, and the Leiter blog all notice that the situation for women in philosophy is in the news.  Note that some reports are more sympathetic than others, but as my president says, I’m looking forward!

The New York Times blurb is here:

It draws its admittedly “women are put off by adversarial culture” –focused angle from a longer and more complex argument in the TPM:

And Brian Leiter notes its circulation as well:


Kate Norlock

I welcome comments on the pieces Kate points to and on this topic in general.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. The adversarial thing has been floated for many years. I don’t buy it. Nor do many of the commenters at the NY Times piece. The adversarial culture does exclude people who do not like to be adversarial, so we’d be better off without it. But is it the main problem? I think women do fine with the adversarial thing in women-dominant contexts (like WOGAP!)–or at least as well as men. In fact, many women do fine with the adversarial culture, period. In graduate school, the adversarial culture was not the big worry for my fellow women. But there were things connected to it which were a big worry, e.g., how to be perceived as intelligent and competent by professors. If one is not perceived as such, this can look like failure within the adversarial culture (and a woman might blame herself for this failure). But was it? I’m not so sure. That could also be mistaking an effect for a cause.

    Most of the explanations that are: ‘Philosophy is like X and women don’t like X as much as men’ strike me as misdirection. (1) Ignore the whole institutional structure and what people think their odds are within it and focus on the phenomenal features/individual behavior/culture. (2) Oh dear, it’s just so hard to get everyone to act differently! (3) I guess there’s nothing we can do. Just be nicer everyone, OK?

    A result is also that some people will think ‘but I AM nice so I am doing my part.’

    Doesn’t it also put the burden on women in some way?

    (I’m oversimplifying, but I think that is allowed on blog comments! To be honest, I do not have the explanation. I am skeptical that culture or even the way it affects individual behavior is the right place to look.)

  2. Lisa, on your point — “Most of the explanations that are: ‘Philosophy is like X and women don’t like X as much as men’ strike me as misdirection” — let me add this thought: I think the philosophypress piece begs the question, what is philosophy “like”? Or again, what counts as philosophy? As has been pointed out repeatedly, many senior women have left the profession for other fields (e.g., women’s studies, rhetoric, political science) where the merits of their work are appreciated rather than derided as not being philosophy. This adds to the problem that what gets left in philosophy departments is more and more combative, and it’s easy to assume that this just is how philosophy is. And you get the spurious equation

    philosophy = analytic philosophy = destroying your opponent

    Now, step into a room of women philosophers, many of whom might be self-described analytic philosophers, and you just don’t see this.

    I believe that these differences are cultural, certainly not biological, as evidenced by the fact that the culture of attack is simply not present in other humanities disciplines.

  3. I know when I was at UT Austin in 1990-97 there were 4 women on that faculty: Higgins, Seibt, Oliver, and Smith. In the mid-nineties, Leiter came on board. In the late nineties and beyond the number dwindled to 1 and now it’s back up to 2. This is a department with over 30 faculty lines that has not managed to maintain a proportion of women even close to the pitifully low national average ratio, even as it hired new Ph.D.’s and famous faculty like Tye and Dancy.

    I have no theories about the overall small proportion of women in philosophy; but I do know that after I left UT, it moved aggressively away from pluralism in philosophy toward areas like philosophy of science and analytic epistemology.

    Could it be that such anti-pluralist preferences in philosophical theme wind up promulgating, as a predictable “externality,” a bias against hiring women? And if the Leiter Report is slanted, even slightly, toward analytic programs over other kinds, then wouldn’t the top programs on his list also exhibit a lower percentage of women in philosophy?

  4. I should add, in reference to your point above, Noelle, that I am not saying that women only do a certain kind of philosophy, but rather than in certain narrow specialties of philosophy (and indeed in any field) there are definite gender preferences (and who knows ultimately why). So, if a certain specialty is “hot” and that specialty has a gendered aspect to it, then any department which pursues the notoriety which comes with working in a “hot” area also enacts a pursuit of an imbalance in it’s faculty, graduate students, and future Ph.D’s and future faculty.

  5. David, I think your comments are right on target. Especially: “Could it be that such anti-pluralist preferences in philosophical theme wind up promulgating, as a predictable “externality,” a bias against hiring women?” Absolutely, especially if the department isn’t embarrassed enough at the discrepancy to make a point of hiring more women.

    As for UT, damn, you’d think they’d be embarrassed about this enough to do something about it.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a study of the correlation between how pluralist a department is in terms of areas of specialization and how balanced it is in terms of race, gender, etc.?

  6. It would be interesting to do such a study. I lamented that UT had allowed American philosophy to disappear from among its offerings after Cormier left, Browning retired, and Mackey died. But that peeve of mine obscured me to seeing the gender imbalance.

    UT should be ashamed. Big ashamed. And if the price a department this big has to pay to be gender balanced is more pluralism in philosophy, well, rankings be damned, that’s what they ought to do.

    I do not direct my undergrads to apply to UT if they are non-narrow or non-ancient, and I’m sad not to send them there. It was a great program. Now, it’s just “rankings great,” an oxy-moron if I ever heard one.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: