On Being a Woman in Philosophy

No doubt, in just a few months the blog “What is it like to be a woman philosophy” has done more to wake up the field about sexism in the profession than anything in the past few decades.  It’s just about impossible now to ignore or deny. (Just see this gawker story.)  So the questions that have been on my mind lately are these:  What is it about philosophy that makes it prone to this problem? What makes it different from comp lit or other humanities?  It seems, in general, that the humanities are more hospitable to women than engineering and the sciences.  (Though I don’t know what it’s like in the sciences these days.) Does philosophy, at least when it tries to be as “rigorous” as the sciences, become less welcoming to women?  Is there something about women that just unsettles men in the field? Do the old binaries about

reason / emotion

culture / nature

logos / pathos

etc. etc.

have a stranglehold on philosophy?

Are there differences from one sort of philosophy to another?

My own anecdotal take:  Among feminist philosophy circles, women are quite welcome. (Of course!)  Same goes in continental, pragmatist, and much political philosophy. In grad school in a class on early Wittgenstein, I didn’t feel so good about the professor’s aggressive and hostile attitude, but otherwise he was okay. My other seminars were exemplars of civility and welcoming. And my colleagues since have been great.  The truth is, I have had a fabulous time being a woman in philosophy. I have been hugely supported by male mentors and colleagues.  I have no complaints.

But, I can’t help but noticing (and I have been hesitating for many weeks to point this out here), many of the complaints about being a woman in philosophy emanate from “top” programs, “top” not meaning truly exceptional but “top” meaning highly ranked by the circularly produced Philosophy Gourmet  / Leiter reports.  I say circular because the rankings are based on the opinions of a group of philosophers chosen because they have been deemed to be “top” philosophers. The input produces the output.  There’s nothing objective or representative about the rankings, though they have transfixed the discipline, causing many who otherwise know their logic to stay silent about their concerns.  I have blogged on this more than I care to blog on anything. (To see these posts just type “Leiter” into the search field of this blog.)

The point here is that there seems to be an overlap between the style of philosophy favored by the Leiter reports and the style of philosophy that’s unwelcoming to women.  This is not a blanket statement about fields of philosophy or the people in them. There are some absolutely wonderful and welcoming people doing, say, philosophy of language (like Al Martinich, a friend and prof back at Texas). And no doubt there is some sexist pig out there who does Foucault  (though I can’t name one off the top of my head). But it’s hard to ignore so many posts by women in “top” programs complaining of sexism and sexual harassment.

So here’s another question: What is it like to be a department that is trying to increase its ranking — that is trying to be known for its rigor and precision? Who is it going to purge or make unwelcome? What is it going to aspire to?   Sexism long preceded the sad excursion into self-ranking, but the ranking game seems to have made more manifest certain stakes and tendencies.

Finally, note that the rankings game can be easily ended.  If you are at a Ph.D. granting program in philosophy (or an M.A. one, for that matter), simply ask your chair to not turn over the list of faculty to those who come knocking. Those who do not turn over their list are not included in the rankings.  It’s that simple.   We need not participate.  Thankfully, my program doesn’t.  And we are the better for it.

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. I’m no fan of the Phil Gourmet, but I don’t think it’s responsible for the underrepresentation of women. A few years ago, I was teaching myself linear regressions and put together a little analysis of the Phil Gourmet; you can read that here. I looked for gender bias and the relative importance of various specializations. There’s apparently no gender bias in the outcomes of the survey: departments with a larger number of women are not thereby penalized. And specializations like feminist philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of science contribute about as much as specializations like logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. Continental doesn’t contribute — positively or negatively — to rankings, but if that as any implications for underrepresentation, it appears to be washed-out overall.

    There does seem to be a widespread *misimpression* that a department’s Phil Gourmet ranking depends only (or largely) on its LEMM rankings. This could lead to some underrepresentation when departments try to chase rankings. But that false belief can be challenged without getting involved in a much more volatile debate over whether departments should be chasing rankings at all.

  2. Dan, thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, the post isn’t about under-representation of women in philosophy and certainly not about blaming the PGR for that. My real worry is that there is might be something about philosophical practice today that leads to the effects noted in the blog on what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy. Clearly SOMETHING is going on, so what is it? Whatever it is, does the PGR track the same phenomenon? That’s the question..It’s a question that ought to be addressed.

  3. with obvious exceptions one can notice certain familial resemblances/character-types in the various philosophical branches/depts, and no doubt the quasi-autistic character of much of analytical philo appeals to, resonates with, certain traits in many practitioners, not unlike what one finds in the hard sciences and engineering.

  4. Noelle – I’m having some trouble parsing your suggestion. Certainly something (probably several things) is causing philosophy’s underrepresentation problem. If the PGR was tracking that something, then wouldn’t the PGR rankings show some correlation with the percentage of full-time women faculty? Since the PGR rankings aren’t correlated in this way, I conclude that (whatever its other merits and demerits) it’s not tracking the something that’s causing underrepresentation. In other words, the answer to your question that ought to be addressed is `No’.

    dmf – I assume you’re alluding to the post-autistic economics movement [PAEM], whose members criticize neo-classical economics for `abnormal subjectivity, acceptance of fantasy rather than reality’ (see this). I have several problems with this:
    (1) the ablist use of the language of autism as a term of disparagement (PAEM has been criticized for exactly this reason);
    (2) the sweeping, disparaging characterization of analytic philosophy and analytic philosophers;
    (3) a similarly sweeping, disparaging characterization of science and engineering; and
    (4) the use of the metaphor `resonates’ as the main verb, which make your characterizations all but impossible to either support or challenge directly.

    I won’t elaborate on (1) and (4). With respect to (2), let me just point out that there are numerous analytic philosophers (including myself) who believe that our work can and should be engaged with other disciplines and real-world problems. For a recent manifesto, see Phil Kitcher’s just-published paper in Metaphilosophy. For a series of programmatic examples, see last December’s Synthese. Similarly, with respect to (3), it is easy to find scientists and engineerings working on urgent, practical problems.

  5. Dan,

    You seem stuck on underrepresentation when it seems clear that the concern here is the prevalence of sexist attitudes in “top” departments. Several stories from the blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy” have detailed shockingly sexist remarks and attitudes even in departments with female faculty. Female representation alone does not preclude, it seems, the existence or prevalence of oppressive and sexist attitudes.

  6. Jeff,

    That’s a very good point — it’s the sexism, per se, not (just) the underrepresentation. I have trouble, though, thinking of how else the Phil Gourmet report might plausibly contribute to sexism per se.

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