As one of the few female graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder’s philosophy department, I feel that I should respond to a recently published article, entitled The Gender Academy, which was written by one of my classmates, Spencer Case. I have, for some months, permitted myself to remain silent with regard to the climate in my department because I have become so preoccupied with my own fears of confirming stereotypes about women in philosophy, namely that we aren’t very good at it for one reason or another. I have felt fearful that any slip-ups on my end will result in accusations of fallacious and misguided reasoning, engendering yet more negativity in the debate about the status of women in philosophy. However, it occurs to me that I cannot simply wait for the philosophical community at large to make me feel safe enough to share my opinions when I have them, because I would likely remain silent for a long time. Instead, I must trust myself and speak as best as I can. So, I am sharing my opinions about Spencer’s article.
It is prudent to note, before I begin any substantive discussion of Case’s work, that it is not my intention in writing this response to publicly attack Spencer. I have very much appreciated his presence in my department. Spencer has often been a source of encouragement for me, not only acknowledging but commending insightful points that I articulated in our shared classes. For this, I am thankful, particularly because I am a student who is often self-deprecating. Moreover, as I think is evinced by his article, he is very outspoken. I have, for these and other various reasons, found him to be an admirable person and philosopher. That being said, I am disappointed to see the manner in which Spencer has treated the issue of gender-equity, not only as it pertains to our department, but more broadly to the field of philosophy itself. His use of scare-quotes around the terms ‘gender gap’ and ‘gender equity,’ as well as the decision to dub affirmative action policies as ‘mere cosmetic demographic-engineering,” indicates that this article hardly attempts, with good faith, to engage in a serious dialogue about the challenges facing our shared profession.1 However, given that the home of Spencer’s publication is the National Review, I am deciding to take this propagandist language with a grain of salt, interpreting it as an act of preaching to the proverbial choir. As such, I will, for the purpose of nurturing a charitable discussion of the arguments in Case’s article, disregard these gibes.
Case’s article comes as a response to several events which have taken place within UC Boulder’s philosophy department. In September of 2013, the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women was invited and approved to conduct a review of the climate for women and other minorities in the department. After the review, the committee provided a list of its findings, and suggestions as to how the department can improve itself in the future in order to foster a safer atmosphere for everyone, but particularly for women and other minority group students and faculty. UC Boulder’s philosophy department also wrote its own list of suggestions for promoting professionalism in the department. It is called “Best Practices.”2
Case acknowledges that women are notably lacking from academic philosophy, and that their absence may, in part, be the result of sexual harassment and implicit bias. However, he claims that the goal of gender-equity in philosophy is being pursued wantonly, resulting in the adoption of ill-advised policies which, in his view, are not safely open to debate. He begins to enumerate his concerns by recalling a conversation which took place between himself and a professor from a top-flight school whose department had recently employed what seems to have been a quota-based affirmative action policy. One need look no further, Case seems to suggest, than the high attrition rate of female students in said top-flight department following the implementation of such ‘demographic engineering’ to see that its effects are bad, citing similar findings in Thomas Sowell’s book Affirmative Action Around the World. Case then expresses disappointment that his own department (at UC Boulder) plans to adopt similar demographic engineering practices, applying them not only to the process of admissions, but also to classroom dialogue. This is evident, he says, from the department’s newly adopted ‘Best Practices’ document, which includes a variety of recommendations for improving the department’s climate. Although the document is composed of a great many suggestions, Case seems especially concerned by the three gender-specific suggestions which he mentions in his article:
“We should attempt to gender balance class discussions.”
“We should pay special attention to the philosophical promise of female students and students from other underrepresented groups.”
“We should take steps to assist female students and students from underrepresented groups in expressing themselves in class, by, for example, intervening when such students are interrupted or spoken over while attempting to contribute.”
Case regards such aforementioned recommendations as “heavy-handed,” relating directly to the interests of women and other underrepresented groups. Such practices, in his view, rob professors and other faculty of the ability to be objective facilitators of learning for all, forcing them to become advocates for only a select group of minority students. More troubling still, in Case’s mind, is the list of recommendations given to the University of Colorado Boulder’s philosophy department by the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women. Near the beginning of the document, there is a recommendation that the department should attempt “…to expand its current concepts of sub-disciplines in philosophy to be more inclusive,” a recommendation which Case takes to be aimed at the promotion of feminist philosophy and the philosophy of race. This, he suggests, explains a statement, found near the end of the report, which says that it is “totally unacceptable for them (members of the department) to denigrate these approaches in front of faculty, graduate or undergraduate students in formal or informal settings on or off campus.”
If this recommendation were turned into department policy, Case fears that a prohibition on free-speech would follow, such that a student could not say to his friend over a beer “Feminist philosophy is all bunk.” He argues that the discouragement of certain thoughts inhibits the free exchange of ideas, and fosters a culture in which dissenters can expect to be denounced, even publicly.
In summation, Case urges philosophers to resist the temptation to implement mere cosmetic demographic-engineering policies whose ill-effects are well documented, because what is at risk in trying to make philosophy more appealing to women is the very objectivity and freedom of thought which make philosophy an alluring field in the first place.
What to Think About Attrition Rates
I want to consider what may underlie the high attrition rates of female students among philosophy departments. Perhaps, rather than regarding the steepness of attrition rates for female students as evidence that affirmative action programs are not worth pursuing, we should look seriously at the reasons why philosophy departments struggle in retaining the female students that they admit, and whether or not something more ought to be done. Although Spencer mentions that such things as implicit bias may have something to do with the under-representation of women in philosophy, my intuition, after reviewing his criticisms of the Best Practices document which follow this admission, is that he hasn’t considered it thoroughly enough. As such, I would like to explore the issue further. I will be drawing from the excellent work of Jennifer Saul, whose arguments about implicit bias towards women in philosophy are, I think, well worth noting in this response and applicable to the situation in UC Boulder’s philosophy department.3
Implicit Bias and Stereotyping
The wealth of literature on implicit bias can provide sufficient evidence to support the suspicion that attaining objectivity in any academic department is extremely difficult, particularly where minority groups are concerned. For the purposes of this paper, I shall use Jennifer Saul’s definition of ‘implicit bias,’ meaning that implicit bias should be understood as “…unconscious biases that affect the way we perceive, evaluate, or interact with people from the groups that our biases target.” Over the last few decades, psychological research has shown that most people hold implicit biases against minority groups (e.g. African Americans, women, gay people, and so on).4
Academics, like other humans, are not immune to implicit bias. Saul considers, for instance, the process of reviewing CVs (I believe this study will be familiar to many of us who have read about implicit bias against women in academics). In Steinpreis et. al.’s 1999 US study, 238 academic psychologists (118 male, 120 female) were asked to evaluate a curriculum vitae randomly assigned a male or female name. Both male and female participants gave the male applicant better evaluations for teaching, research, and service experience, and they were more likely to recommend hiring the male than the female applicant. While the Steinpreis study is, of course, only one study, it falls within an established body of research in psychology which shows that human beings are influenced by often unconscious biases that track categories like race, gender, age, and so on.5
As is made clear in Saul’s work, the dangers of implicit bias are made even more poignant when compounded by stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon which affects the way that members of stigmatized groups perform, especially on relevant tasks such as writing papers. This under-performance happens because members of stigmatized groups are unconsciously preoccupied with fears of confirming stereotypes about their groups. What is worse, the effects of stereotype threat tend to be strongest with those who are the most committed to doing well (e.g. the most committed female students in philosophy may be the most heavily affected by stereotype threat).
“Stereotype threat is likely to be provoked where one is from a group that is, in certain a context, negatively stigmatized, one is in that context, and one’s group membership is made salient… you can also provoke stereotype threat simply through visual reminders of their group’s under-representation.”6
Trouble for Women in Philosophy
As notable philosophers such as Sally Haslanger and Helen Beebee have argued, if academic philosophers are like other human beings, it seems very likely that implicit bias and stereotype threat are affecting the climate for women in philosophy.7 As women enter graduate programs in philosophy, they are likely to be reminded of their under-representation in various ways. For instance, as Jennifer Saul notes, in most classes, other than perhaps feminist philosophy, they are likely to encounter syllabuses consisting overwhelmingly of male authors, and the people teaching most of their classes are likely to be male. Further, those who are teaching are susceptible to implicit bias. As such, we are likely to witness in philosophy departments the same well-documented asymmetries in the treatment of male and female students that have been observed in other areas of academics. For instance, drawing from Myra and David Sadker’s research on gender bias in education, we are likely to see teachers calling upon male students more often than female students, drawing up syllabi filled largely with male authors, or unconsciously evaluating the contributions of their male students better than the contributions of their female students.8
It is important to note that all of these factors together create a sort of vicious circle. As Saul puts it, “Women have trouble performing well and being fairly assessed when they are under-represented. But it is very hard to fight the under-representation when women are being unfairly assessed and impeded in their performance.”9 Given the sorts of problems posed by implicit bias and stereotype threat, it is not difficult to fathom how increasing the number of women in philosophy is more complicated than simply admitting ‘x’ amount of women to graduate programs.
The Problem for Philosophy
If Spencer is correct in identifying what makes philosophy alluring (i.e. objectivity and freedom of thought), then it is likely the case that many philosophers want to be objective and encourage freedom of thought. If philosophers care about these things, then they ought to be concerned about problems which routinely face women in philosophy. As the Steinpreis CV study suggests, a man and woman of equal qualification are likely to receive different evaluations simply because of their assessors’ biases. If this happens, then the man is likely to have superior career opportunities to the woman in virtue of something that is irrelevant to their respective merits. As Jennifer Saul argues in her work on implicit bias, this is troubling because, if implicit bias and stereotype threat have the same effects in philosophy that they have in other academic fields, then this likely means that talented female philosophers are not being selected for positions which they deserve, whether it be a matter of getting into a graduate program, getting a teaching position, or publishing their work. Further, as Saul notes, “…talented and committed women philosophers are producing less good work than they otherwise would.”10 This seems like something of a casualty for philosophy, and brings us to my discussion of UC Boulder’s Best Practices document:
Keeping Women Around
As I hope is apparent, implicit bias and stereotype threat make increasing the number of women in philosophy difficult. What is troubling to note about trying to combat implicit bias and stereotype threat is that psychological studies show that simply trying to be unbiased does very little to combat either of these problems.11 As such, making vague or gender-neutral suggestions such as “Be fair” may not be enough to rectify our present situation with regard to women in the field of philosophy, and I imagine that the authors of the Best Practices document at the UC Boulder philosophy department were probably thinking the same thing. Consequently, their recommendations for specific techniques which explicitly mention gender are unsurprising and likely needed. It should also be noted, having spoken with the authors of the Best Practices document, that its recommendations are meant to be aspirational, but they are not department regulations.
How We Should Talk
With regard to the APA’s recommendation that philosophers should not openly denigrate each others area of work, whether in formal or informal settings, it is important to note that this recommendation too is exactly that: a recommendation. Of course, I can understand Case’s worry that he and other members of the department will be unable to say what is on their minds without fear of public denouncement if this were to become a department policy. The liberty to speak freely is one that many of us in philosophy especially want to enjoy, but this leads to me to suspect that this suggestion will not be turned into a department regulation. Admittedly, I too was bothered by the tone of the suggestion. However, I do not think that our assessment of this suggestion should rely too heavily on the tone with which it is expressed. I think that more needs to be said about why this recommendation, which may seem too restrictive, is worth at least some consideration and further discussion.
As I think many people who have spent time in philosophy departments can attest, philosophers often make sweeping claims about worth and intellect in talking about who is smart, who is stupid, and what is bunk, and, as Jennifer Saul rightly says, it is likely that many of us in philosophy harbor a fear that we will one day be one of the people who is called ‘stupid’ in departmental discussions (unless you are Michael Huemer, I suppose).12 With this in mind, I would like to mention that the application of such terms does not fall solely upon individuals, but is often said of entire disciplines within philosophy. While worries about being regarded as stupid, either in virtue of one’s individual contributions to philosophy or in virtue of one’s association with a discipline in philosophy, may not be sufficient grounds to call for an outright ban on such language as “Feminist philosophy is all bunk,” I think that the use of such language is, for reasons with which Spencer seems concerned, largely unproductive, because a fear of being thought of by one’s peers as ‘stupid’ is unlikely to foster an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable exchanging ideas. I suspect that this is particularly true for graduate students, whose ideas are often not yet fully developed, and who are especially susceptible to anxiety inducing psychological phenomenon like ‘Impostor Syndrome’ . Further, if all of the literature on implicit bias gives us reason to think that evaluative judgments (particularly pertaining to minority groups) generally are affected by implicit bias, it is not unreasonable to suspect that judgments about the worth of a sub-discipline whose existence is in large part due to the inclusion of women in philosophy may also be susceptible.13 I think that it is also worth noting that while statements such as “Feminist philosophy is all bunk” may be viewed as unwelcome in our department, it is debatable as to whether or not genuine, well-meaning discussions about the work in sub-disciplines of philosophy, or even the methods that they use, will be discouraged.
In summation, I hope that I have provided at least some food for thought regarding the concerns articulated by Spencer Case in his article, The Gender Academy. Namely, I have tried to give readers some reasons to believe that the issues surrounding the low numbers of women in philosophy are complicated, as are attempts to change those numbers. Since the objectivity of philosophy departments with regard to women and other minorities is questionable, it may be the case that the recommendations of the Best Practices document and the Site Report have more merit than Case acknowledged in his work.
1 This particular criticism was articulated by Geoff Pynn, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University. I felt that his summary of the problem with the language used in Spencer’s article was very accurate, and, consequently, I decided to include it in my response.
2 To read the findings and suggestions of the APA’s site visit, go to:
To read the Best Practices list, go to: http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/climate_practices.shtml
3 Much of the following discussion is likely applicable to the under-representation of other minorities in philosophy, such as African Americans, Latinos, and so on. However, given the dictates of this paper, I will focus narrowly on the issue of women’s under-representation.
4 This is true even of those persons who are members of said minority groups. Evidence of these biases is manifested in, for example, association tests and behavioral studies. Much of my argument regarding the ways in which implicit bias and stereotype threat affect women comes from the work of Jennifer Saul. See more at:
Saul, Jennifer. “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy.” Women in Philosophy and What Needs to Change.: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
The lone chapter “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy,” to which I am make reference, can be found on Jennifer Saul’s webpage.
5 Jennifer Saul, 4.
6 Jennifer Saul, 6.
7 Haslanger, S. 2008. “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not By Reason (Alone)”, Hypatia 23: 2, 210-223.
You can read Helen Beebee’s blog about women in philosophy at: http://imperfectcognitions.blogspot.com/2014/02/i-am-professor-of-philosophy-at.html
8 Jennifer Saul discusses the work of Sadker and Sadker in her research, but you can read their work directly in:
Sadker, M. and Sadker, D. 1984. “Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls,” New York: Touchstone Press
9 Jennifer Saul, 13-14.
10 Jennifer Saul, 16.
11 Jennifer Saul’s research seems to suggest that simply trying to be unbiased may actually make matters worse. For more on this subject, she recommends: Stewart, B. D. and Payne, B. K. 2008. “Bringing Automatic Stereotyping Under Control: Implementation Intentions as Efficient Means of Thought Control,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34: 1332-1345.
12 Jennifer Saul, 21.
I include Professor Huemer’s name as a bit of light-hearted fun because he will no doubt tell anyone who asks him that he, unlike many of us, has never experienced things like ‘Impostor Syndrome’ and has always regarded himself as a brilliant and capable philosopher.
13 For more substantive discussion on evaluative judgments in philosophy, see the work of philosophy professor Eric Schwitzegebel regarding ‘seeming smart.’