The Long Road to Equality

Women200 Julian Baggini in The Philosopher's Magazine:

Sally Haslanger is angry. “I entered philosophy about 30 years ago,” she told me at the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meeting in Boston. “I had a budding feminist consciousness, and I thought then that there weren’t enough women on the reading lists in my classes or among my teachers. But I thought things would certainly change, given the importance of the feminist movement. I’ve been though the profession now and worked hard on the Committee on the Status of Women. I’ve worked hard in other forums like SWIP – the Society for Women in Philosophy – that were trying to advance women’s interests. After 30 years I was seeing that there wasn’t really that much change, and that made me mad.”

Haslanger is not alone. Women’s under-representation in philosophy has been well known for decades, but there does not seem to have been sufficient collective will to really grapple with the problem. Now, however, there are signs that things are changing. “There’s been a lot of momentum gathering in the UK dealing to a great extent with the under-representation of women in philosophy,” says Jules Holyroyd, one of the organisers of a well-attended conference in Cardiff last November, on the issue of all under-represented groups, not just women.

Although the dearth of women is obvious, until recently no one had tried to analyse the data to establish the facts. Two years ago, tpm conducted its own survey and found that only 18 percent of full-time permanent academic philosophers working in leading higher education institutions in the UK were female. The comparable figure in the USA was 22 percent. (See tpm 47)

Since then, Helen Beebee has been gathering more comprehensive data for the British Philosophical Association, of which she is director. What this shows is that women become scarcer the higher up the career ladder you go.

“Women start out not too badly under-represented,” she told me in Cardiff. “About 47 percent of undergraduates in philosophy in the UK, single or joint honours, are women. That goes down to about 30 percent at PhD level, then it drops to about 21 percent at permanent staff. It’s more than 21 percent at junior lecturer level and it goes down to about 15 percent at professor level.”

Similar patterns have been found in America and Australia. But why?