Women in Philosophy


Jennifer Saul in The Philosophers' Magazine:

In the UK, women are 46% of undergraduate students in philosophy, but only 24% of permanent staff. Women are approximately 21% of professional philosophers in the US, but only 17% of those employed full-time. These figures are very unlike those for most fields of the humanities, in which women tend to be near or above parity with men. Indeed, they more closely resemble mathematics and physical sciences (biological sciences are much closer to parity). One recent study by Kieran Healy showed philosophy to bemore male than mathematics, with only computer science, physics and engineering showing lower percentages of women.

What’s the explanation for this? It used to be thought that women were simply unsuited to philosophy. As Hegel puts it: “Women can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts …. The difference between man and woman is the same as between animal and plant.”

This view is, for obvious reasons, less popular now. However, quite a few people, both feminist philosophers and philosophers of psychology, have drawn on the importantly distinct idea that women approach things differently, and that philosophy is the poorer for not fitting well with women’s ways of thinking. One version of this idea can be found in Carol Gilligan and another in very recent work by Wesley Buckwalter and Steve Stich. These claims of women’s difference, however, have never held up well empirically, as Louise Antony argues eloquently in her “Different Voices or Perfect Storm”.

Another commonly floated explanation is that women’s family commitments make it more difficult for them to progress professionally. This may well be true (studies do show that women continue to do the majority of housework and childcare). But it fails to explain why philosophy should show such a different profile than other fields of the arts and humanities, which have achieved (or surpassed) parity. If anything, one would expect it to be easier to thrive as a mother and philosopher than as a mother and scholar of French literature, who is far more likely to need to travel to archives and the like.