Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.
No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy — numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.
Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.
One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.
Some thoughts occasioned by the discussion I've seen of this piece since it went live last night:
(1.) Shelley Tremain pointed out that we don't mention the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy (some stats and discussion in her piece here). As Tremain has emphasized, discussions of diversity tend to focus on race and gender to the exclusion of other dimensions of diversity, and I think we fell too much into that standard mode of thinking. I would conjecture that the same "seeming smart" phenomenon disadvantages people with visible disabilities that are stereotypically culturally associated with low power and low academic skill, and that this might explain the underrepresentation of such people in the profession, regardless of actual skill levels.
(2.) I think one way to begin to address the issue (in addition to direct action to increase diversity) is to shift the culture of philosophy a bit more toward valuing plain-spoken philosophy, with minimal apparatus, which discusses issues that non-philosophers find interesting. I think this might have at least two positive effects: First it would make philosophy more attractive to people from a wide range of perspectives; and second it would improve our ability to evaluate quality, reducing the role of dazzling incomprehensible showmanship in the discipline. (This isn't to deny a role for highly technical philosophy, such as technical formal logic and detailed examination of the texts of historical figures. I would just advocate some shift in emphasis.)
(3.) Myisha and I didn't have a chance to discuss how these things play out in other disciplines. I am not expert in other disciplines (except psychology to some extent), but I do have some data-supported conjectures. The entire story will be complex and multi-factorial. Some things to note: Mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering are approximately as gender-skewed as philosophy. They are somewhat less race-skewed. (I don't know of class and disability data for these disciplines.) I suspect that this skew arises from a somewhat different confluence of factors (including associations of math and gender going back into childhood), though I think there's probably also substantial overlap since "seeming smart" is, I suspect, very important throughout academia, and the math-gender relationship also penetrates philosophy to some extent (especially philosophy of math and physics).
(4.) Another interesting disciplinary comparison is literature. Literature, I think, shares with philosophy a very high level of subjectivity and cultural variability in quality assessment. It is much less gender-skewed. The race skew story is complicated by the fact that many literature programs focus explicitly on the European tradition (e.g., English, French). Again, I don't know of disability data and economic-privilege data. I see at least two important differences between literature and philosophy: One is that cultural associations with beauty and artistic creativity are not as white-male-centric as are cultural associations with intelligence (think of the stereotypes of the beautiful woman and the creative black jazz musician) and assessments of beauty and creativity may play a proportionately larger role in literature than in philosophy. The other is that literature as a set of academic disciplines in our culture has made more effort to explicitly diversify its canon than has philosophy, and diversifying the canon might tend to lead toward the diversification of the professors teaching that canon, via a few different mechanisms.
(5.) Our brief discussion of this study didn't make the final cutdown for the op-ed, but we think it's important and supports our hypothesis. On Rate My Professors, undergraduate students are more likely to use the word "brilliant" to describe philosophy instructors -- especially male philosophy instructors -- than instructors in any of the other nine fields examined. These data fit both the gender skew in perceptions of "seeming smart" and our conjecture that seeming smart is a skill even more central to philosophy than other academic disciplines.
(6.) Four interesting, related papers on seeming smart in philosophy: * Liam Kofi Bright "Against Candidate Quality"; * Katrina Hutchison "Sages and Cranks: The Difficulty of Identifying First-Rate Philosophers; * Jennifer Saul "Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy"; * Dan Sperber "The Guru Effect".