Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Gender Situation Is Different in Philosophy

As Carolyn Dicey Jennings and I have documented, academic philosophy in the United States is highly gender skewed, with gender ratios more characteristic of engineering and the physical sciences than of the humanities and social sciences. However, unlike engineering and the physical sciences, philosophy appears to have stalled out in its progress toward gender parity.

Some of the best data on gender in U.S. academia are from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). In an earlier post, I analyzed the philosophy data since 1973, creating this graph:

The quadratic fit (green) is statistically much better than the linear fit (red; AICc .996 vs .004), meaning that it is highly unlikely that the apparent flattening is chance variation from a linear trend.

Since the 1990s, the gender ratio of U.S. PhDs in philosophy has hovered steadily around 25-30%.

The SED site contains data on gender by broad field, going back to 1979. It is interesting to juxtapose these data with the philosophy data. (The philosophy data are noisier, as you'd expect, due to smaller numbers relative to the SED's broad fields.)

The overall trend is clear: Although philosophy's percentages are currently similar to the percentages in engineering and physical sciences, the trend in philosophy has flattened out in the 21st century, while engineering and the physical sciences continue to make progress toward gender parity. All the broad areas show roughly linear upward trends, except for the humanities which appears to have flattened at approximately parity.

These data speak against two reactions that I have sometimes heard to Carolyn's and my work on gender disparity in philosophy. One reaction is "well, that just shows that philosophy is sociologically more like engineering and the physical sciences than we might have previously thought". Another is "although philosophy has recently stalled in its progress toward gender parity, that is true in lots of other disciplines as well". Neither claim appears to be true.

[I am leaving for Hong Kong later today, so comment approval might be delayed, but please feel free to post your thoughts and I'll approve them and respond when I can!]


Unknown said...

Interesting post. I am commenting as a non-philosopher.

What it made me wonder is where we think these lines will end up. Even if the types of gender bias that held back female academic advancement were removed (a big if)*, for them all to to approach 50% does not seem a reasonable expectation. If one held that, the life and social sciences need to reverse their recent trend.

It seems to me there are two possibilities. 1) Gender bias in philosophy has been rooted out much more slowly than in other disciplines (it has the lowest slope of all lines). 2) Philosophy is nearer to its 'true' level and got there sooner than other disciplines. Both possibilities require an explanation for why philosophy differs from other disciplines.

It would also be interesting to see whether there are other gender differences across disciplines (eg % of women progressing to post docs, tenure etc) that may shed some light on the underlying gender biases. As the tables in your paper show for philosophy, there is a drop off in female representation the higher up the academic ladder and comparing this to other disciplines could be interesting.

I am not claiming that everything is fine in philosophy -- that would be pretty dumb for someone I don't know the field -- but the implication to draw from the cross discipline comparison was not that obvious. To me at least.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Like "Unknown" above, I am curious why calls for parity don't seem to lead to concerns about the fact that numbers for the life and social sciences indicate a lack of parity.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those comments, folks! I agree that it's possible that men and women would be attracted to disciplines at different rates due to some interaction between the topic and facts about gender. Though it's not something that can be read directly off the numbers, my own impression is that we still have a considerable distance to go before there is genuine parity of opportunity.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon May 12, 10:53: Your comment seemed to me to rely too excessively on stereotypes and generalizations in an unhelpful way. I'd be happy to repost if you could express yourself in more moderate language. Sorry about that!