Friday, July 25, 2008

In Philosophy, Women Move More Slowly to Tenure Than Do Men

It's well known (at least among feminist philosophers!) that only about 20% of philosophy professors are women. Surely this is partly due to a history of sexism in the discipline. The question is, does it also reflect current sexism?

No simple analysis could possibly settle that question, but here's one thought. If sexism is still prevalent in philosophy, we should expect women, on average, to move less quickly than men through the academic ranks -- from graduate student to non-tenure-track faculty to tenure-track Assistant Professor to tenured Associate or full Professor. It would then follow that women would be on average older than men at the lower ranks.

As it happens, the data Joshua Rust and I collected for our study of the voting rates of philosophers can be re-analyzed with this issue in mind.

For the voting study, we collected (among other things) academic rank data for most professors of philosophy in five states: California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Washington State. Examining voter registration records, we found unambiguous name matches for 60.4% of those professors. Since four states (all but North Carolina) provided age data for registered voters, we were able to compare rank and age.

Overall 23.1% of the philosophy professors in our study were female. The average birth year of men and women at each rank are:
Non-Tenure-Track: women 1958.1, men 1960.4
Assistant Profesor: women 1965.3, men 1970.0
Tenured Professor: women 1955.3, men 1948.7
That the average male tenured professor is older than the average female tenured professor fits with the idea that the gender ratio is philosophy has improved over time; but that the average female untenured professor is older than the average male suggests that women are still slower to progress to tenure.

If you can bear with lists of numbers, the facts become clearer if we break down the data by birthyear first, then gender and rank:

1900-1939 (54 profs.):
96% male (90% full, 10% assoc.)
4% female (50% full, 50% assoc.)
1940-1949 (100 profs.):
77% male (78% full, 13% assoc., 3% asst., 6% non-TT)
23% female (70% full, 9% assoc., 4% asst., 17% non-TT)
1950-1959 (104 profs.):
71% male (55% full, 28% assoc., 4% asst., 12% non-TT)
29% female (43% full, 27% assoc., 7% asst., 23% non-TT)
1960-1969 (99 profs.):
65% male (29% full, 39% assoc., 20% asst., 19% non-TT)
35% female (22% full, 39% assoc., 29% asst., 14% non-TT)
1970-1979 (57 profs.):
81% male (2% full, 11% assoc., 74% asst., 13% non-TT)
19% female (0% full, 18% assoc., 45% asst., 36% non-TT)
There's a general increase of representation of women in philosophy in the younger generations, but for almost all age groups women are underrepresented among full professors and overrepresented in the lower ranks. It seems to me that the natural interpretation is that although women are coming into philosophy at higher rates than they used to, they either progress more slowly through the ranks or enter philosophy later in their lives (which is perhaps just another way of progressing more slowly). Even the reversal of the gender ratio trend for women born in 1970 or later fits with this: Men may be more overrepresented in this group than in slightly older groups not because that generation has fewer women pursuing philosophy but rather because the men are completing their Ph.D.'s and moving into teaching more quickly.

It doesn't follow straightaway that the cause of women's slower progression is sexism, of course. Childbearing and other factors may play a role. It's also encouraging, I think, to see the rank differences diminishing in the younger groups.

Update, July 30: Brian Leiter looks at the assistant professors from top departments twelve years ago, and Rob Wilson breaks it down by gender in the comments to this post.


  1. How interesting. This deserves some careful thought. Thanks so much for letting me know about it.

    There are similar trends in the sciences, but NSF has poured quite a bit of money into addressing sexism in those fields, and it looks like it is making a huge difference. E.g., 26% of new physics assist profs are women, compared to about 18% quite recently.

    Of course, I'm conjecturing some here about cause and effect.

  2. Many thanks for looking into this-- what a great idea to use your data for this investigation.

  3. I think is very interesting this piece of opiniated, and very sensitive, experience about women in academia by the physician and scientist Ajit P. Varki, because explains what are the biological causes (big elephant in the room that all see but nobody want to talk abou it) underlying the succes or failure of women in conquer more and more rungs in the social ladder.
    Though, he talk about women in science i believe it´s minute detail and irrelevant.

    These kind of empirical analysis of professions are the real sort of x-phi apply to "real" world issues, that is much needed.


  4. Thanks for the kind remarks, everyone (and the link, Anibal)!

  5. I think this is a fascinating study. Speaking anecdotally, of the faculty at my former university, the professor who was actually the philosophy chair and who was female had waited until later to pursue philosophy professionally, whereas the other male faculty members had pursued it as a career immediately following their undergrad and grad schools. So not to generalize, but I could see that this could explain at least some of the situations where women receive tenure later than men.

  6. Absolutely, Billie -- though I can't say I've noticed any general tendency for women to enter graduate school later than men in my experience at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Riverside (if anything, I'd say the trend has been the reverse). And if women do enter graduate school later than men, I wonder what social pressures might be influencing their decisions....

  7. Readers might also want to check out the recent post over at Leiter Reports, which gives data on where 1996-97 tenure-track faculty from top 15 or so US departments are now. Basic data: 42 males, 13 females, split between the following categories (Leiter has more fine-grain in the third category):

    Males: ~50% full, ~33% assoc, ~17% untenured or left profession

    Females: ~25% full, ~75% assoc.

    The M:F ratio is close to that of the profession as a whole; apparent faster advancement (though some of this may be a function of how advanced those in 1996-97 were already as assistant profs); and a striking "drop rate" for M that appears absent for W.

  8. Sexism includes the lack of access in university towns to affordable child care and new-parent leave policies that limit time off to a just a few weeks.

    Careful what you label "biology", and remember that the sexism is not necessarily internal to the profession (except insofar as it's passively accepted).

    The elephant in the room may just be patriarchy.

  9. Quick question: why did you not title this post, 'In philosophy, women attain tenure later than do men'?

    In the middle of the post you do acknowledge the two possible explanations -- "although women are coming into philosophy at higher rates than they used to, they either progress more slowly through the ranks or enter philosophy later in their lives" -- but in all the summaries I've seen from people linking to this post, the second possibility drops out of the picture.

  10. Yeah, I'd noticed that myself on rereading. You're right that the title you describe would be less interpretive. If I were rewriting the post, I might take your suggestion.

    Still, my inclination is to think that being tenured later is pretty much tantamount to moving more slowly -- either more slowly through some stage of schooling or pre-tenure employment or slowing oneself down by taking time off for something else. Some sort of structural sexism and/or childrearing (probably a bit of both, and they're not unrelated) is probably behind it.

  11. "The elephant in the room may just be patriarchy."

    Could someone define this word, please? I don't mean to be nit-picky, and surely this tenure thing is worth looking into. It's just that that word, 'patriarchy', seems to be defined in countless inconsistent ways, and I have often seen it at a crucial junction of explicit (and more dangerously, implicit) arguments doing the devil's work (i.e. equivocation).

  12. Patriarchy: Rule by men. Isn't that etymologically straightforward? Now of course how much dominance men have to have over the structures of power and what kind of dominance for the term "patriarchy" properly to apply -- there we get into tricky issues! But at least on a weak reading of patriarchy, philosophy is still pretty patriarchal. Most of the top departments and most of the dominant avenues for publication are controlled by men.

  13. Hi again, Eric.

    No, I'm afraid it's anything but straightforward, etymologically or otherwise! First, a minor point: the _etymological_ definition of patriarchy would be something like what Wikipedia gives, namely "the structuring of society on the basis of family units, where fathers have primary responsibility for the welfare of, hence authority over, their families". Unless the involvement of a father is involved in a definition -- and it isn't in the one you give, or the one that was implied by the other writer -- I don't think the definition can be etymological.

    More important point: this term, as in every other case in which I've seen it used in the context of sexism, seems to bring nothing but confusion to an important topic. Let's say that, from here on in, 'patriarchy' is to be defined as 'rule by men'. This implies that the United States is a patriarchy, and that the UK is as well; but that the UK was not patriarchial under Thatcher (at least, if we are to consider the leaders of democratic countries 'rulers'). This is fine, but then it ceases to be legimitate to conclude anything whatsoever about whether some country is sexist from whether it is patriarchal. There also begin to be large problems when we consider the possibility of a country that is ruled by a man, in which a state or city is ruled by a woman; etc.

    Anyway, _if_ one were to apply 'patriarchy' to smaller social groups within states, such as academic departments and journals, one has to adjust the definition more than might be expected. Are department chairs 'rulers' of their departments? Are journal editors 'rulers' of their journals? This seems unlikely to me. As far as I am aware, most hiring and tenure committees are made up of members who are appointed to their positions by a general departmental vote. If there are both men and women on hiring or tenure committees, etc., then the term 'patriarchy' does not seem to apply, if it refers to 'rule by men'.

    Maybe, to be charitable, we should say that a patriarchy is 'any organization or sub-organization in which the bulk of the decision making power rests with some group of people, where that group contains more men than women, irrespective of the beliefs of those individuals concerning sex roles, etc.'. But then, too, there seem to be problems. Fuzzyshmoo's comment, to which I was referring, was:

    "Sexism includes the lack of access in university towns to affordable child care and new-parent leave policies that limit time off to a just a few weeks...
    The elephant in the room may just be patriarchy."

    Now, the issue of whether or not some hiring or tenure committee is primarily composed of men can vary completely independently of whether that hiring or tenure committee exists in a town with affordable child care, and whether that committee exists within a university with a good parental leave policy in place. Men might agitate for these things more effectively than women -- the sex of the committee members tells us nothing about that. Should we, therefore, redefine 'patriarchy' yet another way, this time so that it refers to any social structure that is not adequately concerned with combating causes of sexual inequality in all its manifestations?

    Even this would, it seems to me, be unsuccessful in making sense of fuzzyshmoo's comment. For it could be that a hiring committee is doing its best to provide women with these resources, but is ineffective in doing so; or it could also be that some other hiring committee is apathetic (or even actually sexist) but just happens to exist in a town and university that is more friendly to women's concerns.

    In none of this do I find the term 'patriarchy' at all helpful. It just seems to obscure what could otherwise be a much clearer issue. It also seems to me to provide a convenient cover for somewhat careless thinking. For instance, suppose that the reason for the relatively low number of female PhD holders in philosophy can be attributed to subtle, and undesirable, social pressures that affect women long before they consider their career options. In that case, it may well be that members of hiring and editorial committees are not at all sexist in their choices; and the correct thing to do then would be to focus on the subtle social factors and leave the committees alone. To do this effectively, we would have to determine exactly what the social factors are, how they can best be altered, etc. But if we instead decide that the problem is the extremely vague 'patriarchy', nobody will have any clear idea as to what should be done. Some people will try to get Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher to run again; some people will try to find fault with groups of people who may be doing nothing wrong; other people will try to change our ideas of body image... it will be a mess. I think this kind of unclear, fuzzy thinking is likely to do more harm than good, and that it should not be encouraged.

    In particular, I stand by my view that philosophers -- and anyone else who values clear thinking -- ought to abandon the word 'patriarchy'.

  14. Ah, well, I won't defend the word. I don't object to it as strenuously as you, but I also tend not to find it very helpful either. Your points are well-taken. I agree, especially, that we don't want to blur together sexism by people in positions of power within philosophy and structures in society that create social pressures that make women's progress in philosophy slower.

  15. Cool! Thanks.

    And for the record, I should make clear that I think the issues you raise are very important and need to be dealt with. My only issue with the whole thing is that I think we need to work out how to do this in a way that is clear, fair and effective.