Friday, September 22, 2023

Percentage of Women Philosophy Majors Has Risen Sharply Since 2016 -- Why? Or: The 2017 Knuckle

Back in 2017, I noticed that the percentage of women philosophy majors in the U.S. had been 30%-34% for "approximately forever". That is, despite the increasing percentage of Bachelor's degrees awarded to women overall and in most other majors, the percentage of philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded to women had been remarkably steady from the first available years (1986-1987) in the NCES IPEDS database through the then-most-recent data year (2016).

In the past few years, however, I have noticed some signs of change. The most recent NCES IPEDS data release, which I analyzed this morning, statistically solidifies the trend. Women now constitute over 40% of philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients. I would argue that this is a very material change from the long-standing trend of 30-34%. If parity is 50%, a change from 32% women to 41% women constitutes a halving of the disparity. Furthermore, the change has been entirely in the most recent six years' of data -- remarkably swift for this type of demographic shift.

The chart below shows the historical trend through the most recent available year (2022). I've marked the 30%-34% band with thick horiztonal lines. A thin vertical line marks 2017, the first year to cross the 34% mark (34.9%). The most recent years are 41.4% and 41.3% respectively.

[click to enlarge and clarify]

Given the knuckle-like change in the slope of the graph, let's call this the 2017 Knuckle.

What I find puzzling is why?

This doesn't reflect an overall trend of increasing percentages of women across majors. Overall, women have been 56%-58% of Bachelor's degree recipients throughout the 21st century. Most other humanities and social sciences had a much earlier increase in the proportion of women.

However, interestingly, the physical sciences and engineering, which have also tended to be disproportionately men, have showed some similar trends. Since 2010, physics majors have increased from 40% to 45% women -- with all of that increase being since 2017. Since 2010, Engineering has increased from 18% to 25% women, with the bulk of the increase since 2016. Since 2010, "Engineering Technologies and Engineering-related Fields" (which NCES classifies separately from Engineering) has also increased from 10% to 15% women, again with most of the increase since 2016. Among the humanities and social sciences, Economics is maybe the only large major similar to Philosophy in gender disparity, and in Economics we see a similar trend, though smaller: an increase from 31% to 35% women between 2010 and 2022, again with most of the gain since 2016.

Since people tend to decide their majors a few years before graduating, whatever explains these trends must have begun in approximately 2013-2016, then increased through at least 2020. Any hypotheses?

It's probably not a result of change in the percentage of women faculty: Faculty turnover is slow, and at least in philosophy the evidence suggests a slow increase over the decades, rather than a knuckle. (Data are sparser and less reliable on this issue, but see here, here and here.) There also wasn't much change in the 2010s in the percentage of women earning Philosophy PhDs in the U.S.

A modeling hypothesis would suggest that change in the percentage of women philosophy majors is driven by a change in the percentage of women faculty and TAs in Philosophy. In contrast, a pipeline hypothesis predicts that change in the percentage of women philosophy majors leads to a change in the percentage of women graduate students and (years later) faculty. Both hypotheses posit a relationship between women undergraduates and women instructors, but with different directions of causation. (The hypotheses aren't, of course, incompatible: Causation might flow both ways.) At least in Philosophy, the modeling hypothesis doesn't seem to explain the 2017 Knuckle. Concerning the pipeline, it's too early to tell, but when the NSF releases their data on doctorates in October, I'll look for preliminary signs.

I'm also inclined to think -- though I'm certainly open to evidence -- that feminism has been slowly, steadily increasing in U.S. culture, rather than being more or less flat since the late 1980s and recently increasing again. So a general cultural increase in feminist attitudes wouldn't specifically explain the 2017 Knuckle. Now it is true that 2015-2017 saw the rise of Trump, and the backlash against Trump, as well as the explosion of the #MeToo movement. Maybe that's important? It would be pretty remarkable if those cultural events had a substantial effect on the percentage of women undergraduates declaring Philosophy, Economics, Physics, and Engineering majors.

Further thoughts? What explains the 2017 Knuckle?

It could be interesting to look at other countries, and at race/ethnicity data, and at majors that tend to be disproporately women -- patterns there could potentially cast light on the effect -- but enough for today.


Methodological notes: NCES IPEDS attempts to collect data on every graduating student in accredited Bachelor's programs in the U.S., using administrator-supplied statistics. Gender categories are binary "men" and "women" with no unclassified students. Data are limited to "U.S. only" institutions in classification category 38.01 ("Philosophy") and include both first and second majors back through 2001. Before 2001, only first majors are available. Each year includes all graduates during the academic year ending in that year (e.g., 2022 includes all students from the 2021-2022 academic year). For engineering and physical sciences, I used major catories 15, 16, and 40; and for Economics, 45.06.


Eddy Nahmias said...

Can you check to make sure it's not driven in part by a decrease in male majors? If not, I hope part of it is the result of the focus on that problem in the pipeline that seemed to become sharper in 20teens. Work by APA, Morgan Thompson et al, Sarah Jane Leslie, Carrie Figdor, etc. perhaps seeping into the general culture more?

Anonymous said...

One plausible hypothesis is that women undergrads are simply more competitive at entry to college. Male students are admitted with lower test scores and grades, to even out sex/gender ratios. So there are just more women who can do well across the board. This would explain increases in physics and engineering as well. (Anecdotally, my female students are by and large better writers, and much better at reading comprehension. The majority of my male undergrad students struggle with basic reading comprehension and writing skills. There is a very impressive minority, but male students are a weirdly bimodal distribution.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting point, Eddy! There has been a substantial decrease since 2010 in men majoring in Philosophy, but it's not obvious how to interpretation this trend. The trend for men was a decrease from 2010-2016, then only a slight decline from 2017 to 2022, so although there's an interesting temporal relationship to the 2017 Knuckle it's not the relationship you might be thinking of. It's not a steady-state for women and a drop-off for men starting in 2017.

Overall, the philosophy major declined sharply in total Bachelor's completions from 2010 to 2016, then began to partly recover:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Here are raw data, if you're interested:

Total majors, 2000-2022

Women, 2000-2022:

Men 2000-2022:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 03:04: That's possible, but I'm not yet seeing how it would specifically explain the 2017 knuckle. Could you clarify a bit?

tom said...

The Good Place started in 2016. There was a time when philosophy seemed to be having a bit of a moment in popular culture.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Traditionalism and traditionalist thinking have ran the show in western society for many years, in spite of efforts to level the field. As a discipline, philosophy is no exception. I worked in a civil rights career, so I knew how attitude translated into behavior. It was a tough job in many ways, trying to change hearts and minds and drag people into what was then the twentieth century. Over previous centuries, philosophy had its' naysayers, primarily male, who just did not want to admit that women could think clearly enough to tread the murky waters of the thinkers' craft. Old habits die hard. Prejudicial behaviors and attitudes are the most resistant to change.
I think it is getting better. Nice work. The numbers are encouraging. Maybe other cultures and traditions will get the message? Some will, others are mired in paternalism.

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Am unfamiliar with many films. Only marginally familiar with Tina Fey. My take is, roughly, this: art, imitates life. With license. If, and only if, real people do, or would do, what the film illustrates, then we are in bigger trouble than I thought. That is not so surprising, because, in addition to being a pragmatist and skeptic,I am also an optimist. My elder brother is not so hopeful. He thinks cooperation is cancelled out by competition. I agree with that, claiming complexity is also a negative driver. Film makers,doing what they do, create entertainment. That is not, in itself, philosophy. If it helps someone acquire a sense of philosophy, fine. There is a long awaited football rematch tonight, between legendary superpowers, ND and OSU
I just don't care about that. No bets.No skin in the game...

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

So, OSU won. Yee hah. It will be a long season. They will win the Big Ten,or twelve or whatever it is now. They will finish, no better than five, at the end of the season. I can think of five nationally known teams who would clean their clocks in the first half. Looks to me like the coach drinks too much. Bright note: the athletic director is gone...many years too late. There have been many incompetents, hired and fired, from high-profile, high-paying administrative jobs here in the last forty years---if not more. The C word comes to mind: corruption. Ain't that quaint? No, it is a disgusting reality of competition, cooperation and complexity. All of that appends with corruption. Welcome. Yeah. Pretty much.