academics & research

Women in philosophy speak out against sexism



In light of recent political events, people across the country have raised concerns about treatment of women — even in the world of philosophy.

As researchers begin to study why philosophy has few women and is rife with sexism, philosophy professors and students at IU speak out about their experience with sexual harassment and discrimination to bring attention to these issues.

In 2015, women comprised only 23.4 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty in the top 50 graduate programs in philosophy, according to the Philosophical Gourmet 
Report.

“Why is it this way?” said IU Associate Professor of Philosophy Kate Abramson. “There aren’t any easy 
answers.”

Stories of sexual harassment plague the male-dominated discipline.

After Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy at Yale University, was accused of sexual harassment by a graduate student earlier this year, hundreds of professors signed a letter criticizing Pogge.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Sandra Shapshay narrated an incident from her graduate years when a male professor said she could sit on his lap during a colloquium.

Why philosophy struggles with representation of women isn’t known, said Jennifer Saul, professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

“There are lots of hypotheses, but we don’t really know,” Saul said, speaking about the research that has gone into the subject.

Philosophers like Saul have recently begun to address the issues women in philosophy face.

Saul hopes to receive a large grant to work with psychologists to investigate philosophy’s gender imbalance problem and see what can be done.

Given the gender imbalance, women can easily feel uncomfortable, Saul said.

Vicki Consolvo, an undergraduate senior majoring in economics and philosophy, said she has felt the isolation of being a woman in philosophy.

“In philosophy, you just don’t see other women around you,” Consolvo said. “You feel as though, if you raise your hand and you’re wrong, you’re wrong on behalf of all women.”

Though she admires the works of philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt , Consolvo said she hasn’t studied that many female philosophers.

“It’s a stereotype, when you walk into a classroom, that you’re the only one of a certain group and you have to prove yourself for the whole group,” said Sarah Adams, a graduate student in philosophy.

The relative lack of women in philosophy itself could contribute to issues of 
sexism.

Adams recounted an experience of being the only women in a hostile class of 20 students.

“People were standing and yelling at each other to try and knock down people’s arguments,” Adams said. “It makes you feel like you don’t want to be around those people.”

The aggressive atmosphere persisted through much of Adams’ experience in philosophy, and some philosophers speculate this culture might be the culprit.

“Philosophy is often practiced in an aggressive, hyper-competitive manner,” Saul said suggested as a possible explanation.

As a competitive culture where scholars are often at each other’s throats, philosophy itself sometimes thrives on attitudes stereotypically associated with men, Saul said.

But this explanation raises concerns.

“Are women less aggressive than men?” Abramson asked. “Do women react more negatively to aggressiveness? There’s a real question of how aggressiveness in women is perceived by people.”

Abramson said aggressiveness isn’t the cause of these issues, and Shapshay showed some skepticism to this explanation as well.

“It’s really dangerous to generalize because I think there are some women who really enjoy the field because it’s combative,” Shapshay said.

Still, Shapshay said it might be true that society teaches men to be competitive and women to be cooperative.

Women aren’t inherently incapable of performing well in a competitive, aggressive culture, but attitudes about gender affect the culture, Saul said.

“Stereotypes affect how comfortable women feel,” Saul said. “They affect performance. They affect how women are assessed and interacted with.”

A woman who likes to argue might not be perceived as a “good woman,” Saul said.

Philosophy’s emphasis of rationality, reason and logic, qualities associated with men, might be a cause, Saul said.

Along with the lack of research on these issues, women who speak out against these problems come under fire with threats and retaliation from other individuals, Saul said.

Evidence might be scant, but academics are starting to look for the answers and take the steps toward solving the problems.

“I had some professors at Columbia, when I was a graduate student, who recognized that women in philosophy tend to have to work twice as hard as men,” Shapshay said.

A director of graduate studies once gave Shapshay a fellowship over a male student even though they both had the same grades.

“Those who pursue philosophy and stick with it tend to be the ones who like to argue and debate and be tough on each other,” Shapshay said.

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