Friday, 6 May 2011

M-Phi and gender (im)balance

Philosophy has a notoriously skewed gender balance, and things tend to be even worse in more techy areas such as logic, philosophy of mathematics etc. Those of you who know me are probably aware that this is something I worry about a lot, for all kinds of reasons. For starters, poor gender balance is self-perpetuating: if there is a strong association between a certain area and men, which is reinforced precisely by the low number of women in the area, then young women who might otherwise consider pursuing their interests in the given area are very likely to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, thus turning to areas and occupations that they feel are more 'congenial'. And so the cycle continues... Hoping that things will get better by themselves has proven to be an overly optimistic attitude, precisely in virtue of the self-perpetuating nature of the phenomenon.

So instead, I am convinced that it is only by making conscious efforts towards redressing gender imbalance that we are likely to make any progress (yes, affirmative action). It would be crucial for example to increase the visibility of the women who already do good work in a given field typically associated with 'maleness' so as to to counter the stereotype, and one way this can be done is by trying to increase the proportion of women as speakers at conferences. With this in mind, I have created a list of women working in philosophical logic and philosophy of logic, which is meant, among other things, to serve as a source of ideas for conference organizers. The list is being constantly updated, and suggestions for additions are always very welcome!

Another important measure is mentoring/coaching individual women at the early stages of their careers. It is probably very hard for men to understand that women have to counter a lot of biases to pursue their interests in a given 'male' area, including self-imposed biases. They often need to be explicitly told that they have what it takes, that they do belong in a given field, that they have good potential. Most women will profit from the kind of reassurance that might be seen as 'overkill' by men. So I ask you, fellow M-Phi'ers, to pay particular attention to the talented young women around you who are constantly confronted with feelings of inadequacy, and who could certainly benefit from some extra encouragement.

Well, there is lots more that I could write on the topic, but I will leave it at that for now. To be sure, I certainly don't intend to use this blog as a constant outlet for my feminist activism (fortunately, I already have New APPS for that!), but I thought it would be worth reminding the readers of this blog that this is an important issue, and one which requires a conscious effort to be addressed. We are so used to the situation that we usually don't even pause to think of its utter absurdity.


  1. There are a couple things of note.

    First off, the fact that male philosophers tend to treat young female graduate students at conferences as dating material rather than future colleagues surely doesn't help the situation (and my own recent observations at conferences convinces me that this problem doesn't seem to be lessening as one would hope and expect).

    Second, there is a striking fact about the list of female logicians/philosophers of math. It seems to me to include a much smaller number of American-based researchers than one would expect given the fraction of philosophers in general who are based in America (this is just based on an initial impressions - I haven't checked any actual statistics, so I could be wrong about this - please correct me if I am!). I don't know exactly why this might be. Are Americans even more sexist than the rest of the world? I wouldn't think so, but who knows?

  2. On the 'dating material' observation, we ran a couple of posts on sexual harassment in the profession at New APPS. This was the last one, and has links to all the others:

    It's a serious issue.

    As for your second point, do you think there are women working in North-America who are not on the list? But anyway, it doesn't necessarily mean that North-America is more sexist across the board, given the phenomenon of positive role models. It takes only a few strong positive female role models for many more women to follow a given professional path. So I think there are quite a few women logicians in Italy, for example, which makes sense if you think of great senior female logicians there as Giovanna Corsi and Maria Luisa Dalla Chiara. Hence my focus on this role model business!

  3. Hi Catarina,

    Thanks for this.

    Two more suggestions for your list: my friend Natasha Alechina (Informatics, Nottingham) - Natasha works on resource-bounded logics. Also my Edinburgh colleague Natalie Gold, who works in areas connected to decision theory and collective agency. Hopefully, also Mary Leng (Liverpool, soon York), whose book "Mathematics and Reality" has just been published, may contribute here at M-Phi too, but she's a bit tied up at the moment (with her new arrival). I'm a big fan of Susan Haack.

  4. Your point about positive role models is well-taken. And, if my quick observation about the relative lack of American names on this list is right, then that makes it even more important for Americans like me to support female researchers in the area.

    The two points I raised are not, I realized just now, independent. I suspect that some senior researchers worry that being too supportive runs the risk of appearing inappropriate. I recall reading one story on the 'whatisitliketobeawomaninphilosophy' blog where male graduate students were invited out for drinks with faculty members, while female graduate students were invited over for dinner with faculty and their families (or something like this). While I don't deny that the outcome is bad (assuming that drinking is more conducive to talking philosophy than playing with children is), on reading this particular post I wondered how much of the difference had to do with thinking of the female students themselves differently, and how much had to do with thinking about how the invite might be construed by others.

  5. Thanks for the post Catarina.

    These are some good ideas; although I would be cautious not to advocate an antipodal bias to solve the problem.

    It's good to be aware "that male philosophers tend to treat young female graduate students at conferences as dating material" - and also during their degrees too!

    While overtly they're usually not that bad, a lot of the prejudice is insidious and subconscious by nature. It would be good to have some advice for younger women in philosophy from women further in their academic career. Particularly on the most conducive way to deal with these kind of challenges.

  6. Hi all, thanks for the comments!

    Call me overly optimistic, but there *must* be ways for men to coach/mentor young female students (grad and undergrad) which will not raise suspicions in the flirting department. I am sensitive to the point that, by being overly careful, men may in fact be withdrawing the kind of support which they would otherwise confer to male students. I've had many senior men mentoring me along the way, and at least those men never showed anything that could be construed as inadequate behavior.

    But then, this reinforces anonymous' point of the importance of women further in the career providing this kind of mentoring, not only to avoid potential misunderstandings, but most importantly because they will have had very similar experiences. That's why I take my role as a 'mentor' of more junior people very seriously. Similarly, I specifically look for women more senior than me to discuss specific aspects of my professional life.

    Of course, in a sense it's not so good to do things in such a 'gendered' way, since the point is precisely that gender shouldn't matter. But that is an idealization that we are nowhere near achieving, so for the time being the experiences of men and women in the profession tend to be very different.