Why are there so few women in philosophy?

Posted: November 15, 2010 by Jender in sexual harassment

I’m a (male) philosophy graduate student at a Leiter top-20 institution, with which I’ve seen no extreme sexism or misogyny (though you need only read this blog to become fairly convinced that less extreme forms are likely to be found here and elsewhere).

My undergraduate institution (also Leiter top-20) was a different story. I don’t have the time or energy to go into the rampant and disgusting events I regularly encountered there, but I’d like to share the worst.

One of my close friends as an undergrad was a female, who happened to be extraordinarily attractive in a movie-and-tv-star-attractive sort of way. She was the subject of quite a lot of untoward conversation and behavior, among professors, grad students, and undergrads, but she was had a thick skin and chose to cope and persevere, rather than bail on philosophy altogether. I always (and still) admired her commitment in the face of such adversity, but it had a limit. I won’t relate all the other harassment she endured, but this is the reason she revealed to me that she left philosophy for good.

My friend went to see a senior (male) philosophy professor in the department to request special permission to take a course that was already full which fulfilled a particular philosophy requirement she needed (she was an advanced student at this point). The professor proceeded to ask her whether she was willing to pose nude for his photography. I’ll let that sink in, because that’s basically my whole story. She wasn’t auditioning for a nude photography class, she was there to get permission to be in a required part of the philosophy curriculum to graduate on time. And the professor asked her, in this context where he held all the cards, to take off her clothes and be photographed.

She brought this behavior to the (then) chair of the department. He was willing to pursue the course of action she chose, and she ultimately decided to drop the matter. While I certainly appreciate the respect for her autonomy, nevertheless as the story was related to me, it did not seem he particularly pressed for or desired university action against this professor. She continued in the program but soon dropped out; to this day, she is working in a field other than philosophy. The professor is currently at a different institution, though not to my knowledge on account of his unconscionable behavior (and I find it unlikely that it was localized to one such incident).

I might have thought this an exceptional circumstance, had such instances not been the status quo at the university. One professor was known to be paying the tuition of a student at another university (while he was married) because he carried on a sexual relationship with her. Another professor cheated on his wife with an undergrad (who was cheating on her husband with him). A third professor I saw at the last APA with his arms around two skimpily-dressed female grad students, neither of whom was his wife. I have more stories, but that about gives the flavor of it. The male professors (and they were with a few exceptions male) womanized, and undergrads, grad students, and colleagues accepted it, because that was how things went there.

The main reason I wanted to get such stories out is not the outrage I felt and feel, in the face of the fact that a close personal friend of mind, who is a good philosopher, no longer feels welcome in the discipline, even after surviving so much hardship. Rather, I’m upset that when I read blog posts and articles on ‘why there are so few women in philosophy’ they’re all about women having different intuitions or philosophy being too aggressive, or whatever. From my own personal (second-hand) experience, it’s rather *overt* sexism and misogyny, and institutional forces that are oblivious to it, that lead to the deficit. I’d like to hope that at some point, philosophers will stop caring about whether the explanation for the lack of women in philosophy is that they don’t “get” the Gettier intuitions, and start caring about whether the pigs who harass female undergrads haven’t been fired yet.

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