It is easy to think that science is uniquely bad amongst the academic disciplines in the problems that some women may face. In the past few weeks I have visited various Universities to discuss some of the relevant issues and give their management a nudge about what needs to be done regarding Athena Swan submissions. During one of these, to the University of Sheffield, I was delighted to meet Jenny Saul, whose research includes the study of stereotype threat and unconscious bias, issues that undoubtedly feed into the problems that many women in STEM may face. But Jenny is a Philosopher (indeed she is Head of the Sheffield Philosophy Department) and she has drawn my attention to the difficulties in her own subject, which is also male-dominated at senior levels (although not amongst undergraduates). It seems that this is another discipline in which there are endemic issues making things difficult for women, with some close parallels to the sciences but also other significant differences.
Since that first meeting a few weeks back, I have followed up with Jenny to learn more about the experiences for women in philosophy and how they compare with women in STEM. I will also be exploring any particular issues affecting Cambridge female philosophers with the local Women in Philosophy Group since, as Gender Equality Champion in Cambridge, my brief extends far beyond science: I need to appreciate what the stumbling blocks are in the Humanities disciplines just as much as in my own. (It is worth pointing out that my university is split into six Schools, four of which relate to the STEM disciplines including medicine, plus the Schools of Arts and Humanities and of Humanities and Social Sciences.)
Before I get into what seems to be the same and what different for Philosophy, let me start with a stark question. One of the first things Jenny asked me completely stopped me in my tracks.
‘Is sexual harassment rife within the sciences? It is in Philosophy.’
My immediate answer was: no, it isn’t widespread. My more considered answer is: perhaps I don’t know. Is it? If you are a young female researcher, are there senior researchers and faculty who prey on you in lecture theatres, laboratories or at conferences? Just how bad is it? I have asked other women in the intervening weeks and they have also said no it isn’t bad. But then they’ve gone on to qualify their responses with some anecdote which would seem to say the opposite.
That qualification I suppose ties in with my own experiences. On this blog I have previously posted stories about situations in the not too distant past which have made me very uncomfortable (e.g. here and here, although in both cases they should probably be called ‘mere’ sexism rather than sexual harassment). I have tended to shrug these off as unpleasant but not really representing a fundamental problem in my discipline. But maybe I am being naïve, because I am to a large extent protected by my age and standing. Nevertheless, I do not hear more than the occasional horror story, and those usually occurring at conferences rather than in day to day workplace experience. Alcohol excuses nothing, but I am sure reduces barriers so that offensive behaviour is more common at the end of a heavy day of conference talks rather than when just going about one’s daily business in the lab or office.
So, my blunt question is – how bad is sexual harassment (as opposed to sexism of which there is plenty) in the sciences? I’d be interested to receive comments so that we can build up a snapshot of how people perceive things, in case I am just missing the hell that some people are being put through. I am particularly interested in the UK experience, since that is where I am based and where the schemes I am familiar with – Athena Swan and the IOP’s Project Juno – offer scope to improve the climate at least at work (though conferences may be another story). For Women in Philosophy there is a website where individuals can post their stories anonymously – it makes for grim reading. For anyone who doesn’t want to add a comment on my blog because of concern around confidentiality issues, please feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your experiences so that I can add them as comments to this post without disclosing names or institutions. If harassment is still rampant, it should be possible to discuss it collectively. Zero tolerance should be the policy everywhere, but it is hard for individuals on their own to achieve or enforce for all the obvious reasons. However harassment will thrive on secrecy and fear.
So that’s the heavy, depressing part out of the way! Moving on to consider the similarities and differences between the sciences and Philosophy, there is a useful status report prepared jointly by the British Philosophical Association and the Society of Women in Philosophy UK last year. It highlights the fact that, unlike in STEM where the problems for women have been discussed and explored for a number of years and initiatives such as Athena Swan and the IOP’s Project Juno developed to try to improve the culture, nothing similar exists so far in Philosophy. Indeed, the problem does not seem to have received much attention at all. As with Chemistry, the undergraduate population is fairly evenly balanced between the sexes; numbers fall off rapidly thereafter, with only 19% of professors being women (not much above the value in Biology, although this starts from an undergraduate base consisting of more women than men).
One factor that seems to be significantly different in Philosophy is the heavy dominance of male authors on typical reading lists and whose work is being cited. Or rather, that in itself isn’t different, but it matters in a much more deep-rooted way because these texts are analysed to a degree that would be unusual for a scientist reading a research paper or standard text. In general it isn’t the language or the manner of expressing an opinion that matters to an aspiring scientist, it is only the facts and the equations. So as scientists we are probably less likely to be influenced by or sensitive to the gender of the writer. A second factor is that philosophers – apparently – use styles of argument and language that are stereotypically male. To quote the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger (and this is a quote I’ve lifted from a very informative and illuminating article by Jenny Saul on her website)
As feminist philosophers have been arguing for decades, the familiar dichotomies with which Anglophone philosophy defines itself map neatly onto gender dichotomies – rational/emotional, objective/subjective, mind/body; ideals of philosophy – penetrating, seminal and rigorous; and what we do – attack, target and demolish an opponent, all of which frame philosophy as masculine and in opposition to the feminine.
I don’t personally think the language and process of science operates within such a linguistic and gendered framework. Although I have seen ardent feminists object to the language of physics, because concepts such as force are ‘clearly male’, for me this seems an artificial objection. A force is a force. But, I can see how a philosopher being told their argument is emotional or subjective might feel they were being devalued at a personal level, and it could be sufficiently off-putting to contribute to their desire to quit the subject. Thus it would appear that the very structure of philosophical thought and argument as currently practiced constantly reinforces potential gender differences and so contributes to stereotype threat. The report on Women in Philosophy I mentioned earlier suggests that this is both unnecessary and could be overcome, offering some practical suggestions to facilitate a culture shift.
I wish the philosophers all the best in their attempts to level the playing field. If, as is currently being considered and piloted, Athena Swan extends its remit to subjects other than STEM, then maybe philosophy will be a discipline that can particularly benefit.