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Women Excluded from Disciplines That Prize “Raw Intellectual Talent,” Study Finds

Socrates, a male philosopher, surrounded by yet more male philosophers, in Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Socrates" (1787) (via Wikipedia)
Socrates, a male philosopher, surrounded by yet more male philosophers, in Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” (1787) (via Wikipedia)

According to a study released in Science, women are underrepresented in academic disciplines that place an emphasis on “raw intellectual talent,” as opposed to qualities like work ethic. Authors Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer, and Edward Freeland note that despite the hype about the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, some of those boast equitable gender ratios while subjects in the humanities remain male dominated. Around half of the molecular biology and neuroscience PhDs in America are women, while philosophy is one of the five disciplines with the fewest female PhDs (the only fields with fewer are engineering, computer science, physics, and music composition). Even economics fares better.

Attempting to account for these statistics, the authors hypothesize that disciplines requiring — or perceived to require — innate intellectual ability are especially hostile towards women, whom the study describes as “negatively stereotyped on this dimension,” i.e. regarded as stupid. The results of the study, which consisted of a “nationwide survey of academics,” support this supposition, explaining gender distribution across disciplines better than competing hypotheses. The researchers found no correlation between the gender breakdown of a discipline and either its selectivity or the hours of work required for it. Only the original hypothesis, about innate brilliance, predicted the actual state of the academy. Though the study focused primarily on women, Leslie et. al. also discovered that their model predicted the distribution of African Americans across different fields.

The question, then, is whether women and African Americans are excluded from abstract, theoretical disciplines like physics and philosophy because white/male academics actively disparage them or because they’ve internalized stereotypes. In all likelihood, both forces are at work.

Philosophers, who place a supremely high value on intellectual horsepower, come out on the bottom of the gender and racial equality totem pole. Philosophy has historically had one of the worst gender imbalances in the academy, and lately it’s been plagued by a host of scandals that point to the need for reform. Why is a discipline that purports to be so committed to critical thought so backwards in this regard?

In a 2007 article in Inside Higher Ed, Miriam Solomon of Temple University argued that philosophy’s emphasis on abstract reasoning is responsible for the gender disparity. The sort of dialectical engagement that philosophy requires, she wrote, is “associated with masculine forms of thinking.” The problem, which often gets pegged as related to the sorts of research agendas women have historically been encouraged to pursue (namely, non-scientific ones), may not be as straightforward as we tend to believe: the underlying biases may run deeper, targeting not just the spheres in which women are represented but also women’s capacity for critical thought.

Solomon’s theory was borne out in my experience as a philosophy major — and I found that the field’s fetishization of rationality perpetuates sexism in more ways than one. Not only are women traditionally regarded as “irrational,” but male philosophers are so intent on thinking of themselves as rational they they cannot admit to their own irrational biases. Many of my male peers were so loath to acknowledge the origins of their prejudice that they attempted to justify it via appeals to reason: one fellow student, apparently unfamiliar with the problem of induction, explained to me that his belief that “girls can’t do philosophy” was “just empirical.”

Although empirics would have it that philosophy is irredeemably exclusionary, I have hope for my beloved discipline yet.

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