Philosophy programs find low numbers of female students, faculty

Max Dible

One example of a slow and steady push for gender equality on campus is the representation of tenured female faculty in the field of philosophy.

According to Kathryn J. Norlock’s article “Women in the Profession,” a report written to the Committee on the Status of Women in 2006 and updated in 2011, only about 16.6 percent of full-time philosophy faculty were women, with females accounting for 20.69 percent of all philosophy faculty.

Heimir Geirsson, associate professor and chairman of philosophy and religious studies, put numbers to the female presence in the philosophy field at Iowa State.

“We are ahead of the curve, and at the same time we aren’t, depending on how you look at it,” Geirsson said. “We have 16 tenured faculty in philosophy, and four are female. It’s 25 percent.”

Recent hiring practices in the branch of philosophy are representing women at a much higher rate.

“If you look at our last six hires, three have resulted in women being hired. If you ask why it is that way, we hire the best candidates,” Geirsson said.

Geirsson was hesitant to discuss the possible explanations for the discrepancy of women working in philosophy because many of them are rooted in bias.

“Some of the speculations about why we have so few women in the field I don’t want to get into, because quite frankly they seem to be based on stereotypes,” Geirsson said.

Geirsson offered one idea that might help to explain why women are deterred from careers in philosophy before they ever get started.

“One speculation is that women look at the discipline as a whole before they start graduate school, and they see a male dominated field,” Geirsson said. “They may ask themselves, ‘Do I want to get involved in what may be an uphill battle?'”

That particular circumstance is one with which Anri Moore, sophomore in philosophy and environmental studies, can identify.

“As I got into the 300 level philosophy classes, I immediately realized that I was one of three girls in most of my classes, and in each class, it was always the same girls,” Moore said.

Moore also said she did feel some intimidation being a member of such an underrepresented group.

“I was definitely kind of intimidated because not only was I one of three females, I was also the youngest,” Moore said.

Many examples used in popular philosophy courses tend to have been developed from a male standpoint. Dissenting views, perhaps from the female perspective, may be disregarded in virtue of the male intuition, Geirsson said.

“Again, this is speculation, but being told early on that your instincts are wrong in a systematic way is not exactly a friendly way to be introduced to the discipline,” Geirsson said. 

According to “Women in Philosophy? Do the Math,” a New York Times op-ed piece by Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, women also face systemic obstacles such as implicit bias.

Annemarie Butler, associate professor of philosophy, defined the term.

“[Implicit bias] is something that’s operating below the level of belief. It’s implicit in that it’s not an overt intent to discriminate,” Butler said. “While you’re not consciously discriminatory … it might be that you want to hire someone who looks like you or has common interests. This has the net effect of discriminating … although it is not formed intentionally.”

Geirsson spoke to why Iowa State has been more successful than many other universities in incorporating females as tenured faculty in philosophy.

“On campus we have the [ISU] Advance group that educates people about what can be done,” Geirsson said. “They point out how all departments on campus can better try to recruit women and minority candidates.”

The number of faculty able to serve as role models helps female students by providing a visual representation of success with which they can identify, Butler said.

“It’s a slow process,” Butler said. “Where I’m focusing my efforts is the pipeline. … If our goal is to study the human condition, let’s get humanity represented. Everyone benefits, I think, with a diversity of voices.”