Philosophy Departments Lack Diversity

Jackie Brant, Opinions Editor

Despite having been warned about unequal gender distribution in the field, I was disappointed when I walked into my first day of Problems of Philosophy last semester and found few women in the room. While I’m admittedly only in my first year, my experience as a Philosophy major has shown me that, even at a school so focused on gender equality, philosophy as a field is still heavily dominated by men.

This is largely true at all levels of education and across the world, from ancient times until now. Women as a group have yet to successfully break into the philosophy field. According to Humanities Indicator’s article “Gender Distribution of Degrees in Philosophy,” in 2014 only 28 percent of master’s degrees and 31 percent of doctorates in the discipline were held by women in the U.S. At Oberlin, the statistic is similar, with an average 28.9 percent of degrees in Philosophy held by women since 2013.The Chronicle of Higher Education reports in “In the Humanities, Men Dominate the Fields of Philosophy and History” that just 17 percent of full-time Philosophy professors were women in 2011. At Oberlin, this statistic is much better than the national scale: Two out of six permanent Philosophy professors are women.

One explanation for the lack of women in the field is the nature of philosophy classes. Philosophy is the study of knowledge and thought and because of this, classes tend to be largely debate-based. In my experience, this type of discussion often leads to aggressive debate. According to Columbia University’s research “Gender Issues in the Classroom,” in general, women are less likely to participate in class, be called on and elaborate in class. Add the combative tendency of philosophy to the mix and the likelihood of active participation from women drops even lower. The lack of participation prevents women from fully immersing themselves into the conversations and leaves women less engaged in philosophy as a whole.

Furthermore, common misconceptions of what philosophy truly is can lead students, especially men, to turn what is supposed to be a logical discussion into an aggressive argument. For those without experience in the field, philosophy seems comparable to a Politics class: passionate and sometimes emotionally charged arguments with the ultimate goal to convince others of your point of view. Truthfully, this is not what philosophy is at all. At its core, philosophy is an open exchange of ideas, critique and correction. The goal is not necessarily to convince others, but to have others place intellectual pressure on logically presented arguments in order to strengthen your own answers.

This misconception can translate into malpractices in the Philosophy classroom, especially in introductory courses. Beginning-level courses are often filled with new students who do not have much experience with philosophy and often share in the general misconception that philosophy classes should be treated like debates. Discussions become competitions; who can knock their opponent down first? This type of debate is not only counterproductive and strays from the logical nature of philosophy, but is often a difficult atmosphere for women to participate in.

Gender bias in philosophy can also be seen in the underrepresentation of women in readings for philosophy classes. Philosophers who shaped modern society and established the canon, mainly during ancient times and the Enlightenment period, were almost exclusively white men. The field was built by male thought and therefore continues to be male-dominated.

Many of these writings serve as the basis for contemporary philosophical readings and must be read as a prerequisite to contemporary pieces. This is partially a reason as to why class readings are predominantly composed of male writers. However, even the balance of contemporary writings in philosophy programs are still tipped in favor of men, despite the fact that writings by women are much more numerous now. In a study conducted by NPR, pieces written by women only account for 6 percent of the essays in introductory philosophy textbooks. In the classes they studied, 89 percent of the readings on the syllabuses were written by men.

Philosophy is a field that has suffered and continues to suffer from a lack of diversity. Women, queer people, disabled people and people of color are continually underrepresented in regards to students, professors and curricula. To make philosophy classes a more welcoming environment for everyone, there are several things students and professors can do. Professors should work to be more inclusive in reading selections. There are plenty of philosophers, especially from this century, who come from diverse backgrounds and can bring their own unique perspective to classic philosophical questions. Professors should encourage free thinking and discussion in class while insisting on the logical integrity of philosophical discussion. This logical and non-competitive environment should also remain a central focus for students in philosophy classes. By keeping this in mind, students will help create a comfortable atmosphere for discussion in which all students can actively participate.