Male domination of philosophy ‘must end’

Department head Jenny Saul tells Paul Jump what she is doing to combat the bias against women

March 7, 2013

Women of power: clockwise from top left: Madame de Staël, Simone de Beauvoir, Rosa Luxemburg, Hanna Arendt, Marie-Olympe de Gouges and Sylviane Agacinski are all celebrated philosophers

While the sector as a whole may be marking International Women’s Day on 8 March, celebrations in many philosophy departments are likely to be muted amid concerns about male domination and sexual harassment.

According to a 2011 report for the British Philosophical Association, only 24 per cent of permanent UK lecturing staff (and 19 per cent of professors) in the subject are women. In the US, the figure stands at 21 per cent. And in the US, the proportion of PhDs awarded to women in philosophy in 2009 was lower than in any other subject, except physics, engineering and computer science.

The UK report, Women in Philosophy in the UK, was co-authored by Jenny Saul, head of the University of Sheffield’s philosophy department.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, she lacked a clear explanation for the scarcity of women in philosophy, but speculated that historical male domination of the subject had led to its becoming unconsciously associated with masculinity, making it “harder for people to judge women’s work to be good”.

Such stereotypes were further reinforced by the “macho posturing and aggression” that sometimes characterises philosophy seminars, she added.

In 2010, Professor Saul set up the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog that allowed women anonymously to share stories of “what it is like to be a woman in philosophy”.

“There was an absolute explosion of responses,” she said. “I was getting 20 or 30 emails a day for a couple of months, and the majority were really horrible stories of sexual harassment. It shocked me and the profession. Philosophers are now realising we have a sexual harassment problem, although I am not sure whether that is a cause or effect of male domination of the field.”

Professor Saul receives many invitations to talk to philosophy departments around the world about how they can address the gender issue. She said her role was partly about giving the many “well-intentioned” men within departments “permission” to do something about gender balance without fearing their solutions were presumptuous.

Her advice focuses on combating unconscious bias, such as ensuring that women are included among the portraits of historical philosophers that adorn the walls of many philosophy common rooms. She admitted that such measures were the “easy stuff” and was unclear whether they would lead to permanent change. But she was heartened that lots of departments contained “active groups of staff and students, men and women, coming up with really innovative initiatives”.

She was also pleased by the success of the campaign against all-male conferences in philosophy, launched in 2009 by the Feminist Philosophers forum that she co-runs.

She was “acutely” aware of the danger that her advocacy work could take over her life. But she said it dovetailed quite neatly with her research interest in feminism; as well as working on unconscious bias with colleagues from psychology, Professor Saul is writing a paper on sexual harassment.

She said she was spurred on by the security of her employment and the strong support of her department and institution. “It gives me the freedom to do it, so it becomes a moral obligation,” she said.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (6)

I intended to make some supportive remarks about this article and points to good practice. However, looking at the THE terms and conditions, I se that i am forbidden from doing so. See below: THE says I shall not "post content which refers to individual universities, colleges or agencies - or their staff - whether by name, or identifiable by a pseudonym or any other means" There you go....
With all due respect, there can be little useful discussion when there is a tendency amongst some feminist philosophers to criticise the foundations of philosophy as patriarchal discourse (e.g. empiricism, logic and rationalism). Like some of the other subjects mentioned, the fact is girls are simply not interested in philosophy. If philosophy was more available as as a subject at secondary and further education level then we might see more women studying the subject at university. But the physics example suggests otherwise. It is also worth pointing out, tongue in cheek, that Times Higher Education only have a marginally better female staff percentage than philosophy, according to the staff page (26% versus 24%)! Once you take out the administrative staff - both men and women - the percentage drops even further!
Thank you for your comment, Carl May. We have updated the Terms & Conditions for greater clarity.
@Richard Armstrong, What do you mean when you say that some feminist philosophers criticise the disciplines mentioned? Like, which philosophers do this and in what way do they criticise them? Though I am no expert, I personally have not encountered any feminist philosophers who would say that “logic per se is patriarchal” (which sounds pretty wishy-washy). Rather, they focus on how certain philosophical systems have traditionally been coloured with a specifically male perspective (rather than, as it should be, gender-neutral) which seems like a fair criticism. Even if the criticism of philosophical systems is unfounded, it seems an overreaction to say that there can be *little* useful discourse if, as you say, only *some* feminist philosophers are doing this? I would also point out that there is much criticism of logic, empiricism and rationalism from non-feminist philosophers. But just because, for example, dialetheists question the law of non-contradiction, doesn’t mean that there can be little useful discourse on logic. “The fact is that girls simply aren’t interested in philosophy” In virtue of what is this a fact? The fact that there are fewer women in higher philosophy cannot be an accurate metric of evidence, as there can be any number of reasons for it other than a lack of interest, for example: sexist discrimination; harassment; lifestyle choices… just check out the blog ! But this doesn’t mean that women aren’t interested in philosophy per se. And even if it were true that women are not interested in philosophy, the reasons for this remain questionable. There seems to be good evidence that many sex differences be attributed a whole plethora of social and environmental factors we are exposed to from birth. Cordelia Fine provides a good account of this in her book Delusions of Gender. I recommend you check it out.
I've had quite a careful look at this issue in my own research and there are really two quite separate issues here. One is the usual issue of institutional structural bias, and the other is I think more interesting and that is about genuine differences in the way men and women think. As far as the institutions go, yes, UK philosophy, and I rather think academic philosophy is male dominated and has a pervasive male bias. This is (I think) a kind of vicious circle - just as its Oxbridge and London bias means in the future Oxbridge and London dominance in ideas. I'd also say that the low status of practical ethics and philosophy of education, and the reverse emphasis on logic and analysis reflects a 'male' version of philosophy. This is never going to change as long as people insist that there are no gender differences and (for example) women are just as good at logic and analysis as men but are put off by (say) being taught by a man. The research does show a certain male bias towards abstract thought, characterised by maths and geometry, and this bias is used to say that therefore men 'should' be the philosophy professors. The fallacy (!) of course is that philosophy is not maths and is not logic, but is essentially an all-encompassing study of the world that looks for connections, makes subtle comparisons and requires a range of skills including (and this again is massively underplayed in today's male-dominated departments) the ability to listen to views, to work with others to create new understandings of complex issues, to communicate. I was part of a research project that argued this (in the 1990s mainly) and the end result was an institutional counter-attack in favour of 'more rigour' which meant more logic, more abstract metaphysics. It would be easy enough to appoint women professors, using the male values that are embedded in the system, easy but totally pointless. Philosophy is too important to be decided by crude gender assumptions. We need more 'female' thinking, and that requires a much more radical shift in thinking than 'appointing women'.
"...she...speculated that historical male domination of the subject had led to its becoming unconsciously associated with masculinity, making it 'harder for people to judge women’s work to be good.'." I'm not saying it is the case but could it be that men, on average, when submitting for PhD, offer more original works than women? I'm hesitant to jump on the "It's gotta be male chauvinism!" band wagon. Maybe there's something here that we're overlooking...

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together

man with frozen beard, Lake Louise, Canada

Australia also makes gains in list of most attractive English-speaking nations as US slips