Male domination of philosophy ‘must end’

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

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.

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