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On Not Being Smart Enough

Clara Fischer

During my early beginnings as a graduate student, I did not realise that the kinds of treatment I received had a name: sexism. I began to learn that much of what was happening to me was about me as a woman (not as a person or a philosopher) and that it was caused by overt and covert sexism at both personal and institutional levels. I also began to understand that what was happening to me was not my fault, that I was not merely an overachiever, and that my interests in philosophical aspects of environmental issues and philosophy for children were legitimate philosophical concerns. But … like many professional women of my generation, I continued to internalise the exclusion, marginalisation, and put-downs with such self-talk as “I just am not smart enough”, “I only get good grades because I work so hard, not because I am any good at philosophy”, and “People don’t like me because there is something wrong with me.”

This anguished testimony of setting out toward a career in philosophy by feminist thinker Karen Warren is sadly not at all unusual, as other essays also collected in Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy demonstrate. The book is a series of personal reflections on the obstacles women philosophers have faced by virtue of their gender, obstacles that were often also complicated by class or race. Written in the early 2000s, and focusing on events as far back as the 1960s or 70s when most of these now well-established philosophers would have been PhD students or early career academics, one is likely to ask: how are such accounts still relevant today? Has women’s place in philosophy, and their treatment by philosophy departments, universities, and peers changed? What progress, if any, have women and other historically marginalised philosophers made within the profession, and what challenges remain? In what follows, I will explore these questions, making the case for a tentatively optimistic reading of women’s contemporary place in philosophy. On the one hand, structural inequalities, such as women’s representation and inclusion, seem utterly entrenched, sometimes even insurmountable, while on the other, awareness of the need to overcome such inequalities is growing, with societies, academic fora and blogs drawing attention to the danger a mono-gendered, raced, and classed discipline poses not just for underrepresented philosophers but also for philosophy itself. There are thus signs of changes afoot that could seriously undermine the intransigence of gender inequality in philosophy.

First, then, an overview of said entrenched inequalities: philosophy remains one of the least diverse disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. While great strides have been made, for instance, by English, history and sociology departments in recent decades, philosophy, certainly in the European and North American context under discussion here, includes woefully few women. On average, only about twenty-one per cent of scholars working in philosophy departments are women, and there appear to be serious attrition rates from undergraduate to PhD levels, with women making up just thirty-one per cent of recipients of philosophy PhDs in the US in 2011, and twenty-nine per cent in the UK. Although formal numbers are not recorded in the Irish context, staffing levels at Irish philosophy departments reinforce this picture.

It must be said as well that women working in philosophy are subject to the systemic discrimination women academics more generally face. The recent landmark case won by Micheline Sheehy Skeffington is thus instructive, as it highlights serious flaws and gender inequality in hiring and promotions at at least one Irish university. This is further borne out by figures subsequently released by the Higher Education Authority on foot of a Freedom of Information request detailing a significant gender gap in senior academic posts, as just fourteen to twenty per cent of professorships are held by women in Ireland. Notably, unlike other jurisdictions, Ireland does not have a dedicated body or office in charge of tracking and disseminating statistics and research on gender and other equality concerns in third level education. A Higher Education Equality Unit was closed down in 2003, despite the obvious need for such a unit given recent revelations. And while the adoption of the UK’s Athena Swan model to advance women within the STEM subjects is to be welcomed, there is still a strong case to be made for significant intervention in humanities subjects, such as philosophy, which have lower levels of PhD graduates than most sciences.

Notably, although women in philosophy encounter wider systemic gender inequalities at universities, there appear to be unique aspects to the discipline as such that result in lower levels of women’s representation (when compared to other disciplines), and in lower retention rates from undergraduate to PhD levels. These are informed by questions concerning presence and processes of inclusion, what counts as philosophy, and what makes a philosopher. Many philosophers have pointed to the linkages between an absence of women philosophers and the reinforcement of the legitimacy of their absence. In other words, if women’s work is not included in course syllabi, and does not appear in anthologies, or is not cited by other philosophers, such work will continue to be marginalised and viewed as irrelevant to the philosophical canon. Similarly, women’s exclusion from academic conferences – sadly not an unusual occurrence – sustains the impression that women have nothing of value to add to the discipline. The same is true of women teachers of philosophy, as the low representation of women in philosophy departments feeds into the stereotypical conception of the quintessential philosopher as male. There is a strong sense here, then, that a politics of presence is required to make women visible as philosophers, thereby transforming the discipline into a more hospitable place for women students and academics.

Related to whether women’s work makes it onto syllabi and into philosophical texts is the question of the validity of certain philosophical pursuits. As Warren notes in the quote above, having her work on children and the environment deemed philosophically unworthy is a problem specifically related to women’s place in philosophy. Precisely because it is seen as in some way more “feminine” and not on a par with the “serious” questions of philosophy, is such work dismissed as outwith the remit of philosophy. Most topics in feminist philosophy have met this charge, as themes related more closely to women’s experiences come under fire for being too specific (read: feminine) or ideological (read: politically explicit). Moreover, the exclusion of women and women’s work in philosophy can be traced to the now growing research on implicit bias and assumptions around what makes an accomplished philosopher.

Last month, for instance, Science published a study establishing a direct correlation between numbers of women in a discipline and dominant norms within that discipline concerning success. Specifically, respondents from a discipline prizing innate knowledge or talent above other features or strategies for success within the discipline (such as hard work), experienced higher levels of women’s underrepresentation. Citing philosophy’s strong correlation between underrepresentation and the prizing of genius, the study thus underlines the already informally acknowledged boy wonder syndrome, where assumptions about who is a genius – who possesses innate knowledge or talent – are often gendered, and informed by race and class. Importantly, such assumptions need not be explicitly held by members of the profession, but may be held despite individuals’ contrary formal views. Note, also, Warren’s internalisation of biases concerning knowledge and genius, when she laments her lack of smarts, and attributes her good grades to hard work, rather than to aptitude. Research on implicit bias shows that our socialisation in sexist societies results in biases we may not be aware of, a phenomenon that is amply captured in research on discrimination in hiring processes (where CVs with a woman’s name generally score more poorly, despite being identical or better than a man’s) and student evaluations.

So much for the structural inequalities facing women in philosophy. What, then, of the tentatively optimistic appraisal I’d planned to offer? Although the inequalities detailed above may be stark, there are signs of reappraisal and a growing acceptance of the need for change. Societies for Women in Philosophy now constitute a network of organisations drawing attention to said inequalities, and are introducing measures to redress same. For instance, although the Irish Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP-I) was only established in 2010, it has already held over twenty events, many of which dealt specifically with gender inequality in the profession, or supported women philosophers in others ways (for example by providing opportunity to present work, networking, and mentoring).

Moreover, such activities have been matched by mainstream philosophical bodies, such as the British Philosophical Association (BPA), which, in conjunction with SWIP UK, designed and implemented a Best Practice Scheme for philosophy departments that includes specific regard for the promotion of gender equality. The American Philosophical Association, similarly, is currently inviting submissions to its planned Code of Conduct for Professional Philosophers, and already has a very active Committee on the Status of Women, which includes on-site visits for departments seeking to improve their climates for women philosophers. In Ireland, too, there are now significant opportunities for structural intervention in philosophy, but also in academia more generally. For instance, the BPA/SWIP UK Best Practice Scheme calls on philosophy departments in the UK and Ireland to meet to adopt the scheme, hence, Irish philosophy departments have a ready-made tool-kit for redressing some of the historical disadvantages women in philosophy face. Moreover, the Equality Tribunal’s ruling in favour of Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington sets a precedent for subsequent cases, and seems to have prompted at least nominal concern for gender by the university administration, while galvanising activism by students and staff.

Of course much more remains to be done, including, I think, the setting up of a body dedicated to promoting and tracking equality at third level in Ireland, and interventions aimed specifically at those subjects with poor track-records on gender equality, such as philosophy. However, there is cause to be tentatively optimistic: at least recognition of the problem generally no longer needs to be argued for. Thanks to researchers working on implicit bias, to personal accounts by women philosophers shared on blogs such as What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?, to official reports by societies and representative bodies, and to cases taken by individual academics, we at least now know and can substantially support the conclusion Karen Warren came to some time ago: “that much of what was happening to me was about me as a woman … and that it was caused by overt and covert sexism at both personal and institutional levels.” The task for the present age is to move beyond that conclusion toward substantial amelioration.


Dr Clara Fischer is a Newton International Fellow at LSE and communications officer of SWIP-I.  see