Doing Something About Women in Philosophy

This month, the Society for Women in Philosophy Ireland (SWIP-I) will host a conference on the topic of Women’s Bodies with the support of the Irish Research Council. The conference is the third of its kind in Ireland, the organisation having been launched in July 2010, and, with over 45 speakers, also the largest to date. There will be presentations on topics such as surrogacy, pregnancy, beauty norms, reproductive rights, and sexual violence, delivered by emerging scholars, as well as by established philosophers. Given the significant interest the conference has already generated among speakers and attendants, one might ask what appeal such gatherings might hold and why.

SWIP-I is the Irish branch of a growing network of groups promoting women in philosophy. The rationale behind such organisations is broadly similar across geographical locations. The idea is to promote women in philosophy by providing opportunities for the airing and dissemination of women philosophers’ work, for networking, and for more general support, such as mentoring and professional advice. SWIP groups also usually include within their remit the highlighting of gender inequalities within philosophy, and devising possible means of redressing these. Philosophy, sadly, has been shown to be one of the less, if not the least, hospitable discipline in the humanities for women, certainly in a Western European and American context. This is borne out by the low numbers of women entering and staying in the profession (on average 21%), but also by official reports tracking student numbers from undergraduate to PhD levels, and career progression of women within the discipline.

The British Philosophical Association has documented significant attrition levels by women students taking philosophy beyond undergraduate study, and US research shows that most sciences award more PhDs to women than does the discipline of philosophy. While data is sadly lacking in an Irish context, a cursory glance at the gender ratio of staff in the six philosophy departments on the island of Ireland suggests that the situation here is no better. Arguably, the problems posed by such underrepresentation of women in academic fields is more widely recognised by the STEM subjects, where significant interventions have been underway for some time. The increased momentum behind societies promoting women in philosophy, including SWIP-I, can thus be attributed to a desire to counter the seeming intransigence of philosophy with regard to its inclusion of women.

For, the relatively low retention rate of women seems not to stem from women’s lack of interest in philosophy, but from a host of factors that often render philosophy an unfriendly, or even hostile, place for women to work in. There is evidence of discrimination within philosophy, while the explicit or implicit biases of a largely homogenous discipline inform the ways in which that discipline conducts its business. Texts by women philosophers, on topics that might hold greater interest for women, or are written from a feminist perspective, are therefore often overlooked in the collation of syllabi and the production of philosophic work, as are women speakers for conferences. In fact, it is not at all unusual to come across public fora where the only contributors invited to speak are male philosophers, a phenomenon the blog, Feminist Philosophers, seeks to counter with its Gendered Conference Campaign. Such exclusion of women – whether intentional or not – reinforces the perception that philosophy is a pursuit reserved for those of a certain gender (as perhaps best exemplified by philosophy departments’ frequent use of Rodin’s Thinker on websites), but also of a certain race and class.

Those sceptical of the effects of philosophy’s homogeneity on women would do well to survey some of the personal accounts detailed on the blog What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? While these accounts are a sorry reminder of how far philosophy has yet to go to redress an often damaging culture of exclusion and sexism, there are positive measures being adopted, many of them handily captured on the accompanying blog, What we’re doing about what it’s like. Some of these are bearing fruit already, as there appears to be a growing awareness and sensitivity among philosophers toward the experiences of under-represented groups in the profession.

SWIP-I should be viewed as one of these productive interventions in an Irish context, promoting and supporting women philosophers, while highlighting and possibly undoing some of the traditional inequalities women in philosophy have had to endure. This year’s conference theme, Women’s Bodies, reflects the explicit focus on women and gender SWIP-I takes, and is appealing, I think, for speakers and attendants alike, as a theme that might not get top billing elsewhere, and as a means of showcasing work that might be marginalised in other contexts. The conference will bring together philosophers working on a variety of topics under the broad conference theme, and promises to be an exciting event not just for women philosophers, but for people of all genders with a lively interest in philosophy. The SWIP-I conference will thus be philosophically stimulating and rewarding in itself, but will also form an instance of SWIP-I’s efforts to do something “about what it’s like.”

Clara Fischer is a SWIP-I committee member. The conference will be held on 21st & 22nd November in Newman House, see www.swip-ireland.com. 

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