- Category: SWIP Blog
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On Saturday, 28th February 2015, the Society for Women in Philosophy Ireland (SWIP-I) hosted their second Mentoring Workshop in the Newman Centre, University College Dublin, on St. Stephen’s Green. This workshop was funded with generous support from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, which recognises SWIP-I as a disciplinary network doing significant work in mentoring.
The SWIP-I Mentoring Workshop had panels addressing the topics ‘philosophy and gender action’, ‘philosophy and community engagement’, and ‘philosophy and career pathways’. As part of this workshop, SWIP-I invited Dr. Ian James Kidd of Durham University to speak on the topic of ‘gender action and philosophy’, exploring both the theory and praxis behind gender activism within philosophy departments.
As an early career philosopher working in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University, a founding member of their Diversity and Inclusion Group (DDIG), and a former Equality and Inclusion Officer for the School of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science at Leeds, Dr Kidd is outspoken about the cause of improving the representation of women and other under-represented groups in academic philosophy, and is an active Friend of the Society for Women in Philosophy UK.
Since the issue of gender equality in higher education settings has become particularly relevant in the context of Irish universities, Dr. Kidd’s visit to Dublin was timely. Recent figures show that while 53 per cent of undergraduates are female, only 19 per cent of professors are women. The figure is significantly worse within the discipline of philosophy, especially in Ireland, where there are only about 10 full time permanent female staff members in philosophy departments. The ‘problem of women in philosophy’, as it is known, has recently attracted a huge amount of attention globally, as the articles on this blog and elsewhere attest to.
Dr. Kidd’s presentation to the SWIP-I Mentoring Session was entitled “Philosophy, Sexism and Activism” and in this talk he tackled the question of how to approach gender activism within philosophy departments, especially in light of the recent British Philosophical Association (BPA) Report about Women in Philosophy in the UK. As part of this report, the BPA released a series of Good Practice Guidelines that departments in the UK and Ireland are encouraged to adopt in order to address the gender inequalities that continue to persist within academic philosophy. Although these guidelines sensibly outline concrete measures that philosophy departments can put into place to redress sexism and gender inequality, there is a surprising amount of resistance to this sort of basic gender activism. In his talk Dr. Kidd in part explored the reasons for this resistance, looking at the dynamics of gender activism and the question of sexism. In particular, he explored four sources of sexism and resistance to anti-sexist activism: ignorance, conservatism, implicit bias and overt sexism.
Of particular interest is the question of implicit bias, where unconscious prejudices invisibly colour one’s actions, beliefs and decisions. Implicit bias within academia is particularly dangerous, as it impairs our personal and collective capacity to recognise inequalities and injustices as one believes that one (or one’s institution or organisation) has overcome or does not hold racist, sexist, homophobic or other prejudiced views. In fact, almost all of us hold implicit biases which concretely affect the way we treat and view others.
Dr. Kidd discussed at length the ‘nice bloke trap’ that arises because of implicit biases. Kidd argued that some male academic philosophers fall into this trap when they resist gender activism because they argue that ‘things here seem fine to me’. The point that Dr Kidd made is that the ‘chilly climate’ that women and other minorities experience within the context of the male-dominated realm of academic philosophy, remains invisible or unnoticed by the white men for whom the climate is warm and inviting. Constantly struggling against the micro-aggressions of sexism means that women are disempowered and disadvantaged both personally and professionally. Overall, Dr. Kidd’s talk was very informative and inspiring, especially for the members of SWIP-I who have been tackling the issue of gender inequality within philosophy in Ireland since its inception in 2010.
For further information on implicit bias and the ‘nice boke trap’, see also this Irish Times interview with Dr. Kidd on the question of ‘Why men should care about gender inequality?’ SWIP-I will continue to hold mentoring workshops and similar events over the coming months to address gender inequality in academia, particularly in philosophy.
Luna Dolezal is co-secretary of SWIP-I. She is an Irish Research Council / Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow between the Department of Philosophy, Durham University and the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin.
- Category: SWIP Blog
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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. This article was first published in the Dublin Review of Books on 1st March 2015 - see http://www.drb.ie/contributors-articles/on-not-being-smart-enough
- Category: SWIP Blog
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It’s a drizzly December afternoon and, after arriving too early for my first SWIP-I Committee meeting, I await the arrival of the other members. Although I have been looking forward to this gathering, when I glance at my watch at 15:51, my chief pre-philosophy event emotion, anxiety, washes over me. One by one, the other recently elected members arrive – all of whom are much more senior than me (excepting my soon-to-be fellow Student Representative). “Everyone that’s meant to be here is here?” Affirmative. Once it is decided which members shall fill each committee role, the next item on the agenda is forthcoming SWIP-I events.
Committee member, Áine Mahon, is taking the lead on arranging two mentoring workshops – one in February, one in June, to provide support, encouragement and direction to female graduate students in philosophy, who are probably (read: definitely) wondering what on earth they will do after they submit their theses. These workshops address an issue most female philosophy graduate students are acutely aware of: if you are a woman hoping for a career in philosophy, the odds are not in your favour. The statistics are there: only 19% of Philosophy Professors in the UK are women for example, and, as Clara Fischer has already mentioned on this blog, there is nothing to suggest that they fare any better on this side of the water. A senior female philosopher once told me: “One has to work hard in academia and a little bit harder too, just for being a girl.” Part of this work inevitably must involve overcoming “stereotype threat”: the (conscious or sub-conscious) awareness of one’s minority status that can predispose one to “fluff it” at crucial career-defining moments (interviews, conferences and the like). We need to get a hold on stereotype threat, or else all the rest of the hard work females do just for being girls might not pay-off. Mentoring workshops, which will nurture the skills and confidence of early-career female researchers, aim to do exactly this.
There is another concern, also related to confidence, that SWIP-I hopes to address: all of those forgotten or half-formed philosophical ideas that self-doubting, potential stereotype threat victims aren’t brave enough to put “out there”. Without proper discussion, it can be hard to discern fertile/original thoughts from those that are derivative. One only has to look at Plato’s Socrates to see that philosophy is not a solo venture – even the best thinkers benefit from dialogue. In recognition of this, SWIP-I are hosting bi-weekly “Work In Progress” sessions in 2015. If any SWIP-I members are working on an idea they suspect might be good, but could do with some feedback, they can get in touch with the committee and arrange to present it in a supportive setting.
There’s more in the pipeline, to be announced in due course but, to conclude this instalment, I recall my pre-meeting angst and realise how silly it was to have felt that way before meeting with a society committed to helping people not to feel this way. So, if I have any wisdom to impart to other SWIP-I members after my first committee meeting, it’s this: don’t be shy, get involved. 2015 looks good for women in philosophy!
Mary Edwards is a student representative on the SWIP-I committee.
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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.