See also the reading/groups page for the 'Women in Philosophy' support and writing group.
Background and School of Philosophy initiatives
In 2008 a report from the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP), “Improving the Participation of Women in the Philosophy Profession”, charted a range of statistics on the gender imbalance in philosophy in Australasia and made a series of recommendations that were substantively different from previous recommendations made by the AAP, in that in addition to identifying the need to secure equitable procedures for new appointments and promotions, it also placed particular emphasis on the need to implement concrete strategies for peer encouragement and information sharing and to instil a research culture that is supportive and constructive.
Both the statistics and the recommendations provoked further questions about what might be responsible for the apparent gender bias of philosophy and what might be done to remedy it. Given that previous recommendations seem to have been effective in producing equitable results when women are being interviewed for jobs, why are so few actually applying (women gain jobs in philosophy at a rate proportional to their applications for them)? Are there forms of tacit sexism at work in the discipline that are putting women off, or do more complex explanations need to be given? And where does the responsibility and power lie to change things?
To give a sample of some of the issues at stake here, the 2008 AAP report notes that the proportion of women employed in Fractional and Full Time work contracts in philosophy programs in Australia is lower at all levels than the participation rates of women across the university sector (in 2006 women held 23% of continuing Teaching & Research positions in philosophy compared to 36% across all disciplines). Also significant is that the proportion of women in philosophy above level B (lecturer) is very much lower than the rate across the sector and strikingly low at the level of full professor (level E). It is clear that there is a significant drop off in women’s participation occurring at every stage in the advance along a career path in this area, and that this begins in the transition to higher levels of study. Although women typically represent more than 50% of 1st year course enrolments, they represent only 36% of Higher Degree by Research students in philosophy (2000-2006).
These phenomena are not unique to Australasia. Sally Haslanger’s article “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)” (Hypatia, 2008) engages a range of data drawn largely from the USA, including statistics on the percentage of women employed in continuing positions in the top 20 philosophy departments in the United States, and uses bibliometrics to demonstrate the unequal representation of women in what are deemed to be the leading philosophy journals. Haslanger collected data on publications from 2002-2007 in seven of the top ranking philosophy journals (Ethics, Journal of Philosophy, Mind, Nous, Philosophical Review, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research). The data showed that on average 12.36% of the articles published in these journals over the period were written by women. Ethics had the highest representation with 19.3% and Mind had the lowest with 6.38% (Haslanger Appendix 1 p220). In comparison with the 18.7% tenured women in the 20 top ranking philosophy departments in the USA (Haslanger Appendix 3 p222), these figures indicate that women are under-represented in top philosophy journals (even when their under-representation in leading departments has been taken into account). Another striking statistic from Haslanger’s journal data, is the incredibly low percentage of feminist philosophy articles published in leading philosophy journals. Of the seven journals examined, only two: Ethics (3 articles) and Philosophy and Public Affairs (4 articles) had published articles in feminist philosophy during the five year period, and the total number of articles in feminist philosophy published across the seven journals in the five year period was 7 out of a total of 296 articles (2.36%) suggesting that feminist questions are side-lined in the philosophy discipline.
Interest in these problems is international and very current. In September 2009 an article by Brooke Lewis appeared in The Philosophers’ Magazine highlighting concern about the situation in the United Kingdom. Lewis’ article “Where are all the women?” included some statistics gathered by The Philosophers’ Magazine indicating that only 18% of full time academic staff in philosophy departments in the Russell Group of British universities are women. This article also included material from interviews with a number of philosophers in the UK, whose observations and personal experiences suggest that the situation there is very similar to that in other Anglophone countries. The article notes that Helen Beebee, the director of the British Philosophical Association (BPA), is currently conducting research aimed at gaining a set of statistics on women’s representation in philosophy at all levels across the UK, similar to that compiled in the AAP report.
School of Philosophy initiatives
The WIP group was established in 2009 and is currently facilitated by School Visitor, Dr Fiona Webster, who completed her PhD in philosophy at ANU in 1997. The group welcomes any women in their undergraduate, honours or postgraduate years, whether or not they have an interest in pursuing an academic career in philosophy. It also welcomes staff in the philosophy discipline and has the strong support of Dr Fiona Jenkins, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Head of School, Professor Daniel Stoljar. It is also formally recognised in the School’s Strategic Plan.
In 2010 the WIP group is meeting every Thursday in the teaching weeks from 10.30-11.30 am in the Coombs tea room. Anyone is welcome.
The group targets women at all levels in the philosophy discipline precisely because the drop off in participation levels clearly begins at the undergraduate level, and has a noticeable knock-on effect – it is support and “mentoring” at this very early stage which will encourage greater participation and retention at postgraduate and faculty levels.
The group aims to provide an informal network of support, discussing a range of issues, from philosophical ideas, essay questions, approaches to works in progress (honours and postgraduate theses), to problems raised in current courses and how to apply for grants, scholarships or jobs. Each week, the group aims to structure its discussion around a particular issue or question, following the needs and interests of the participants. This year, it also hopes to take advantage of the many high-profile women who visit the School, and who would be happy to make a contribution to the group. Such women can serve as valuable mentors for those women studying and working at ANU, and the value of meeting them within the informal environment of the women in philosophy group cannot be underestimated.
To date, the group has met once a week during teaching periods, and additionally, on a more informal basis, during teaching breaks.
The success of the group in supporting and encouraging women in the discipline has been clear. In particular, honours students have found the group to be a valuable resource for support, both in providing an independent response to their own formative philosophical essays, and a source of advice for their applications to continue study either within or outside of Australia.
The group has also been supported and encouraged by other prominent women in the philosophy discipline in Australia, many of whom have spent part of their academic career at the ANU. For example, upon hearing of the group at the women in philosophy symposium in 2009 (details below), the response of our keynote speaker, Professor Moira Gatens (University of Sydney) was immediately to laud its establishment and suggest it should have funding. She had no doubt it would provide a valuable source of much-needed support and advice for women in the discipline, and would only flourish if given adequate resources to do so.
The group received funding in 2010 from the Vice Chancellor’s Academic Women’s Advancement Fund, and this funding was matched by the College of Arts and Social Sciences. This reflects the commitment of the School, and ANU, to improving the support given to academic women in advancing their careers.
On 10th August 2009 a symposium was held at the ANU on the challenges facing women in philosophy. The day was very well attended by women from across Australia, as well as from the US and New Zealand, and by a few senior men in the profession. Representation of speakers and participants was at all levels in philosophy, from undergraduates to postgraduates, and from junior faculty to professors, and it was clear from the lively discussion throughout the day that the topic had hit a real nerve of concern and interest. Beyond those who were able to come to Canberra, the organisers (Fiona Jenkins and Katrina Hutchison) also received messages from Canada, the UK and the US expressing support for the event and voicing similar concerns.
The symposium sought to explore through philosophical reflection and feminist analysis the experiences and issues facing women in philosophy, in view of recent reports and interventions. The theoretical contributions to discussion included attempts to analyse logics of inclusion and exclusion and phenomena of corporeal as well as cognitive dissonance experienced by women practising philosophy.
Several participants reflected upon their personal experience of the structure and extent of gender discrimination within philosophy, with a particular focus on how adverse criticism, combative styles of argument and narrow conceptions of disciplinary philosophy or of the value of pursuing certain topics create problems. These issues raised questions about appropriate forms of professional recommendation to address them given the risk that these can sometimes reinforce rather than redress gender bias. Speakers also described some of the strategies women have developed to survive and flourish in male-dominated environments. Overall the mood of the conference favoured exploration of positive measures that could be enacted and demanded within the existing institutional frameworks, to improve the experience and prospects of women in philosophy.
Also under discussion, however, was the public standing and perception of philosophy. One speaker drew attention to the difficulties of justifying the choice to study philosophy to friends and family as a single mother, occupying a social position associated with certain clear (and heavily morally weighted) practical responsibilities, with which the pursuit of this sort of disciplinary education is presumed to be at odds. She spoke passionately in opposition to that point of view, expanding the understanding of what responsibilities women in relations of care may bear, as well as their entitlement to pursue less obviously ‘practical’ career paths. Other speakers also highlighted the importance of considering women’s social roles and self-conceptions alongside a reconsideration of the value of philosophy as something other than an elite and gentlemanly pursuit.
The 2009 symposium was so successful that many participants inquired as to whether it would be held on an annual basis. It also exposed many younger women at the ANU to a range of women studying and working within the discipline, which was in itself a source of encouragement and inspiration. The value of this sort of gathering therefore lies not only in discussing and debating actual strategies for change and improvement within the profession, but also in providing promising students with access to role models or mentors.
Since the symposium, Dr Jenkins and Ms Hutchison have been offered a contract to edit a book which will focus on the issues and challenges raised in the symposium discussion, drawing selected contributions from women who spoke on the day, as well as from other women in philosophy, with the aim of stressing the international context of the questions.
The book aims to offer a multi-dimensional analysis of the problems encountered by women in the philosophy profession alongside a focus on the question – what needs to change? This key question places an emphasis on the cultural contexts of philosophy, both inside and outside the academy, and on the question of the different forms of agency and responsibility for change. How is this distributed among men and women in philosophy, or at different levels of seniority? What practical support do women need, particularly in a career that is not easily reconciled with the timing and demands of having children, and how can this be delivered equitably? How can women promote conceptions of philosophy that will better reflect their experience of its value and importance, challenging narrow understandings of its role? And can we collectively build practices of philosophy that are not only formally inclusive but perceived by women themselves as a vitally important and worthwhile dimension of human life?
The ANU is supporting (through the Academic Women’s Advancement Fund) a second symposium to be held in the first half of 2011, responding to the questions and issues raised in the 2009 symposium as well as the papers published in the book, and discussing concrete strategies for change. It will be an opportunity to reflect on progress made since the first symposium, and to learn from other women in the discipline, at other universities, what issues and challenges we face, and how ANU might take a leading role in improving the participation and retention of women in the discipline.
In addition to the WIP group and symposium, the School aims to increase the number of women students at the undergraduate level pursuing majors, and honours, in philosophy.
To this end, it brings together philosophy tutors at the beginning of each semester to brief them on the AAP report and the School’s commitment to implementing its recommendations. It asks tutors to be mindful of the Report’s findings, and to specifically target promising women students (along with male students) to encourage their consideration of pursuing a major in philosophy and undertaking the honours year. Towards the end of the academic year, the School will contact identified students, women and men, to discuss the requirements for the honours year.
This direct targeting of promising students aims to reduce the disparity in enrolments between men and women at Honours level, in line with Recommendation 8 of the AAP report.
For more information regarding Women in Philosophy please contact Fiona Webster.