The following is a guest blog post by Katharina Nieswandt, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal.
Why are only about one third of academic philosophers women?
Mainly because only about one third of students who either enroll in the undergraduate major or stay after introductory classes are women. I.e., at least in North America, the main pipeline leak occurs at the first stage of a potential academic career. Retention within the university system thereafter is probably proportionate, except for a significant drop at the step from associate to full professor. (Note, though, that quality data is hard to obtain, especially international data. Some of the better statistics are: ; ; ).
Why, then, do women either not enroll in the first place or drop out after the introduction? I.e., why is philosophy not an attractive major to women?
From a review of theoretical and empirical work on gender gaps in academia, we designed and implemented a survey (see section Study Design). The two most important factors turned out to be self-perceptions of brilliance and of belonging (see section Main Results). The following model depicts our results:
Two features set this model apart from extant explanations. (For important previous work, see: ; .) First, it results from an empirical investigation that meets current methodological standards, including psychometrics and literature review (see section Study Design). Second, we conducted inferential rather than only descriptive statistical analyses. Therefore, the results license conclusions about the actual population (as far as a self-selected sample ever can), supported by data from the sample, rather than only licensing observations about the sampled population.
Hypotheses were developed from an extensive survey of the literature on determinants of choice of major, academic gender gaps, role models, interests, abilities, and beliefs about brilliance (400 articles surveyed; 117 selected).
These hypotheses were tested via a questionnaire (n = 467), in four waves of data collection (2018–2021). The items (101, plus demographic questions) were partly created and validated for this purpose, partly taken from extant, validated questionnaires. A pilot version (n = 136; 2019) was fine-tuned based on psychometric results and theoretical considerations.
The study population were undergraduates at various types of North-American universities. We contrasted philosophy with psychology students, as the two fields strongly overlap in topics (such as the mind, human nature, social groups, norms—albeit with different methods and foci), but they have inverse gender ratios (with 80% of psychology undergraduates being women) and inverse gender problems (with psychology losing women later in their career, viz. after the PhD), see: ; ; .
The overall result was that the typical philosophy major perceives themselves as systematizing, as brilliant, does not value having a family, nor making money—all compared to the typical psychology major. Fewer women than men show these self-perceptions and preferences.
Before considering the details, please note that:
- The inventories we used define the above properties as follows: “Systematizing” is “the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system […] and to construct systems” and contrasts with “empathizing,” i.e., “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion,” thus allowing “you to predict a person’s behaviour, and to care about how others feel” (, p. 361; see also ). “Brilliance” is defined as “raw aptitude” or a “fixed, innate talent” for cognitive tasks (, p. 262). “Belonging” is defined as “the feeling that one fits in, belongs to, or is a member of the academic community in question” (, p. 700). We defined “combativeness” as a confrontational approach to debate at the cost of interpersonal considerations ([III]).
- All findings reported below were significant at a level of p ≤ 0.05 or stricter.
- Our study cannot tell whether the gender differences we found are the result of nature of nurture. Neither can it tell whether the reported perceptions are accurate—whether people who perceive themselves as systematizing, e.g., indeed possess high systematizing skills or whether philosophy, which is perceived as requiring these skills, indeed requires them.
The most striking details:
- In a structural equation model from gender to choice of a major (philosophy or psychology) via the self-perception as combative, self-perception as systematizing and prioritization of family/money/status, gender has no longer any independent explanatory power. In other words, these variables together can model the effect of gender on major for the two fields without explanatory residue. Their influence is indirect, mediated through the variable self-perception of belonging.
- Perceiving oneself as systematizing is positively associated with: the self-perception as belonging in philosophy (and, in turn, with majoring in philosophy) and is negatively associated with the self-perception as belonging in psychology (and, in turn, with majoring in psychology). These associations between systematizing and belonging are the strongest effects we observed. The self-perception as systematizing is furthermore positively associated with a self-perception as combative and is negatively associated with the prioritization of family and of money.
- Perceiving oneself as intellectually combative is positively associated with: identifying as a man and with perceiving oneself as belonging in philosophy (and, in turn, with majoring in philosophy). Self-perception as combative is also positively associated with systematizing (see previous) and prioritization of status. Importantly, it is through combativeness that systematizing is associated with identifying as a man; i.e., when combativeness is statistically taken into account, the direct association between identifying as a man and perceiving oneself as systematizing is no longer significant.
- Surprisingly, there is no main effect for gender on prioritization of family. Prioritization of family is positively associated with: prioritization of money and self-perception as empathizing. It is negatively associated with systematizing (see above).
- There were interactions between systematizing, prioritization of money and prioritization of status with gender in predicting feelings of belonging in psychology. Men who perceived themselves as highly systematizing or low in the prioritization of money or status also perceived that they do not belong in psychology to the same extent as women with comparable self-perceptions do. We can only speculate as to the reasons. One might think that public perceptions of psychology align more with female stereotypes and vice versa for philosophy and male (see ; ), and that students without clear priorities tend to perceive themselves as belonging where public perceptions suggest they fit and tend to choose accordingly. (In other words, the less you have personal preferences, the more likely you could be to follow a social stereotype.)
- Perceptions around brilliance are probably a major determinant of the other discussed perceptions and of interest. Confirming findings from previous studies, we found that philosophy is perceived as requiring more brilliance than psychology (as in ; ; ) and that women perceive themselves as less brilliant than men perceive themselves (as in ; ). In line with that, we also found that these perceptions predicted major, such that people who tend to think of themselves as brilliant tend to major in philosophy rather than psychology. Interestingly, however, there is an interaction with gender: for women but not for men, perceiving themselves as less brilliant predicts choosing psychology, rather than philosophy, as their major.
- Strikingly, these effects persisted even when controlling for high-school GPA and year in university. There was a main effect of GPA on brilliance, such that people with high GPAs perceive themselves as higher in brilliance. Crucially, women, on average, entered university with a higher GPA than men, but they nevertheless didn’t perceive themselves as more brilliant. I.e., controlling for GPA, women have a lower opinion of their own brilliance than men have of theirs. In addition, there was a noteworthy finding regarding year in university: The further students progressed in their degree, no matter their field, the less likely they became to perceive psychology as requiring brilliance, while their brilliance perception for philosophy did not change. In other words, university socialization increases the divide.
Overall, our findings provide (of course defeasible) evidence for the claim that students choose philosophy because they perceive a good fit between philosophy, qua requiring brilliance, and themselves, qua being brilliant, combative, systematizing, and indifferent towards “worldly rewards,” like family-life and money.
Future research should investigate whether these factors are causes of the gender gap or perhaps partly the result of a self-serving, stereotypical image that philosophy students develop after choosing philosophy as their major (perhaps reinforced by the discipline’s culture). More research is also needed of the relations between combativeness, systematizing, and the sense of belonging in philosophy: Is combativeness really the driving factor behind gender differences on these variables, as our research suggests? In addition, it would be important to test to what extent our results generalize to comparisons between philosophy and other fields than psychology.
Philosophical readers will ultimately be most interested in interventions. Foundational research rarely licenses pragmatic steps directly, of course, but the following two inferences appear justified: First, there probably is no quick fix for philosophy’s unequal gender ratio, since that might be part and parcel of a general social perception of certain abilities, character traits and life priorities as female or male. Second, pre-university interventions might be necessary, given the well-replicated finding that gender stereotypes develop early (see, e.g., ).
- Maranges; Nieswandt; Hlobil; Iannuccilli & Dunfield (2021): Explaining the gender gap in philosophy: An evidence-based model.
- Maranges; Iannuccilli; Nieswandt; Hlobil & Dunfield (2021): Brilliance beliefs, not mindsets, help explain the inverse gender gaps in psychology and philosophy.
- Maranges; Iannuccilli; Nieswandt; Hlobil & Dunfield (2021): What determines feeling of belonging and majoring in an academic field? Isolating factors by comparing psychology and philosophy.
Contact, Team and Funding
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