On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory

Jennifer Saul over at  The Philosophers Magazine has an interesting article on the psychological biases in the field that are adversely affecting the role and presence of women in philosophy. Saul considers various explanations for why women are so poorly represented in philosophy, one of which is:

[T]he importantly distinct idea that women approach things differently, and that philosophy is the poorer for not fitting well with women’s ways of thinking. One version of this idea can be found in Carol Gilligan and another in very recent work by Wesley Buckwalter and Steve Stich. These claims of women’s difference, however, have never held up well empirically, as Louise Antony argues eloquently in her “Different Voices or Perfect Storm”. [links added]

I agree with Saul in general and have an alternative theory to offer as explanation for the lack of women in philosophy. I call it the Dickhead Theory.  The heart of the Dickhead Theory (DT) is contained in the email I sent to Saul:

One of the biggest problems is that philosophy is treated like a contact sport: an argument is a contest, a chance to knock your opponent down, to utterly destroy him. Look at the way male philosophers report on question-and-answer sessions at colloquia: “Oh, X just wiped the floor with Y; X just totally devastated Y’s objection’ and so on. Look at the hostility with which questioners confront speakers, or the bristling tone of most philosophy discussions. Are they doing philosophy or are they working out deep neuroses? I find all of this extremely distasteful and diligently avoid most philosophy talks simply because I cannot stand – pardon my French – all the dick-waving.

I understand that philosophy is structured around the construction, analysis and defense of arguments, and that as such, it is an adversarial discipline. However, I have yet to see any good argument that such activities are best conducted in an atmosphere that approximates the one described above.  Philosophy is, truth be told, seemingly overpopulated by male dickheads. And I don’t think women like being in disciplines where that is the case.

In response to my email, Saul directed me to a paper by Helen Beebee titled ‘Women and Deviance in Philosophy‘. In it, Beebee includes a section titled ‘The seminar as a philosophical battleground’, which I think, argues for the DT much more carefully and thoughtfully, and in much more temperate language. At the end of the section Bebee concludes:

The hard question remains, of course: do women in fact, in general – or perhaps just more often than their male colleagues – find the aggressive and competitive atmosphere that is often present in the philosophy seminar uncongenial, independently of any effect it may have via stereotype threat? I do not know the answer to that question. I myself do not enjoy being on the receiving end of aggressive and competitive behaviour, and…do not feel in the least bit demeaned by that confession. On the contrary: on my own personal list of thick moral concepts, these both fall under ‘vice’ rather than ‘virtue’. I cannot, of course, speak for others. But my point here has been that there are grounds for thinking that such an atmosphere is alienating for women – and hence good reasons to attempting to change the atmosphere of the seminar room when it is aggressive or competitive – whatever the answer to the hard question; so it is one that we can simply allow to lapse. The role of such an atmosphere in the pursuit of truth is, at best, neutral; at worst, it runs the risk of putting women off philosophy – thereby reinforcing the stereotype that philosophy is a man’s world.

Yeah. What she said.

21 thoughts on “On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory

  1. At the risk of unjustly downplaying its particular effect on women, I’ll note that the dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too. It’s one of the reasons I left the field. To succeed in some philosophical fora seemed to require not only the *willingness* to wave one’s dick in the way you describe, but an outright love of doing so. I don’t find oneupsmanship to be a very appealing motivator, which put me at a disadvantage.

    In my experience, the culture of free software development – my new home – is hugely less dickheadish in the ways described here than philosophy is, which is interesting, given software’s traditional gender imbalances. People in the software communities I’ve worked in seem genuinely interested in civility, for the good of the shared goal (a better piece of software), if not for the sake of the collaborative spirit itself.

    Anyway, thanks for the links!

    1. Boone,

      Glad this resonated with you. And in fact, thanks for pointing out how this affects men as well. Incidentally, I’ve had some FOSS people complain to me that there was too much flaming there as well. Glad to now your experience has been different!

  2. Well….As a woman in academic philosophy, I just want to say that I have been involved in a number of seminars (and departments) as both a student and a professional where dick-waving was not just a competitive sport, but a cherished and beloved ritual. But both as a student and as a faculty member, I voted with my feet, and am now very happy to say that I am in a place where such behavior is, from what I can tell, not encouraged, and in fact, would be viewed as the bullshit macho crap that it is. Alas, not all women in philosophy are fortunate to have this kind of choice to change their circumstances, and it is for this reason, along with many others, that I think we need to continue to speak out against this kind of behavior. And sometimes, when we can, vote with our feet.

  3. This is totally off topic, but a question to which I thought you might have an informed answer: Does Ayn Rand have any serious standing in the field of philosophy? I can judge her literary merits on my own but the other stuff, not so much. Thanks. Sorry for the random. P.

    1. Peter,

      She does not seem to feature much, if at all, in most academic reading lists. There might be some specialized Rand-clubs that read her a lot but as far as I can tell, she has no academic standing.

      1. Thanks. And not to be a “noodge” but the lack of standing is because Rand lacks any serious value as a philosopher, not because she’s such a brave truth-teller and visionary that the academy is afraid of her? I’ve read the renowned John Galt speech a couple times and my reaction has always been (1) either this is way over my head or (2) this is total crap. It seems like crap, but I could be wrong. Anyhow, thanks for the note.

    2. Although I suspect my perspective is biased by my embeddedness in the left wing environment of British Universities Rand is generally not considered a serious philosopher. That is not to say she is entirely devoid of value but there are other writers of greater value.

  4. I think that this is, if not the, so a part of the answer. However, although dislike of and lack of comfortability with dickheads and dickheading is probably (due to typical gender roles?) overrepresented among females, there are also quite a lot of males who dislike it, and some of them abandon philosophy or develop poorly in the departmental environment because of that – in spite of at least as much talents as those feeling more at home among the dickheads. Having been part of processes where seminar culture has been revised away from the dickhead style, I have noticed on several occasions how people who had been silent for years, suddenly started to speak, and how new speech styles, promoting afterthought rather than the hurried race towards a perceived success, thereby suddenly became present in the seminar. I have also been experimenting over the years with techniques at the primary levels for preventing the dickheads starting to dominate already there, which they otherwise usually do. The class and the seminar are alike in that verbal intelligence and rhetorical skill is much on display there and that is nutritious ground for dickheads, unless responsible mentors foster as the good parents they should be the art of restraint, humility and consideration in the activity of applying your academic intellectual, verbal and stylistic skills.

  5. Well, I find the DT theory useful to explain why I’ve experienced philosophy settings as horribly stressful, and thank you for that! But DT doesn’t quite get at the broader “lack of women in philosophy” question. The problem isn’t merely that women don’t want to be around the bad manners of Ds, but that programs are not recruiting, keeping, hiring, promoting them adequately enough. Philosophy programs need more than better manners to improve on this front. Give women funding, positions, job security, respect and promote their work. The presence of Ds will not deter them if it means making a living and being able to do good, respected, valued work.

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