It’s not just me. It does seem there has been a lot of talk recently about women in philosophy: their absence, why they leave philosophy so early, the sexism and sexual harassment they face, and whether philosophy seems to do worse in this regard than other disciplines in the humanities or even science. (To jump into this debate, you could do worse than chase down some of the links available here through the excellent New APPS blog: discussions on the under-representation of women in edited volumes, conferences, the McGinn affair, for instance.)
I consider myself to have already made a contribution to this debate by my positing the Dickhead Theory as a possible explanation for the lack of women in philosophy. To wit, academic philosophy is overpopulated by male blowhards who seem to conceive of it as a contact sport and engage in public displays of obnoxious behavior at academic fora. Today, I want to embellish that claim just a bit in response to some of the discussion that was sparked by Rebecca Kukla’s suggestion that the adversarial nature of philosophy was something women could and should be able to handle:
I think that the whole idea that women are put off by or unsuited to the aggressive, argumentative style of philosophy is crap.
This has sparked a fairly extensive discussion so I’m definitely coming to this late, and possibly with very little, but let me press on regardless, mainly by way of anecdote. (A far more theoretically informed discussion can be found on the New APPS blog here and here. I broadly agree with Jennifer Saul that whether or not the aggressive style is something that women are comfortable with, its bad for philosophy, and with Eric Schliesser that modes of argumentation can be productive without being aggressive and that even if philosophy was adversarial in the past doesn’t mean it has to be now.)
So: the best and most useful and productive philosophy discussions I have participated in have not taken place at public fora like conferences or colloquia. They have taken place in private settings: a beer in a bar or at someone’s home, a discussion over a coffee somewhere. They have been intense in the best sense of the word: lots of ideas exchanged, arguments traded back and forth, positions questioned and examined extensively. The contrast with the ‘public’ discussion of philosophy could not be more acute. There, the aforementioned Dickhead Theory finds ample confirmation.
The reasons for this, I think, are quite simple: philosophy as a discipline seems to set great store by performances in its public arenas: the forums, the conferences, the workshops, the colloquia. Here is where, apparently, you ‘make an impression’, where you posture. Its graduate students are highly insecure, worried about jobs and placement. They go to these venues hoping to make a visible impression; they have already received some instruction on how to perform from their ‘heroes’: the tenured (male) bigwigs who will write their letters of recommendation (and who once were graduate students just like them). The peacock effect in these settings then manifests itself in the visible display of coarsely demonstrated philosophical nous.
Take a discipline racked by deep insecurity about its worth compared to science, which finds its most pleasing self-image in imagining itself continuous with the natural sciences and aspires to their ‘hardness’, throw in a largely male population, add a desperate job market, a culture of uncritical hero worship of its luminaries, mix in a sphere of ostensible academic interaction used instead for preening and strutting and the academic equivalent of mating, and you have, I think, the makings of a domain, which will continue to remain hostile to women.