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.