Can Data Help Us Improve the Situation for Women in Philosophy?

by Nicole Hassoun

“I feel like I am missing out,” “I fear for my career if I speak up,” “I am stuck in an awful place,” “I wish I knew what to do”. These are just the titles of some entries in the blog “What’s it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?” where women tell their stories about their reception in the field. Given that these stories are mostly ones where women have been harassed, degraded, ignored, rejected, and disrespected, it is not surprising that women are under-represented in philosophy at all levels.

But how do we begin to fix the problem?

We believe data can make a difference. That’s why we created the Demographics in Philosophy Project. The  project attempts to collate some of the existing data and provide new data that can have an impact on the field. So far it has looked at the proportion of women on the faculties of 99 departments and the number of women publishing in 20 top journals (according to a recent Leiter survey) over several decades.

If we know what programs and journals are doing well and which are doing poorly, and how things are changing over time, perhaps we can figure out how to make progress. Do any large departments have 50% women on their faculties? How does philosophy compare to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines? How are women distributed among different professorial ranks and at different kinds of departments? Are highly ranked programs really worse than ones that that are less highly ranked or unranked? Are women hired in proportion to their representation in graduate programs and then promoted? Are different kinds of journals publishing women in proportion to their representation in the field (or publishing a greater or smaller proportion)?

Although we are still analyzing the data, philosophers might be interested in some of our preliminary findings.

1) Very few schools have reached 50% women.

2) As of 2015, women account for 25% of tenured/tenure track philosophy faculty (comparable to several STEM disciplines) and things are improving more slowly in philosophy than in several of these disciplines.

3) Things tend to get worse for women as one ascends the hierarchy.

a. Women are better represented as Assistant than Associate and as Associate than Full Professors.
b. In general, Philosophical Gourmet Report ranked institutions do less well, and are improving slower, than unranked institutions.

4) The average proportion of women in top journals was only 16% and evidence from a sample of these journals suggests things have not changed much since at least the 1970’s.

a. Journals practicing blind review tend to do worse than those who do not.
b. Relative to the proportion in the sub-disciplines, it is hardest for women to publish in ethics journals and then in general journals (which is a problem because the greatest proportion of women in the field are in this sub-discipline).

More data is still necessary to answer some of our questions and to set targets and evaluate performance, in an attempt to improve the situation of women in the field. We must wait at least a few more years to know, for instance, whether there is a glass ceiling that explains why women are not as well-represented as Associate and Full Professors as Assistants. We also need to do more analysis to identify what has gone wrong in the academic pipeline.

Still, this data is incredibly important because we need to know what programs and journals are doing well and which are doing poorly, and how things are changing over time, to figure out how to increase diversity in the profession.

We also hope the site itself will create incentives for positive change. The top ranked programs have something to brag about and poorly ranked ones may be embarrassed about, or disappointed with, their performance. Perhaps just by ranking programs in this way, we can get people to pay attention to, and address, the problems for women in philosophy. Graduate students and faculty may prefer to be in more diverse programs and department heads, deans, and other administrators may start to pay attention.

If you have ideas for improvement or to contribute to our efforts, please contact us dataonwomen@gmail.com.

Nicole Hassoun is a residential fellow with the Hope & Optimism Project at Cornell University and an associate professor in philosophy at Binghamton University. Hassoun is the author of Globalization and Global Justice: Shrinking Distance, Expanding Obligations and head of the Global Impact Health project, in addition to her work with the Demographics in Philosophy project.