Featured Philosop-her: Lisa Fuller

I am very happy to welcome Lisa Fuller as the next featured philosop-her.  Fuller is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Albany. Her main areas of research interest are political philosophy (especially global justice), applied ethics and feminism.  Having worked closely with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) Holland, much of her work has focused on issues related to global poverty and international aid. In addition, some of her recent work addresses problems related to adaptive preferences and issues in non-ideal theory. She has published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Journal of Moral Philosophy, Journal of Global Ethics and Developing World Bioethics.

Her post follows.


Transforming Philosophy: A Proposal

Lisa Fuller, University at Albany, SUNY


Recently a great deal of excellent work has been produced on the topic of why women philosophers make up such a small percentage of the discipline.  Much of this work has focused on how unconscious psychological processes such as implicit bias act as barriers to women’s success in philosophy.[1] Various methods designed to combat these barriers have been suggested, such as anonymizing written work and application materials, and where this is not possible, minimizing time pressure, exposing decision-makers and evaluators to examples of excellent women philosophers, and encouraging decision-makers to actively reflect on the possibility that bias may have entered into their judgments.[2] My understanding of these recommendations is that they are primarily aimed at reducing the effect of implicit bias on judgments of philosophical quality, that is, they are meant to help us improve our assessments of papers, job candidates and students by correcting for systemic unconscious prejudices that cause women philosophers to appear less good, rigorous, articulate, insightful, etc.[3]

There can be little doubt that regularly employing these strategies would bring about improvements.  Nonetheless, I think it would be illuminating to shift our focus away from psychological factors for a moment, and instead direct our attention to the larger social and institutional contexts in which professional philosophers make assessments and decisions. Specifically, we can fruitfully view the situation of women in philosophy as an instance of structural oppression.

Iris Young explains that,

“[O]ppression also refers to systemic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of [the powerful]. Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.”[4]

She adds that structural oppression is built-in to “features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms” and are “systematically reproduced in major economic, political and cultural institutions.”[5] In what follows, I mean to call attention to the institutional structures and systemic constraints that may contribute to the continuing underrepresentation of women in philosophy.

It is important to recognize that the choices we make in our professional lives only make sense because they are made with reference to a set of social, institutional, and professional norms and rules.  No matter whether we are deciding which candidate to hire, where to go to graduate school or whether to take a specific job, we are deciding in light of the incentives and disincentives, bureaucratic rules, learned standards, and “normal” procedures and expectations that shape the background context.

But this is precisely the problem. The consequence of the way we have collectively organized ourselves up to this point is the situation we now find ourselves in, namely, that women are severely underrepresented in the discipline.  Even if we were very successful at correcting our judgments concerning the quality of women philosophers and their work, this would only make it the case that the rules, procedures and standards that we have always utilized are now being applied more uniformly.  But what if the standards and norms are themselves part of the problem?

Both Louise Antony and Sally Haslanger have noted that the culture and ideals of contemporary analytic philosophy are gendered.[6]  They point out that philosophy is framed as a “masculine” activity, and that feminine gender norms conflict with the norms of the discipline.  This leads me to surmise that the causes of women’s exclusion are embedded in the way we normally get things done.  They are part and parcel of “business as usual” across the discipline. Now, it may well be argued that much more evidence is required to fully establish the truth of this claim.  I will nevertheless assume it is true for the sake of argument, and attempt to draw some conclusions about what we ought to do about it.

If it is the case that our standardly accepted rules, procedures, evaluation criteria and expectations are structured so as to produce the underrepresentation of women in the discipline, then what can be done?

Proposal: Change the context.

            In essence, the systemic constraints and structural imperatives that shape the current professional landscape make it seem normal, inevitable and justifiable that few women will enter, stay and succeed in philosophy.  As such, we need to change the background conditions for decisions about hiring and graduate admissions, as well as for acceptance to journals and conferences.  One way to go about discovering what needs changing is to look carefully at the reasons that are normally given for why things turn out the way they usually do.  For instance, sometimes it is said that “not enough women applied” for a given position or graduate program, and so it was just a statistical likelihood that a man would occupy the available spot(s).  Sometimes the absence of women at an event is explained by the fact that none of the women who were invited could make it.   And as we have seen, it is often judged that the articles, conference papers or abstracts submitted by women were of lower quality than those against which they were being compared, and so could not be included.

These explanations point to places where the incentives and background constraints need to be re-configured so as to produce better results.  One good example of this is the Gendered Conference Campaign.[7]  By making public – and encouraging people to boycott – those conferences that have only male participants, philosophers who support the campaign have succeeded in changing the incentive structure around obtaining conference speakers.  Basically, if you are a conference organizer, and you want your conference to be well received and attended, then it is now in your interest to ensure that some female speakers are on the schedule.  What was once acceptable and “normal” is no longer the standard. The result has been that more papers deemed “acceptable” have been found, and women’s schedules have been consciously taken into account.[8]

There are other ways to change the discipline by rearranging institutional and departmental imperatives.  Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Set aside a specific percentage of graduate student fellowships for women candidates.  Make it the case that certain graduate student lines must be filled by female candidates. If they cannot be filled in a given year, then they should remain empty until the following year, with the result that there are fewer teaching and research assistants available to faculty. Departments can advertise these places to attract good candidates. This would not be so different from the current practice in which conferences reserve a number of spots for graduate student presentations.  I take it we do this because we regard it as good practice to provide opportunities for those who would otherwise be excluded.  Similarly, if women have fewer opportunities to succeed at every level in the discipline, then we must create them.  We can’t expect to attract more women students by allocating fellowships the same way they have historically been allocated.  And if the health of our graduate programs depends on it, it seems likely that good candidates will be found.
  • Recognize, and explicitly compensate for, the effects of structural injustice that put pressure on women to leave the profession.  When it isn’t possible to change standards and expectations or to re-configure decision-making mechanisms (or when this can’t be accomplished in the short term), we need to acknowledge the constraints imposed on women by their particular position in both the discipline and in society at large.  In short, we need to make it worth their while to stay.  This means that we can’t keep pretending that all students and faculty are similarly placed vis-à-vis the possibility of success.  If, as a rule, women in philosophy have to work harder to publish, receive worse teaching evaluations, and are routinely judged as less competent than their comparable male colleagues, then we need to give them the time and resources to catch up.[9]  This means reducing teaching and service duties, and providing research leave so that women are better equipped to live up to “normal” expectations.

In addition, we should recognize that women are expected to perform the lion’s share of carework, and that they are more likely to be pressured to move to where their spouses have jobs. If we want to prevent the pressure of these gendered expectations from “tipping the balance” in favor of quitting philosophy, then we will have to make it possible for women both to do philosophy and to care for others.  Finally, if women are subject to pressure to move with their spouses (and so often to take contingent or non-tenure track positions as a result) then where women have tenure track positions we need to advocate strongly for hiring their spouses. Likewise, we should recognize that the practice of hiring spouses as long-term contingent or non-tenure-track faculty is a form of exploitation.  We should work to eliminate this practice and instead to place so-called “trailing spouses” in tenure-track positions, even if this means introducing job-sharing between spouses, or other unorthodox arrangements.

Of course, there are many other possibilities here, and perhaps these particular proposals will not turn out to be among the best.  Still, the more general point is just this: In order to address the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, we must transform the established incentive structure, disciplinary norms, and admissions, hiring and promotion processes in ways that are responsive to women’s concrete experience.

[1] Implicit bias causes people to evaluate women poorly compared to their male counterparts. For instance, when evaluating the same curriculum vitae that had been randomly assigned a male or female name, participants in a psychological study were more likely to give the “man’s” CV a better evaluation, regardless of the gender of the evaluator. See Saul, J. (2102). Ranking Exercises in Philosophy and Implicit Bias. Journal of Social Philosophy 43, p. 258, and Haslanger, S. (2008). Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone). Hypatia 23, p. 214.

[2] Saul, 2012, p. 264.

[3] I am focusing my comments on women in this post, but of course much of what I have to say will apply to other underrepresented groups as well.

[4] Young. I. (2006) Five faces of Oppression. In Hackett E. and Haslanger S. ed. Theorizing Feminisms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 4.

[5] Ibid., p. 4.

[6] Antony, L. (2012) Different Voices or Perfect Storm: Why are there so few women in philosophy? Journal of Social Philosophy 43, p. 237-8 and Haslanger, 2008, p. 213.

[8] Obviously we have a long way to go here, but the fact that these considerations are now on people’s radar is a significant step in the right direction.

[9] There is plenty of evidence that women and minority professors receive worse teaching evaluations than their white, male counterparts.  For instance, see Laube, H. et al (2007). The Impact of Gender on the Evaluation of Teaching: What We Know and What We Can Do. Feminist Formations 19, pp. 87-104, and Sprage J. and Massoni K. (2005). Student Evaluations and Gendered Expectations: What We Can’t Count Can Hurt Us. Sex Roles 53, pp. 779-793.

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