|Martha Nussbaum in 2008|
Women occupy 25 per cent of the posts in university philosophy departments across the United Kingdom. The figures are similar throughout the anglophone world. In the United States the proportion is 21 per cent, while Canada, Australia and New Zealand all have fewer than 30 per cent women philosophers. This makes philosophy an outlier among humanities subjects. Half a century ago, all university departments employed far fewer women than men. But this kind of imbalance has all but disappeared from areas such as English literature and history, and is nowadays largely restricted to the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Philosophy stands out in continuing to appoint about three times as many men as women to academic posts.
What is the explanation for this peculiarity, and should it be a matter of concern? These two questions are interlinked. How far philosophy’s gender imbalance is bad depends on its causes. If it were the result of simple discrimination against women, for instance, then it would not only be unjust, but it would also be preventing some of the best-suited people from working as philosophers. But it is not obvious that discrimination is the right explanation, and it should not be taken for granted that any other causes for the imbalance would be similarly unacceptable.
There certainly was a time when prejudice kept women out of philosophy. When I was a student in Cambridge at the end of the 1960s, we agitated for various academic changes, including the replacement of unseen examinations by assessed coursework. The suave senior philosopher deputed to serve on our reform committee was sympathetic, but felt that there was no way round what he was pleased to dub the “boyfriend problem” – what was to stop some female undergraduate getting her cleverer male companion to write her papers for her? Another of our teachers was blunter. “Women are no good at philosophy”, he told one of my female friends, who understandably left the field to forge a career as a distinguished journalist.
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