Via Leiter, and by way of my own following up on my earlier woolgathering on the under-representation of women in philosophy, this Chronicle piece by Regan Penaluna speculates that the all-male, very sexist canon in philosophy presents a significant barrier to entry for young women.  (She also discusses aggressive argumentation, but I want to focus on this question.)

It’s not an exaggeration of fact.  The canon is entirely male.  Most of them were deeply sexist by today’s standards, if not their own.  Plato suggests in Republic that the various talents and natures of humans are distributed, if not equally, without special regard to the sex of the person:

Then there is no way of life concerned with the management of the city that belongs to a woman because she’s a woman or to a man beacuse he’s a man, but the various natures are distributed in the same way in both creatures.  Women share by nature in every way of life just as men do,

Go, Plato, go!

but in all of them women are weaker than men.

Awwww. But radical for his time, given the Athenian alternative was house-keeping and anonymity.

Some philosophers have suggested that English is a counterexample to her hypothesis, as it has a largely male canon and women are over-represented.  I think this is a little too quick, if only because one thing that English departments seem to welcome are feminist critiques of literature, so even if the canon in the abstract were generally turning away young women, the way in which the canon is presented might well be more attractive.

Moreover, if we may permit anecdotes, young women often light up like Christmas trees when they hear Hilary Putnam or Shelly Kagan will grace their course’s syllabus, and then they are downcast when they learn that both philosophers are men.  (Flipside: “I love L.A. Paul’s writing.  He’s so smart!”) It does seem that the gender of writers is something noticed by the students, but I’d worry far more, in terms of its effect on female students, that they’d notice that the commonly-assigned contemporary metaphysics volume I just plucked from my shelf has one female writer out of eighteen than that Aristotle thought that women weren’t fully rational. I mean, Aristotle believed that memories were stored in the heart; he’s old, dead, Greek, and believed a lot of weird stuff that we don’t.  Students get that.

That aside, I don’t find the canon hypothesis plausible largely because one of the sub-disciplines where women have been less abysmally represented is in the history of philosophy (the other one is ethics). We’d also expect to see similarity across the Anglophone philosophy world, and yet Australia seems to have a higher percentage of female majors and master’s level students.  I suspect that whatever the explanation is, it’s not going to lie in terms of female interest or lack thereof in the subject matter.   Along those lines, this Q&A with Nobel winner Carol W. Greider seems apropos, particularly this exchange:


A. There’s nothing about the topic that attracts women. It’s probably more the founder effect. Women researchers were fostered early on by Joe Gall, and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women. I think there’s a slight bias of women to work for women because there’s still a slight cultural bias for men to help men. The derogatory term is the “old boys network.” It’s not that they are biased against women or want to hurt them. They just don’t think of them. And they often feel more comfortable promoting their male colleagues.

The answer here isn’t “the shrinking telomeres are naturally attractive to women” or “women don’t like other areas of biology”, but “we had good mentors who actively promoted female researchers.”  Likewise, the areas in which women have succeeded in greater numbers in philosophy tend to follow trailblazers, with it sometimes being assumed that a woman will of course write in history or ethics.  I would be surprised if the lesson didn’t generalize.

That it’s probably not the canon shouldn’t make anyone feel proud; because this would be a much easier problem to solve if it turned out that the argument for pre-established harmony drove women away. (I mean, more than it does anyone else. Monads!)