Sexism and Philosophy

The recent "sex scandal" at CU-Boulder has led for calls to "change the climate" of philosophy. While philosophy, like every other profession, almost certainly has its share of boorish dudes, it cannot be described as a "hostile climate" for either women or feminists. Despite a total lack of merit, these charges have found a sympathetic ear in the media. A minority of radicals within the field of academic philosophy have cynically chosen to appeal to men's chivalry as a pretext for their larger goals. What do they desire? Quotas for female hires and appointments in the short term, and in the long term they want to change the orientation and culture of the discipline toward something more to their liking.

The flimsy and baseless charges of sexism

Those who allege that the field of philosophy is an actually hostile environment to women, instead of merely an argumentative and masculine one, created a website to chronicle the travails of the fairer sex. This website contains no actual statistics on sexual harassment within philosophy,merely stories submitted by women about how awful it is to be a woman in philosophy. Readers will also notice that all of the complainants remain anonymous, as do the identities of the alleged perpetrators and their institutions. In other words we have no way to verify any of these stories, we also don't have any statistics with which to measure the scope of the problem, or put it in perspective.

It also must be pointed out that people with sexual harassment complaints have many venues for addressing their grievances, (anonymous internet complaining being the least effective). On one hand they have their school's internal disciplinary system; on the other hand, they have the law. Any school that refused to take sexual harassment seriously would put itself at risk of a costly lawsuit, even if the complaints had no basis. Institutions sometimes settle even baseless claims out of court rather than risk a costly legal decision, along with the fees which can make even a legal victory pyrrhic from a financial standpoint. Finally, one must always remember that the burden of proof in civil court is 50.1%, the lowest possible standard. Given the extreme disincentive to tolerate sexual harassment, we ought to be skeptical of claims against individual universities, and far more skeptical about claims mounted against the philosophy profession generally.

It also appears that most of those leveling the charges against their profession are tenured, female, philosophy professors. Being an outspoken feminist, and a woman, hasn't prevented their chauvinistic male colleagues from voting to hire them, and then voting to tenure them. Allison Jaggar served as president of the American Philosophical Association, and holds tenure in the philosophy department at the notorious swamp of sexism, CU-Boulder. Allison Jaggar is not simply a female, feminist philosopher: she is a feminist philosopher, someone whose academic work is explicitly shaped by feminist theory. Readers will have a hard time imagining a community of sexist boars voting to tenure someone like that. Similarly, they will have a hard time imagining the larger academic community, also sexist boars, electing Allison Jaggar president of their professional organization.

Arguably, none of these factors taken alone would justify dismissing the idea that philosophy has a hostile climate for women, but in totality they all but rule out the possibility of such a climate. Despite the weak evidence, some of the critics of the profession may truly believe the charges they make. But many others are clearly driven by other motives that have little connection to their ostensible motives. The true motivations (which will be discussed below), can be lumped into three categories: The desire to change the focus of philosophy, the desire to change the internal culture of philosophy, and the desire for loot.


Philosophers in the West have pondered a number of fairly abstract questions in which the vast majority of the public has little interest: the mind-body problem, the riddle of induction, the existence of god, free will, etc. Given the intellectually rigorous and unsatisfying nature of these inquiries, they arouse little interest in most people, which seems understandable. In recent years, a noisy minority have sought to reorient this ancient discipline toward the holy quartet of the academic left: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Speaking anecdotally, the more conventional-minded faculty members have extended a remarkable degree of tolerance to these radicals, largely because they shared or sympathized with their politics. Readers do not simply have to accept my anecdotes as proof; they can read the words of the critics themselves. Writing for the APA's committee on the climate for women in philosophy, Dr. Linda Martin Alcoff had this to say:

"The Leiter Report has been a serious problem. It works to reward convention and punish departments that take the risk of supporting an area of scholarship that is not (yet) widely accepted or respected in the profession. Hiring in the areas of critical race philosophy or feminist philosophy is not going to improve a department's ranking. As a result, philosophy departments are trying to outdo themselves in conformism and "tailism" -- tailing the mediocre mainstream rather than leading."

Importantly, she said this in an article supposedly bemoaning the climate for women in philosophy. I think Dr. Alcoff betrays her real motivation: she dislikes the focus of mainstream philosophy and would like to change it. Incidentally, this Brian Leiter fellow, who writes the "Leiter reports," is as far left as one can get, devoting a considerable portion of his blog to hyperbolic attacks on the Republican Party.


"That would be my suspicion, minerva9. Though I am not a philosopher, I work closely with them in my area of research (cognitive science and anthropology). I have the impression that there is definitely a masculine culture and that interactions have a masculine character. If you are one of the few women in the discipline, I can imagine that is off-putting . . . and I sympathize. I work in a female dominated department that has social norms and ideas about governance that reflect this gender balance. At times this is off-putting, or even highly frustrating, to me. But in both cases, this does not equal sexism. It could be the case that there is rampant sexism in this department, but I will reserve judgment until I know more."

-- Archeology and the mind, commenting at Inside Higher Ed

Unlike many feminists, this author is comfortable with the idea that a biological basis exists for the many observed differences in taste and preference displayed by the sexes. A predominately male environment would almost inevitably develop a culture which might at times be "off-putting" to women. At the same time a predominantly female environment would tend toward a culture that most men would find off-putting. While I think we all ought to be courteous to members of the opposite sex and make them feel comfortable, this consideration has limits. A just resolution would take the interests of both men and women into consideration, and demand compromise from both of them.

Soaked in a culture of victimhood, many academic feminists would reject this notion of compromise. They want a culture that matches their personal tastes, and have been told that anything less would be *ahem* sexist. The thought that by reconstructing the culture in an entirely female friendly way might create a culture unfriendly to men, thus driving them out of the profession, does not cause them to lose any sleep; which brings us to our next point: the loot.


When feminist philosophers move from complaining about their colleague's sexism to suggesting remedies, the first thing they think of is jobs, (which is why driving men out of the field doesn't exactly trouble them). The "site visit" team that visited CU-Boulder recommended a "group hire" for women to change the character of the department, and calls to change the climate for women always include demands that more women be hired. Notably absent from these calls is any reference to merit.

Because the humanities are more subjective, they are vulnerable to this type of mau-mauing by activists of various stripes; indeed, it would be very difficult to measure accomplishment in most of these fields. Still, the important thing to remember is that the mau-mauing only goes one way. Once a field becomes overwhelmingly female there are no demands for "group hires," or "climate change," from men. This is in effect a discriminatory environment since <50% female participation triggers action, but <50% male participation triggers nothing.

Not everyone calling for more women hires is driven by a purely cynical desire for loot, but to ignore this element would be incredibly naïve. In the zero-sum game of academics only so many philosophy jobs exist, any job going to a non-feminist philosopher is a job that a feminist philosopher didn't get. People worry about their own job prospects, and those of their friends -- material considerations will inevitably enter into at least some people's thinking.


Claims of discrimination ought to be evaluated based on their merits, and with an open mind; in this case, the claims of discrimination have no basis, and the complainants have ulterior motives. It also should go without saying that the frivolous nature of these claims doesn't detract from the very real, legitimate, nature of other claims. The real problem lies in the uncritical acceptance of all claims of discrimination, something that encourages the worst sorts of opportunists.