Thursday 6 February 2014

Implicit Bias and the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy

Helen Beebee
I am a professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester. My research is mostly in the area of metaphysics, but I am also co-chair of the British Philosophical Association/Society for Women in Philosophy (UK) committee for women in philosophy, and I have recently been spending quite a lot of time thinking about unconscious bias and the role it might play in the underrepresentation of women in philosophy.

Women are unquestionably underrepresented in philosophy. In the UK, women make up about half of all philosophy undergraduates, but only about 30% of PhD candidates and 20% of professors – a figure nearly as low as in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The numbers are similar in the USA, Australia and elsewhere. There are doubtless many and varied reasons for this, but – in a discipline in which, like STEM disciplines, the dominant stereotype is male – implicit bias surely plays a major role.

The BPA and SWIP have recently launched a ‘good practice’ scheme for philosophy departments, learned societies, journals and research projects. Quite a few of our recommendations concerns ways in which implicit bias might be reduced. Are all the pictures of eminent philosophers in your department’s corridor or seminar room pictures of men? Is your list of seminar or conference speakers dominated by men? Do the men in the room do most of the talking in philosophical discussions? These are all things we can easily fix – or at least try to.

Like Jules Holroyd, I am sceptical about the claim that we aren’t morally responsible for behaviour and judgements that result from implicit biases. In particular, even if we aren’t in control of the biases themselves, it doesn’t follow that we aren’t in control of behaviour and judgements that those biases are (in part) responsible for. After all, if we start down that road, it will be hard to resist the conclusion that nobody is ever morally responsible for anything they do – given that all our behaviour is caused at least in part by factors beyond our control. And I think there are principled reasons for rejecting that conclusion.

On the other hand, when it comes to the practical matter of changing the practices of actual philosophers and philosophical institutions, finger-pointing is unlikely to be a very productive way to proceed. All we need to recognise is that relevant implicit biases exist, that they can lead to practices that are likely to result in a disproportionate number of women leaving the profession, and that that is a bad thing.

Why is it a bad thing? Well, it’s bad for the women who leave, because they end up failing to pursue the career they wanted to pursue for reasons that have nothing to do with any lack of ability. And it’s bad for philosophy, because the profession is deprived of many talented philosophers.

So doing everything we reasonably can to minimise the effects of implicit bias is, I think, an obligation on all of us.

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