Under-representation of women authors in syllabi, and under-motivation of female undergraduates: a not so mysterious equation come to light.

I have just read this report. The Society for Philosophy and Psychology gathered to discuss the underepresentation of women in philosophy. On the agenda were several issues that had been raised before: the various kinds of bias that operate in philosophy and elsewhere and the perhaps unusual degree of sexual harrassment that women philosophers find themselves subjected to.

But there was also something new: a focus on the when, rather than the why. Women under-representation starts, and is most significant at the end of the first year of undergraduate degrees. This is documented by a recent study.

The speakers at the SPP conference, Adleberg, Thompson, and Nahmias, conducted their own study of undergraduate students’s experience in introductory courses in philosophy to try and find out why so many female students dropped out. The answer was not that women found the style of philosophical argumentation offputting or too agressive – at least, no more than men did. The closest to a reason the speakers came up with was a marked difference in male and female students perception of the fairness of female to male authors ratio in the syllabus. In Introduction to philosophy text books, only 6% of authors are women, the speakers pointed out.

A result of these findings, the article reports, is that the hypothesis that we need more women authors is going to be tested:

Nonetheless, the findings from Adleberg, Thompson and Nahmias suggest some simple recommendations that could have important effects. With the support of the Georgia State , for example, the researchers will test out one strategy for attracting more women to the major: this fall, graduate student instructors will use course syllabi with 20 percent or more female authors, at least doubling the current proportions.

About time too! And lest anyone complain that intro books that encourage gender equality are not available, let me remind you of this one.

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3 Responses to Under-representation of women authors in syllabi, and under-motivation of female undergraduates: a not so mysterious equation come to light.

  1. Kate Norlock says:

    ‘Not so mysterious,’ indeed, agreed! Georgia State is to be commended for doing this so concertedly, but I would add that of course, many philosophers, especially feminist philosophers, have been doing this for decades by doing it with little fanfare or widespread support or recognition, except from those who matter most: the students.

    Thanks for this succinct post. I write about this at more pedantic length in “Gender Perception as a Habit of Moral Perception: Implications for Philosophical Methodology and Introductory Curriculum,” Journal of Social Philosophy, Special Issue: Gender, Implicit Bias, and Philosophical Methodology, Volume 43, Issue 3, pages 347–362, September 2012.

    • Sandrine Berges says:

      Kate: thank you for that title. I’ve been looking for articles about this and missed yours. You’re right, of course that this has been done in individual courses. But there are also instructors who would very much like to include more women authors in intro courses, but can’t because textbooks are chosen by the department as a whole, for instance, and not by the individual instructor. I’m hoping that some well-publicised study with strong results will change this.

  2. Carol Bensick says:

    Thanks for this post, Sandrine!

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