Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Hostility" and the Causes of Gender Under-representation in Higher Education

I haven't written about the widely-cited Site Visit Report criticizing the University of Colorado's Philosophy department, alleging a culture of sexual harassment and hostility to women (see Rebecca Schuman's coverage here). The story includes themes that are of interest to me, (gender inequality and the role women in academia), but I have no inside information on the department, and I certainly can't speak to anybody's guilt or innocence. I know two graduates of the program, and I have great respect for their professionalism and ethics.

Still, I've been following the story, and I was interested to see this webpage, put up by a senior member of the Philosophy faculty, Dr. Michael Tooley. Dr. Tooley posts detailed critiques of the report, despite the CU administration's request that faculty not publicly (as they put it) "quibble" with the report. 

In my opinion, he is right to believe that silence will be taken as assent to the criticism. Nonetheless, the administration's concerns about "quibbling" with the report are reasonable. Anyone who has an interest in issues of bias (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) knows that some people react to the questioning of their privilege in ways that show they are not aware of systemic power differences, or their own relatively protected position in society. Since lack of awareness is one way that sexism, racism, etc., are perpetuated in our society, any "quibble" with the report that shows a lack of awareness, or that disparages women, is going to confirm, rather than deny, the accusations made in the report.

I wasn't going to comment on Dr. Tooley's post, but then I saw that he'd used anthropology as one of his comparison fields, so I was intrigued, and a little concerned.

Here's the critical segment:

     ...Why are women underrepresented in the profession [of philosophy]? [theory] is that at least one very important cause of the underrepresentation of women in the profession involves the university environment, with women being treated differently in classrooms than men, or with many male philosophers being hostile to female philosophers, or both....     But I am not convinced that this first explanation of the underrepresentation of women in our discipline is right. First of all, philosophy is not alone with regard to the underrepresentation of women.  Consider the following figures from a National Science Foundation “Survey of Earned Doctorates”  for the year 2012: 
Subject        Percentage of Doctorates Earned by Women
Mathematics:                28.3
Philosophy:                  26.8        
Physics:                       19.4
    The question to which these figures give rise is whether the underrepresentation of women in mathematics and physics is to be explained in the same way as in the case of philosophy, or in a different way.  The idea that different explanations are to be given strikes me as quite implausible.  But if one offers the same explanation, and if it is the explanation just mentioned, then one is thereby committed to the view that one very important cause of the underrepresentation of women in mathematics involves the university environment, with women being treated differently in mathematics classrooms than men are treated, or with many male mathematicians being hostile to female mathematicians, or both, and similarly in the case of physics.  Is this at all plausible?
     If one does think that this is plausible, consider the following figures from the same document:
Subject        Percentage of Doctorates Earned by Women
Psychology:                71.0
Anthropology:             65.9
    If hostile attitudes and harassing behavior on the part of men explain the low percentage of doctorates earned by women in mathematics, philosophy, and physics, why don't the same hostile attitudes and harassing behavior on the part of men also generate a low percentage of doctorates earned by women in psychology and anthropology, just as they supposedly do in the case of philosophy? 
First of all, I don't see why there couldn't be different explanations for the underrepresentation of women in mathematics and in philosophy. But if we grant that the explanation for one is the explanation for all, it is still entirely plausible that academic departments in mathematics, physics, and philosophy are far more hostile to women than academic departments in anthropology and psychology, even in the same university. 

Quick exercise: name a famous anthropologists. 

OK, was that anthropologist female? Did you name Margaret Mead? Jane Goodall? Dian Fossey? Mary Leakey? How about Ruth Benedict or Zora Neale Hurston? Maybe that woman on whom they based the TV show Bones, even if you can't remember her name? Chances are, if you can name any famous anthropologist, she was a women.

Now repeat the exercise with philosophy, mathematics, or physics. 

Perhaps you see the problem.

Anthropology as a modern American discipline was founded by Franz Boas, who recruited and guided a number of female students into prominence back in the first half of the 20th century (including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston). Ours is a discipline based on the ideal of equality. As Benedict wrote "The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference." By virtue of our training as anthropologists, we have an awareness of gender inequality and systemic power differences in society. Anthropology developed in the context of colonialism - a legacy still hanging on our shoulders - but for a century this has been a discipline where women had opportunities that were denied to them in many other fields. And as more women entered the field, they encouraged even more women to find a home here. Female anthropologists expect to find mentors, acceptance, and respect within the field. No, that's not universal, but it's the expectation, not the exception.

In contrast, a friend of mine who is a professor of physics was recently assumed to be a hotel manager. Why else would a well-dressed, professional woman be in the hotel during a national physics convention, after all?

So, yes, it is entirely plausible that philosophy programs could create a hostile environment for women in a way that anthropology programs do not, despite the fact that they are both in the same university.

But it doesn't follow that the hostile environment proceeds from rampant sexual harassment. There are many ways programs can signal that women are not welcome. For example, if a senior member of the faculty were to write something like this:
...I think that it is also the case that certain traits of character are crucial to success in the most challenging intellectual disciplines, and that the different ways in which boys and girls are socialized, and perhaps also the different ways in which they may be treated in elementary and secondary schools, makes it unfortunately less likely that women will come to possess those traits of character that make for success in the more difficult, and more abstract, disciplines.
That's a direct quote from Dr. Tooley's rebuttal to the Site Visit Report. In his view, it's not sexual harassment that explains the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, it's that women lack intellectual character traits that allow them to compete with men. He acknowledges this is the result of socialization, not an inherent aspect of having two X chromosomes, but nonetheless women aren't up to the challenge of philosophy. The socialization that is to blame, he posits, occurs during the elementary and secondary years. So the underrepresentation of women in philosophy is not, in this view, the result of young women being dismissed by their university professors as unlikely to have the correct character traits for the field.

This brings up a fundamental difference between anthropology and philosophy. I've heard of sexual harassment cases in anthropology. I've heard of anthropology programs where inappropriate sexual relationships with students were rampant. Archaeology, in particular, is known for sexualized field environments. I wouldn't be surprised to hear about new cases sexual harassment in the future. But I would be absolutely stunned to find a senior anthropologist stating - in 2014! - that women don't have the same intellectual character traits as men*.

I don't know how Dr. Tooley's defense of his program will be received by other philosophers. The Site Visit Report may be fundamentally flawed, as he states. We don't have enough data to evaluate anyone's claims. But his response shows the lack of awareness that the administration was no doubt concerned about when they asked faculty not to "quibble" with the report. I can understand his anger over the publicity the Site Visit Report spawned, and his wish to speak out. In the court of public opinion, however, I don't think he's doing the program any favors.
*OK, I'm sure somebody will be able to come up with an example, but such a quote would definitely be an anomaly. Dr. Tooley's views may also be an anomaly within philosophy, I'm not familiar enough with the field to know. But a program that's being dragged through the mud for allegedly creating a hostile environment for women, should, perhaps, be particularly careful about such statements.

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