“Outright discrimination” against women in academic philosophy?

3 Sep

I teach undergraduate and graduate level courses in political methodology (social science statistics).  One of the most basic concepts my students must learn is the nature of causality.  Specifically, what conditions must be met before a causal claim (X causes Y) is credible?  Here they are:

  • Correlation – though two variables may be correlated without being causally related, a causal relationship requires correlation.
  • Time Order – for X to cause Y, X must occur prior to Y in time.
  • The Elimination of Rival Hypotheses – In order for X to be the true cause of Y, other causes of Y must be taken into account before assigning causation of Y to X.  That is, rival hypothesis must be dispensed with or adequately addressed before assigning causality to X.

So if I say this causes that, then I must show that all of the conditions above have been satisfied.  This is often hard to do, which is a good thing, since that encourages scholarly conservatism (no rash judgements) and discourages irresponsible speculation at best and unsustainable accusations of wrongdoing at worst.  It also helps one distinguish between an empirical fact and an empirical cause (or hypothesis).  It is an empirical fact that Hispanics have a lower voter turnout rate than whites.  But that fact does not tell us anything about the cause; it doesn’t explain why.  Rather, a hypothesis can be put forward (lower educational attainment).  But again, causation hasn’t been established, only a hypothesis, however educated it is, has been asserted.  We have to test that.  Do Latinos have lower educational levels?  Even if they do, that may not be the reason why their turnout is lower.  If it is, it may still not be the most decisive factor (rival hypothesis have not been fully considered).  If the effects of other explanations, possible causes, like political interest, are addressed and differences in educational attainment remain strong determinants of differences in turnout between whites and Hispanics, THEN AND ONLY THEN, can we make credible claims about a causal relationship between the two.

Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy at M.I.T. needs to take my class.  She may be a fantastic philosopher, instructor, colleague, but she is a poor statistician.  She recent took to the pages of the New York Times and accused her colleagues in philosophy departments all around the U.S. of gender discrimination.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

The best data we have suggests that in 2011, the tenured/tenure-track faculty in the 51 graduate programs ranked by the Leiter Report — the most widely used status ranking of anglophone philosophy departments —  included only 21.9 percent women.

This is potentially quite misleading, however, for the Digest of Education Statistics reports that in 2003 (the most recent data compiled for philosophy), the percentage of women in full-time instructional post-secondary positions was a mere 16.6 percent of the total 13,000 philosophers, a year when 27.1 percent of the doctorates went to women. Soon we will know more, however, for the A.P.A. has thankfully started to collect demographic data.

The numbers of philosophers of color, especially women of color, is even more appalling. The 2003 number quoted above of 16.6 percent full-time women philosophy instructors includes zero women of color. Apparently there was insufficient data for any racial group of women other than white women to report. The A.P.A. Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers and the Society of Young Black Philosophers reports that currently in the United States there are 156 blacks in philosophy, including doctoral students and philosophy Ph.D.’s in academic positions; this includes a total of 55 black women, 31 of whom hold tenured or tenure-track positions.  Assuming that there are still 13,000 full-time philosophy instructors in the United States, the representation of scholars of color is plausibly worse than in any other field in the academy, including not only physics, but also engineering. Inexcusable.

So there you have it.  Women make up about a fifth of academic philosophers.  There’s your empirical fact.  What does Haslanger do with it?  Does show demonstrate caution, conservatism, careful consideration of rival hypotheses (other possible explanations for the disparity), each of which are indispensable virtues in scientific inquiry?  Or does she rush to judgment, make careless unqualified causal claims, and even accuse others of wrongdoing?  Let’s see, shall we?  Next line:

I’d say that with these numbers, you don’t need sexual harassment or racial harassment to prevent women and minorities from succeeding, for alienation, loneliness, implicit bias, stereotype threat, microaggression, and outright discrimination will do the job. (emphasis added)

Now, before I make my the empirical qualifications that a responsible philosopher should have, let me say that gender discrimination may indeed account for the disparity in employment between men and women.  That’s not my point.  I only mean to show that she hasn’t established it.  Indeed, she doesn’t even address it with any qualifying language.  She just, well, accuses others of evil.  It could be the case that no other factor can explain the disparity.  It could be the case that gender discrimination explains some but not all of the disparity.  It could be the case that gender discrimination explains little to none of the collective disparity.  But the empirical fact that women are employed as academic philosophers much less than men by itself no more means gender discrimination than income disparity between Mississippians and New Yorkers means state discrimination.  Indeed, it is also an empirical fact that 24% of elementary school jobs are held by men compared to women, even though men received 43% of all elementary education degrees.  Must this mean “outright discrimination” against men?  Is it responsible for me to make such an accusation?  No, rival hypotheses must be considered and eliminated before a causal claim can be considered credible, especially accusations of wrongdoing.

So are there rival hypotheses that Haslanger fails to consider?  Clearly there are, and it doesn’t take much thought to specify them (unless one is so driven to make accusations that they are blind to other factors altogether).  Consider all of the following just off the top of my head:

  • Differences in prestige of PhD granting institution
  • Differences in the publication records between male and female applicants
  • Differences in the number of PhD’s awarded in philosophy between men and women (Haslanger ironically is aware of this one; she reports herself that, at least in 2003, women received only 27% of all PhD’s in philosophy).
  • Differences in the number of women compared to men applying for academic appointments (many studies show that women and men with the same degrees differ in the desire to work or work full time or willingness to move geographically for any job).
  • Differences in experience

Any or all of these could at least partially explain the difference in employment before we can credibly assume that “outright discrimination” must be the true cause of it all.  As I understand her, Haslanger is very much concerned with justice, fairness, and rights.  I wonder, is it just, fair, and right to accuse others of wrongdoing without presented clear supporting evidence?  Is it just, fair, and right to reassign the burden of proof to the accused?  Is it just, fair, and right to discontinue the tradition that one is innocent until proven guilty?

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