The Gender Academy

by Spencer Case
The feminist Left is politicizing philosophy.

In order to close their field’s “gender gap” and reduce sexual harassment, academic philosophers are reaching for a cocktail of left-wing nostrums.

Women philosophers receive about 31 percent of Ph.D.’s and account for about 21 percent of professionally employed philosophers. A string of highly publicized sex scandals at the University of Miami, University of Colorado, and Northwestern University philosophy departments has compounded concern about underrepresentation. The steady stream of disturbing anecdotes aired on the blog What Is It Like to be a Woman in Philosophy? suggests that the well-publicized cases may not be outliers.

Many philosophers, including MIT’s Sally Haslanger, believe that the dearth of women in philosophy and the sexual-harassment problem are interrelated: The absence of women perpetuates harmful implicit biases and sexual harassment, which in turn drive women away from the discipline. Accordingly, many university departments and the American Philosophical Association (APA) have labored mightily to bring more women into the field and break the vicious cycle.

Some of the arguments for trying to bring more women into philosophy have genuine merit. But the goal of “gender equity” is being pursued with a blind zeal unbecoming of philosophy. Ill-advised policies are being adopted, and criticism of them is not encouraged.

A few months ago, I spoke with a philosopher from a top-flight school whose department engaged in demographic engineering (euphemistically called “affirmative action”) in order to guarantee that an equal number of women and men are admitted into the program each year. The result, he admitted, was a higher attrition rate for female students. Such unintended consequences are consistent with those documented by Thomas Sowell in his book Affirmative Action Around the World.

I was disappointed to see that my own philosophy program at the University of Colorado Boulder plans not only to adopt demographic engineering but to apply it to classroom dialogue. That much is evident from the department’s newly adopted “Best Practices” document, which includes the following guidelines:

“We should attempt to gender balance class discussions.”

“We should pay special attention to the philosophical promise of female students and students from other underrepresented groups” (emphasis mine).

“We should take steps to assist female students and students from underrepresented groups in expressing themselves in class, by, for example, intervening when such students are interrupted or spoken over while attempting to contribute.”

So heavy-handed is the “Best Practices” document that every major point summarized at the end of the “Class Discussion Concerns and Guidelines” section relates directly to the interests of women and “underrepresented groups.” This is micro-managing and worse. Instead of being an objective facilitator of learning for all, the teacher must now be an advocate for some. One can no more inhabit both these roles simultaneously than be both a judge and a prosecuting attorney.

Misguided as these recommendations are, they are not the worst measures being used to advance “gender equity” in philosophy. That title goes to the recommendations of the (rightly mocked) site-visit report on the University of Colorado Boulder philosophy department by the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women. Near the beginning of that document, we find that key recommendations include “creating a process for the department to expand its current concepts of sub-disciplines in philosophy to be more inclusive.”

What, precisely, this means is never explained, but the document’s general tenor suggests that promotion of “philosophy of race” and “feminist philosophy” — sub-disciplines that exist to promote left-wing ideology — might be what the authors have in mind. That would explain the motivation behind the following blatant threat to free speech near the end of the report:

If some department members have a problem with people doing non-feminist philosophy or doing feminist philosophy . . . they should gain more appreciation of and tolerance for the plurality of the discipline. Even if they are unable to achieve a level of appreciation for other approaches to the discipline, it is totally unacceptable for them to denigrate these approaches in front of faculty, graduate or undergraduate students in formal or informal settings on or off campus.

If this recommendation became policy, a graduate student would be in violation for saying “Feminist philosophy is all bunk” to a colleague over a beer on a weekend. While the language of the site report is neutral about what sub-disciplines of philosophy are being discussed, the draconian blanket ban on “denigration” works to the advantage of insurgent, newfangled sub-disciplines that critics are likely to dismiss as political imposters. And they would be right to do so: Aristotle correctly separated philosophy, which concerns truth, from politics, which concerns action.

Disconcertingly, the language used in the University of Colorado’s “Best Practices” document has echoes of the offending passage in the site report: “It is generally better to focus criticisms on particular arguments and theories rather than whole areas of the discipline, which typically contain a wide variety of work.” Even when stated more softly, this amounts to an official policy of discouraging the expression of certain criticism on the basis of content.

Having policies to discourage expressions of certain thoughts inhibits the free exchange of ideas, and a culture in which dissenters can expect to be publicly denounced can have the same effect.

When Michael Tooley, a philosophy professor of distinction at the University of Colorado Boulder, stated on his website that he had not witnessed discrimination against women in philosophy — and, indeed, had witnessed discrimination in their favor — another philosopher denounced his “inability to ‘see’” as a “disgrace.” I have spoken with other philosophers who say they agree with Tooley but feel that expressing those views before their peers is, at best, more trouble than it’s worth, and, at worst, a liability.

In addressing the problem of sexual harassment, philosophers should resist the temptation to adopt cosmetic demographic-engineering policies whose ill effects have been well documented. Above all, in making philosophical careers appeal to women, philosophers compromise the freedom of thought and objectivity that have made philosophy an alluring field in the first place.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.