Sitting in an intro-level philosophy class, I fell in love with the spirit of inquiry and curiosity. Much to my parent’s chagrin, I constantly asked questions during car rides for the arrival time, inquiries on what each sign read, and what exactly the symbols on them meant. Posing these questions in my philosophy taught me to ask: why are we here, how does this work, and how do we conceptualize the intangible.

Articles that spoke of research that credited introductory courses as the main source of the gender gap within the field of philosophy bewildered me.

While 60% of college graduates are women, only 30% of philosophy majors are women. In 2014, only 20%of full-time philosophy professors were women.

Despite these staggering statistics, the number of women with PhDs in philosophy increased. However, this trend reversed in the mid-2000s.

For more information on where this chart is from, check out this paper published by Professor Eric Schwitzgebel at the University of California at Riverside and Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings at the University of California at Merced

So why do women leave philosophy? Let’s break this down.

There are suggestions that attempt to demystify the gap between female and male students pursuing a degree in philosophy. In no way is this list exhaustive; in fact, it barely skims the surface.

Theory A: The Stereotype Threat 

The Stereotype Threat occurs when the implicit or explicit stereotypes about one’s identity influence one’s self-performance in a given activity or field. When women are preoccupied with negative stereotypes about women in their field, they tend to perform poorer than their male counterparts. This stereotype theory is more prominent in a classroom setting because of the low proportion of female-to-male instructors and authors.

To learn more about the experiment this chart is taken from, click here to read the paper published by the University of Arizona

Theory B: The Perfect Storm Theory

A perfect storm is widely considered to occur when a rare combination of circumstances combine to create an intense event. The Perfect Storm Theory explains how discriminatory agents in our society combine in a unique way for a certain field. Although this theory explains why there was a divide between women and men in other academic fields, it fails to apply specifically to philosophy.

Potential Factor A: Implicit Bias

This factor suggests that instructors may have an implicit bias against female students, especially those in intro-level philosophy courses. These biases may cause them to “devalue work done by these students, call on these students less often in class,” and potentially “fail to mentor [female] students to the same extent as men.” 

Potential Factor B: Schemas and Syllabi

Schemas refer to a pattern of thought or behavior that conceptualizes common thought on a group or individual. In the discipline of philosophy, this factor refers to the potential of the collision for these schemas. Think about ‘women in STEM,’ or ‘men in dance,’ or another example that potentially conflicts with society’s standards. The discomfort is only perpetuated with a lack of female instructors and philosophers represented in the syllabi of introductory-level courses.

A change for the future

Many institutions are attempting to correct the disparity between men and female college students pursuing a degree in philosophy. In 2013, Georgia State included more female philosophers in the introductory course syllabus in hopes to attract more female students.

As a part of Georgia State’s initiative, two master’s students, Toni Adleberg and Morgan Thompson, and their professor, Eddy Nahmias, presented preliminary findings in their presentation titled “Women and Philosophy: Why is it ‘Goodbye’ at ‘Hello?”

Upon reflecting on their findings, Nahmias told NPR that the search to better introduce female students to philosophy was necessary:

“We need to figure out why so many women and minorities say ‘goodbye’ to philosophy right when we say ‘hello’ to them. College students typically have little idea what philosophy is all about when they step into the intro class (almost none had philosophy in high school). First impressions are therefore that much more important. We need more data.”

Taken from NPR’s interview with Professor Eddy Nahmais at Georgia State University

Others have suggested that publishing more women in top philosophy journals may secure more jobs for women in philosophy. Therefore, universities will no longer be the middle-men between students and female faculty/authors

What have I learned? Perhaps loving my introductory philosophy course is an abnormality in a system deeply flawed in the academic community. But if the spirit of inquiry is contagious, the promotion of women in academia must be absolutely infectious.

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