The typical student at Princeton has probably been inside 1879 Hall only a handful of times, most likely just to be sure they get participation credit for their philosophy precept that semester. Why are you taking Introductory Epistemology? The answers range from “distribution requirements” to “I dunno, it sounded alright.” Even if you’ve never found reason to enter 1879 before, there’s a classroom on the first floor—Room 121—that I recommend visiting. It doesn’t look much different from the rest of the rooms, except for a poster hanging up on the back wall: a striking web of lines, dots, and names, it’s a visual representation of the network between the 500 most-cited philosophy papers in scholarly writing. One line of text hovers at the bottom right of the poster: of these 500 papers, more are written by the philosopher David Lewis than by women in the field.
Of the 63 undergraduates in Princeton’s philosophy department, only 17 are women—that constitutes a 73-27% gender breakdown. For context, the ratio of men to women in Princeton’s undergraduate population is about 52 to 48. That’s not to say that philosophy has the most extreme gender disparity gap; only 13 of the 70 undergrads in the math department are women (19%). To break that apart even further, the graduating class of 2017 has only 3 female math majors for their 32 male counterparts in the department—that’s about a 91-9% split.
Why care? The numbers don’t look good, but philosophy is hardly one of the largest departments on campus. It also isn’t everyone’s cup of tea: it’s unfamiliar to most students (unlike subjects like chemistry and history, philosophy is virtually untaught in high schools). It’s negatively stereotyped as niche, useless, and stuffy; and most students consider it daunting and unapproachable. However, it still has its place in education, and rightfully so. Philosophy is one of the oldest subjects in the entire world, and we use concepts like morality, free will, and ethical choice on a regular basis (even if we don’t always realize it!). It’s a valuable pursuit to attempt to shed light on these necessary truths.
I first began studying philosophy seriously this past fall, after I’d fallen head over heels for the subject through a freshman seminar not directly linked to the department. Our professor, who taught us to analyze philosophical argument structures and encouraged lively debates, made a point to emphasize hard work, not talent, so we only felt uncomfortable speaking if we hadn’t put in effort to understand the material. I grew to love the challenge of analytical reasoning applied to literary texts, rational argumentation, and the ideas that grew out of our conversation. I felt genuinely comfortable in the subject and excited to grow further.
This semester, I’m taking a more traditional class within the department. Although I do love it, I have definitely noticed that lectures have more men than women, and in my precept, the disparity is much greater. What actually made me uncomfortable, however, was realizing that with every passing day, I spoke less. Several times, the tone of debates in lecture (and especially precept) skewed aggressive, almost combative, with an element of defensiveness I’d never had reason to feel before. There were also noticeable differences in how different genders spoke: men tended to be more aggressively confident, sometimes speaking without having finished formulating their ideas. They felt comfortable making it up as they went, trusting their intuition. In comparison, most (though not all) of my female classmates spoke with more hesitation and less confidence, prefacing their statements with “I think” and “I could be wrong, but it seems like…” If I felt this way after only a few weeks in an intro course, I couldn’t imagine what the actual concentrators felt like. The only way to find out, though, was to ask: does the gender imbalance of the Princeton philosophy department actually affect the comfort and the performance of female concentrators on campus?
The majority of female students that I talked to had fallen into the department kind of by chance. Most spoke about loving both the humanities and math and then finding that marriage in philosophy, whereas a few others had signed up for a class out of vague curiosity before falling for that specific field or professor. When I asked about specific instances of being targeted because of gender, no one had any personal stories to share. Instead, they all touched upon something more intangible.
One of the undergraduates in the department said that based on her own individual experience, nothing is ever specifically directed at her or her female peers. Instead, women are more likely to be interrupted or taken less seriously when they try to make a point in class. It seems as though her male classmates seem to believe in many pre-conceived notions about women and their dedication to the subject. They appear to hold onto “little cultural cues,” assuming superficiality and lack of depth in their female peers. Julie Chen ‘17, a political philosophy concentrator, extended that idea by mentioning that she feels more comfortable in political theory than in logic or epistemology; this preconceived notion about women’s ability to handle the seriousness and depth of the material appears to be more prevalent in more traditionally male-dominated classes like logic and the philosophy of science. This perception isn’t avoidable: Monique Clairborne ‘17 suggested, “I think that the high numbers of male students have negatively impacted the quality of my participation in precepts/seminars,” although she also mentioned that having quite a few female preceptors during her studies here at Princeton helped her feel comfortable speaking in class and learning to do so even with high male participation.
One of the female philosophy professors at Princeton, Dr. Sarah-Jane Leslie, is also the director of the linguistics program and the founding director of the cognitive science program. She has devoted a huge proportion of her research to uncovering why there is a disproportionate number of men in certain fields, like math and philosophy, and of women in others, like art history and molecular biology. She, too, noticed that certain fields seem to take women less seriously than others, and she has been trying to empirically discover why, especially since the distinctions don’t seem to be as clear cut as they may initially appear. It isn’t the case that all STEM fields underrepresent women (molecular biology is an exception) and all humanities fairly represent women (philosophy is an exception).
In her work with Andrei Cimpian, Dr. Leslie comes to the conclusion that women are underrepresented in fields that value raw talent over hard work. Fields like neuroscience, molecular biology, anthropology, psychology, art history, and education are considered manageable with a high work ethic, and so the percentage of female PhDs in this field ranges well above 50%. Fields that value innate brilliance and “smartness” over hard work, like physics, computer science, math, and philosophy, all have under 35% female Ph.D.s nationwide.
This appears to be a problem that begins in children as young as 6 years old. Dr. Leslie’s research, published in Science as well as the New York Times, shows that gender stereotypes appear to be internalized between the ages of 5 and 6. Young girls begin to shy away from games labeled for “smart people,” but continue ferociously and willingly attacking games labeled for “dedicated” people or “hard workers.” They also appeared to understand that girls get better grades than boys, but would only call boys “smart.” During our conversation, Dr. Leslie mentioned stereotype threat, which causes women to underperform on math tests if they were asked to circle their gender beforehand. “Performance is lowered just in virtue of that group being highlighted.”
Because raw brilliance is associated with men more than women, women tend to be discouraged from entering philosophy (and other similar fields) that people assume require a high degree of “natural intelligence”. “You rarely hear people praising the innate brilliance of a psychologist,” said Dr. Leslie, “but that’s much more common in philosophy.” When female students aren’t perceived as innately brilliant, of course they are going to feel judged and ostracized within a field that supposedly requires it for success. So how have the female students been coping with that perception?
I don’t claim to have a correct answer, or one that encompasses every woman in the department; there is so much variability between how every single student has approached their studies and personal interactions with professors and students. I did, however, notice a common quality among all the women that I interviewed. Julie was very articulate and barely hesitated; Alice Longenbach ‘17 was involved and passionate; Masako, although vivacious, was never afraid to speak truthfully or switch off her smile to discuss something serious. I only talked to Monique online, but she was incredibly concise and knowledgeable especially concerning her role in the field. I was so appreciative of my encounters with these students, especially because of the tenacity they all shared. They seemed to have made a decision about what they wanted to study and do, and they let little stop them. Alice admitted to sometimes feeling nervous before speaking, and Masako discussed the occasional need to overcome insecurities in thought, but when I asked how they coped, they just shrugged and said, “You just speak anyways.”
It seems like they’re doing okay: their classes are going well, they’ve learned how to cope with being, at times, literally the only girl in precept, and they all seem quite content with having chosen philosophy. But when I asked for advice on doing well in the department, “speak like a man” kept coming up. For instance, when Julie described overcoming the intimidation she felt around her peers, she described learning to speak in a “confident, masculine way”. When I mentioned this phrase to Sarah-Jane Leslie, she said, “I hope that we get to the point where that doesn’t make sense.” She understood what I had meant, but she clearly hoped to move away from the gendered framing and instead have the conversation turn to one about confidence.
Although the students I interviewed are successful in their studies, they all still maintain that the gender imbalance is something that needs to be addressed. Just the fact that they still feel this pressure to emulate their male classmates in order to thrive is concerning; I know from personal experience, as it’s something I catch myself doing time and time again. I have to remind myself that my questions aren’t dumb, that not knowing isn’t dumb, and to stop using the phrases “sorry,” “I might be wrong, but I think it might be otherwise,” and “I’m not really sure…” Some would say that’s being polite, but please point me to the guy in precept who apologizes before speaking, because I have yet to see one.
The difficult question is, of course, how to fix the situation. At one point while we were talking, Alice cast her eyes to the side and inhaled sharply: “How do you turn to an entire field of academia and say, “Be better”? It’s a question I posed to all of the students and to Sarah-Jane Leslie, and many of their answers were really similar: more representation, for example. Reading more female philosophers, encouraging more female students to join the department, and having more female representation higher up would all do well to create a welcoming atmosphere. The university is already trying to increase representation; Monique says Princeton recently hosted the Compass Conference, an undergraduate philosophy conference for gender minorities across universities. “This is a good way to expose undergraduate women to the department at Princeton so that we can attract more diverse graduate applicants. Graduate women also host a weekly reading group for women of all majors and class years to discuss philosophy written by other women.”
All the women I interviewed wanted more female classmates because that would make the environment more welcoming and more receptive towards their ideas and speeches. Similarly, having more female professors would make entrance as an undergraduate seem more plausible. If you go onto the faculty department page, only 6 of the 26 faculty members listed are women, a 77-23% split—even greater than the gender imbalance among the undergraduate students. Alice mentioned having had zero female philosophy professors and only one female preceptor, which is something that clearly frustrated her. Remember that poster I mentioned? Most of the curriculum these girls read is also predominantly male philosophers. This is much harder to fix, considering how traditionally male-dominated the field has been, but a stronger effort could still be made to read female philosophers, even if it’s mostly contemporary scholarship.
I really enjoyed Alice’s suggestion, however. When I asked her what she wanted to tell people about the department, she said, “One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s carrying heavy tomes and thinking about nebulous concepts. Philosophy is all about logic and concision, which is super accessible.” Princeton’s philosophy department in particular is extremely analytical, which means there is a heavy emphasis on the analysis of argument structures as opposed to just discussing concepts and ideas. That was what drew me to the department in the first place: the emphasis on logic and validity. We need to remove this false perception that philosophy is for and only for ‘brilliant’ people. Philosophy is a field for hard workers and careful, detail-oriented thinkers. Change the way this field is viewed, and women will feel more comfortable entering the field. The falsity of the divide between ‘brilliance’ and ‘hard work’ needs to be challenged and dismissed.
Interestingly, I noted several times that the girls I interviewed were hesitant to speak, almost as if they didn’t want to admit that it had been difficult. There was a common theme of, “I did it; I’m fine.” I’m not suggesting that women aren’t capable of handling this division, nor am I arguing for the artificial creation of a perfect 50/50 division in every single department including philosophy. I realize that it isn’t possible and may not even be the best option. I don’t even know how many more women are going to enter 1879 Hall over the next few years. All I hope is that it will be more than we’ve seen in years past. This shouldn’t have to be a conversation any longer.