Don't Get Your Panties in a Bunch: the Dilemma of Addressing the Absence of Women in the Philosophy of Religion

A few years ago (2012, to be precise), I was invited to give a talk at the Pacific APA on the dearth (not death!!) of women working in contemporary philosophy of religion. I was then asked to give the same talk a few weeks later at Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the time, a number of very nice people told me they wanted to hear what I had to say, and that I should post it on my blog or something, in response to which I was all, "My what?!? Child, please! I don't have a blog. Blogs are lame. What do you think this is, 2003??"




Here is the blog version of that talk. (I stress the 'blog' in that last sentence because I am trying really hard here, people, to suppress my obsessive/perfectionist instincts to make sure that everything I say is phrased in the optimal way and that none of you think I think I am actually an expert on this because OMG Sally Haslanger and Jenny Saul and...

deep calming breaths...deep calming breaths...)

Also, what follows is kinda long, because it was, you know, an actual professional presentation. So, for those of you who are vaguely curious but don't want to wade through all those words, the tl;dr version is "I don't think it's super-useful to focus on the question of why only 10% of the people doing philosophy of religion right now are women; it strikes me that a better use of time involves coming up with constructive ways of addressing this which context, it's worth noting a few attempts that don't seem entirely effective."

Don't Get Your Panties in a Bunch:

the dilemma of addressing the absence of women in contemporary philosophy of religion

Preamble: This paper is NOT about blaming people or creating guilt: its purpose is to acknowledge the complexities of the situation and to suggest ways to optimize the effectiveness of responses. If you’re feeling offended or guilty while you’re reading, please don’t let that prevent you from engaging in what I hope is a common goal of making the philosophy of religion a better field for everyone. Also, the main goal of this paper is collaborative—it’s written rather loosely to spark ideas that will help change things for the better. Any and all input along those lines is welcomed!

Note: Some very rough numbers as background: the percentage of female philosophers in the field as a whole generally measures anywhere between mid-20% - mid 30%, depending on where you’re looking; the percentage of female philosophers working in contemporary philosophy of religion appears to hover right about 10%, give or take a percentage point or two. Even keeping in mind that surveys that track subfields involve self-identification by the philosophers in question and get a little ‘squishy’ as a result, that’s a significant drop.

I. Introduction

My goal here is two-fold:

First, I want to acknowledge that focusing attention on the absence of women in the philosophy of religion is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a problem and to identify the nature of that problem; on the other hand, drawing attention to the absence of a marginalized group can actually exacerbate the problematic dynamics that have led to and perpetuate the situation.

In the specific case of the under-representation of women in the philosophy of religion, my concern is that common attempts to address the issue are more likely to strengthen than to alleviate the effects of such things as implicit bias and stereotype threat.

Second, I want to focus primarily on ways of addressing the absence of women that seem the most promising (in the sense of being most likely to change existing dynamics), and I want to do this in part by contrasting those strategies with ones less likely to have that effect.

II. The Double-Edged Sword

While acknowledging underrepresented groups and working to counter the negative dynamics that contribute to that situation is crucial, there are ways of drawing attention to the presence of an underrepresented group that can exacerbate the experience of isolation and marginalization of individual members of that group and negatively impact their performance in that field—even when the explicit purpose of those actions is to improve the situation.

In the rest of this section, I’ll lay out some of the ways that people tend to draw attention to the under-representation of women in the field that can have counter-productive effects.

a) Well-Meant but Generally Unhelpful Comments:

Any woman who has attended a conference (or workshop or seminar) in the philosophy of religion has probably heard some version of the three following comments. Each comment is well-intentioned, and usually made by someone who considers himself an ally. (I’m using male pronouns here because I’ve never had a female philosopher say any of these things to me, nor has any of the other women I’ve talked to about the issue—which is, at this point, most of the women in the subfield.)

My purpose here is to capture how these comments are often heard or experienced by the people they’re directed at.

Ex. 1: “Oh, it’s so great that you’re a woman in philosophy of religion! We really need some more of those!”

From the inside: People who say this sort of thing are almost always trying to be encouraging. If you ask them why it would be good to have more women in the field, however, the conversation tends to get awkward pretty quickly. Responses like, “Well, it’s good to have ‘a female perspective’ on these issues” generally make the woman in question feel as though what she has to contribute to the philosophy of religion is related more closely to her genitalia than to her philosophical abilities. It also draws the woman’s attention to the absence of other women in the subfield, which (as I’ll discuss below) tends to increase the effects of stereotype threat.

Finally, when someone says “we” need “some more of those”, it reinforces the idea that women are “them” rather than “us.”

[Sidenote: Al Plantinga, one of the greatest philosophers of religion of all time, came up to me after I gave a version of this paper and said rather plaintively, "But I do think it's great when women work in the philosophy of religion. And we do need more them!" My point isn't that people shouldn't think that. It's that it's not necessarily helpful to say that to the women--especially in situations where they're in a very clear minority.]

Ex. 2: “It must be really hard/challenging to be a woman in philosophy of religion, dealing with that old boy’s network”

From the inside: Again, this sort of comment is usually meant to be sympathetic, and it's certainly true that the challenge is real...but saying this to someone in that situation often has the effect of reinforcing the powerful idea of the old boy’s network and reminding the woman of the extra struggle.

To give an analogy, it's a bit like saying to someone 12 miles into a marathon: “Wow—it must be really hard to keep running for 14 more miles, dealing with all those leg cramps and exhaustion and such!”

Ex. 3: “Could you give me/us a female perspective on why there are so few women in philosophy of religion?” or "Why do you, as a woman, think there are so few women working in the philosophy of religion?”

From the inside: On the one hand, this sort of comment is usually intended to put the woman in a positive position of authority in a conversation. On the other hand, asking someone to speak for her entire sex by asking for ‘a female perspective’ or asking someone to speak ‘as a woman’ is at best off-putting and at worst essentializing/ reductive.

More importantly, the dynamics of the situation are often such that the woman just ends up offering ideas up for the slaughter. This question, e.g., is often asked at a conference/workshop dinner where there’s one woman at a table full of men. The conversation then shifts naturally into typical ‘philosopher attack mode', where whatever explanation(s) the woman gives will be examined, analyzed, and discounted or objected to: “Really? Don’t you think it’s more like this?…”

(This dining situation is less rare than you might think—at the 2012 Pacific APA session on this topic, every single woman in the room raised their hand when I asked whether anyone else there had ever been the only woman at a conference.)

b) “What is it like” public blogs, discussions, etc.

The status of the “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?” blog, a project of the Women in Philosophy Taskforce, is fairly controversial within both the philosophical and the feminist communities. Personally, I deeply appreciate the intent behind it—which is to give people a space to share brief stories that, taken together, present a broad picture of the experiences of women in the field. I also think it’s important to have a open forum in which those stories can be shared and heard.

At the same time, the “What is it like” blog does not have an entirely positive effect re: addressing the absence of women. It has received a great deal of (not entirely unjust) flak on the grounds that reading through the extensive posts about the difficulties of being a woman in the field is likely both to scare women away from philosophy and to unintentionally promote the stereotypes it’s trying to undermine. The stories are primarily negative, and there’s legitimate cause for concern that the blog highlights one very common and powerful aspect of what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy at the expense of a more comprehensive picture of the experience of most women. (Fortunately, the "What It's Like" blog doesn't exist in isolation! I’ll discuss the “What We’re Doing about What It’s Like” and “Why Stay” blogs below.)

I think it’s important to keep in mind how dynamics of discussions shift in different contexts. When these sorts of discussions go public, they can have a very different function than when a group of women is sitting around sharing their war stories amongst themselves. It's like how you say things about your parents to your siblings and close family that you would never say to people outside the family. I tell different stories to other women in the philosophy of religion about my experiences than I do to men or to women in different subfields—or, at the very least, I tell the same story a little differently! In the same way that addressing the absence of women by making certain comments can exacerbate rather than alleviate the situation, the "What It's Like" blog (and similar) can intensify rather than alleviate relevant factors.

(This isn't to say that I don't think the "What It's Like" blog serves an important purpose. I just don't think that this purpose includes alleviating dynamics that contribute to the under-representation of women in philosophy of religion.)

c) Attempts to identify and analyze particular character attributes that might contribute to the under-representation of women in the subfield.

When I was first approached about writing on this topic, it was for a proposed special edition of a journal on why there are so few women in the philosophy of religion. I refused. Or, rather, I suggested that there might be more constructive ways of improving the situation of women in the subfield than an extended discussion of their absence (such as a special edition of the journal with a female guest editor highlighting the best work of women in the subfield).

Why did I object to the proposed volume? Because attempts to identify particular features that lead to the under-representation of women in the philosophy of religion tend to collapse into discussions of particular character attributes, and I find this pernicious for (at least) two reasons:

1. It tends to reinforce rather than break down existing stereotypes. Even the most carefully nuanced attempts to address the approaches men and women take to philosophical discourse can have this effect--after all, the audience's conceptual framework affects what it hears.

Someone who accepts an essentialist, Mars/Venus-style framework, for instance, might listen to a talk about the factors that tend to disadvantage women in the field (such as reluctance to self-promote or hesitance to make unsupported knowledge claims) and draw the conclusion that philosophy of religion would benefit from the presence of more women because they’re better “natural bullshit detectors” and have a clearer sense of what “really matters” than men…without realizing how this reinforces stereotypes about women’s intuition (as opposed to intellection) or how women in the subfield are likely to hear this claim. [Hint: it sounds as though you think my primary contribution to the philosophy of religion is that my ovaries are natural divining rods for bullshit.]

(I did not make this example up, by the way. I actually heard someone argue for this as a reason we need more women in the sub-field.)

Here’s another cautionary tale illustrating this point from the amazing Jenny Saul (one of the editors of the feministphilosophers blog and a leading figure in discussions of implicit bias and stereotype threat), following an interview she did with The Philosopher’s Magazine on the under-representation of women in philosophy--an interview that got picked up and re-quoted in the New York Times:

“What I didn’t reckon on– much to my regret– was… how it would look when a single quote or two were pulled out of [the original interview]. When that happened, the claim that women may be socialised in a way that gives them a lesser tolerance for counterproductive aggression became the claim that women are naturally unaggressive. And then a slide was made from unaggressive to not able to cope with criticism/not able to argue/weak and pathetic.”

She continues:

“All this, it seems to me, raises tricky tactical issues, if you think, as I do, (1) that there are a huge range of complex reasons for women’s under-representation in philosophy; (2) that philosophical discussion is often conducted with a counterproductive level of aggression; and (3) that (2) may well be ONE (but just one) of the factors contributing to (1). A first tactical issue is whether it’s ever a good idea to mention (2) in a discussion of women in philosophy, given people’s tendency to glom onto it and ignore all else. This worry is heightened by the worry, noted by many Times commentators, that mentioning (2) feeds the stereotype of women as lacking the attributes needed for philosophy. (It only does so if one wrongly conflates aggression and argumentation, but clearly many do.) Another tactical issue is whether it’s ever a good idea to mention (2) as a woman in philosophy, regardless of the subject under discussion– because, again, doing so contributes the stereotype of women as not good at philosophy.”

2. It draws time, energy, and resources away from actually changing the situation. Are men more aggressive and less collaborative? Are women more relational and less confrontational? If so, are these differences the result of evolutionary forces, socialization, historical contingencies, or what-have-you? And which of these contribute most to the under-representation of women in the field, and of women in the philosophy of religion in particular? Conversations about these issues are fascinating and important, but if we wait until we have consensus about them before we begin working for change, we will never stop waiting.

In general, the more we focus on the differences between men and women (esp. given the prevailing gender essentialism in many Christian circles), the less plausible it will seem that women are going to be well-suited for philosophy of religion, simply because of common assumptions about the nature of the field and the skills required for it. (So, for example, a common perception is that being good at philosophy of religion requires being good at modal logic and formalizing arguments; discussions about why women are less interested in those activities both subtly reinforce the idea that women are less interested in those activities and marginalize the women who might be genuinely interested.)

So, what’s to be done??

III. Strategies that promote positive change:

So far, I’ve focused on common responses to the absence of women in the philosophy of religion that run the risk of being counter-productive. In this section, I focus on strategies that I think are most likely to create positive change for the subfield as a whole, including widespread education about implicit bias and stereotype threat and both ‘top-down’ efforts (by conference/ workshop/ seminar organizers, journal editors, etc.) and ‘bottom-up’ efforts (by graduate students, individual professors, etc.).

A. Education about countering implicit bias and stereotype threat

For the most part, we’re past the days when it was acceptable to claim (or even quietly believe) that women or ethnic minorities just aren’t as smart as white men are or as qualified to hold positions of authority or power. That doesn’t mean that the playing field is equal, though. Social researchers frequently appeal to such ‘invisible’ factors as implicit bias and stereotype threat to help explain why the numbers of certain marginalized groups remain low in areas like philosophy, computer science, corporate leadership, and politics.

Thankfully, there is a wealth of resources on implicit bias and stereotype threat these days. In fact, in the three years since I first gave this talk, the discussion on implicit bias and stereotype threat in philosophy has exploded. (Go ahead! Google them. You don't even really need to come back and finish this post. The links I've got here are just the tip of the resource iceberg.) Here, I’m just going to explicate these concepts in enough detail to ground my claim that effective attempts to address the under-representation of women in the philosophy of religion must involve understanding what implicit bias and stereotype threat are and how they function.

Implicit bias

People who are firmly committed to gender equality are still subject to implicit bias--that is, relatively unconscious attitudes about, say, male vs. female strengths and weaknesses. This bias influences our behaviors in ways we’re often not even consciously aware of.

The classic example in the literature is the resume test, where people are asked to evaluate job applications. Evaluators consistently rate resumes with a traditionally male name more highly than the exact same resume with a female name attached to it. (See here for a discussion of one of these tests. This result has been duplicated any number of times, and in a variety of situations--including one that involved 238 academic psychologists.)

The moral of the story--familiar to most of us who work in philosophy these days-- is that our unconscious schemas influence how we evaluate, treat, and react to people (and their ideas).

Education is essential for undercutting the effects of implicit bias—but overcoming the problem isn’t as simple as just learning what implicit bias is and trying not to be subject to it. The whole point of implicit bias is that it’s unconscious. As Kieran Healy points out,

“Introspection is not a good guide to outcomes. Few people think of themselves as unfairly biased against any particular group. Instead, they tend to think that outcomes are explained either (a) by some aspect of the group’s nature, or (b) by the simple aggregation of choices and preferences of group members. Situational and structural factors influencing choice tend to be ignored.”

People who claim that they’re not subject to implicit bias are like people who claim that they can drive well while texting or are effective multi-taskers: they are likely to be worse off in those very respects than the people who recognize that they struggle with those tasks.

I believe that addressing the issue of implicit bias is especially important for philosophy of religion, for the simple reason that the majority of people working in the subfield are Christians who come from communities in which traditional gender roles are still prevalent—and may even be venerated.

To be blunt, the philosophy of religion is a subfield in which people (both male and female) are more likely to have implicit biases that negatively affect their attitudes and behaviors towards women in the subfield. And, as a great deal of research in the social sciences demonstrates, small effects add up. For instance, when evaluating grant and post-doc proposals, a study by Wenneras and Wold showed that female participants had to be 2.5 times as productive as male participants to receive the same reviewer rating. (This bias in evaluating grant proposals is particularly salient given the increasing availability--and importance--of grants and post-docs in the philosophy of religion.)

Stereotype threat

Claude Steele coined this term in the 1997 article linked above. In short, it can be described as “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype." When persistently confronted with situations in which a negative stereotype (e.g., not being interested in logic or serious about a career) comes into play, individual members of that group often distance themselves from the situations in which they experience stereotype threat.

In the subfield of philosophy of religion, this suggests that women—who consistently face stereotype threat re: rationality, emotionality, argumentative rigor, etc.—are more likely than men to distance themselves both from the field and their performance in that field.

People in positions of administrational leadership (department chairs, professional organization higher-ups, journal editors) and people in charge of organizing conferences and workshops, etc., need to familiarize themselves with practical strategies that can help counteract the effects of implicit bias and stereotype threat. This involves familiarizing themselves with ongoing psychological and sociological research, as well as resources such as Project Implicit and the Implicit Bias and Philosophy project. And people in such positions should also take it on themselves to disseminate information and strategies that would be helpful to others.

B. Large-scale, targeted efforts such as the Gendered Conference Campaign

Although certainly not uncontroversial, the Gendered Conference Campaign (GCC) is the best example I can think of of a concerted effort to change the climate for women that’s had a tangible positive effect. Started in 2009, the focus of the campaign has been to draw attention to conferences and events with all-male line-ups. Its influence can be measured in part by the fact that some conference organizers have used the GCC successfully to argue for the need to invite more women, while other organizers have posted on the blog to explain disproportionately male line-ups.

For those unfamiliar with the GCC, here’s its mission statement:

“The Gendered Conference Campaign aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of all-male conferences (and volumes, and summer schools), of the harm that they do. We make no claims whatsoever about the causes of such conferences: our focus is on their existence and effects. We are therefore not in the business of blaming conference organisers, and not interested (here, anyway) in discussions of blameworthiness. Instead, we are interested in drawing attention to this systematic phenomenon. (We also have an awesome theme song.)”

One of the things that I think has most contributed to the success of the GCC is its explicitly not attributing all-male line-ups to sexist organizers (which helps defuse knee-jerk defensive responses and avoids building antagonism via “us” vs. “them” mentality). The description of the campaign also does an excellent job clearly laying out the harms of the phenomenon it’s addressing and includes imbedded links to helpful sites. (This is something philosophy of religion-related websites might consider including as well.)

“But wait!” you might be thinking. “I’ve heard all sorts of stories about people trying and trying to get women to present at conferences/ contribute to volumes/ etc., and there just aren’t any available! What then?”

I’ve got four suggestions to that end:

1) Take risks. Don’t just invite established senior female scholars. There are exactly three of them in the philosophy of religion, and they’re all very busy. Invite promising up-and-coming women, even if their area isn’t a perfect fit and even if they don’t have the same prestige as the Big Names.

2) Be willing to broaden conference/workshop themes. If you honestly value diversity and want to promote change, you need to be conscious of/flexible about your workshop/conference/special edition of journal topic—and you need to be accommodating. I’m not saying that every conference or workshop in the philosophy of religion should be completely open topic, but organizers should be conscious of how inclusive their topics are. (This is something that Mike Rea has worked really hard at with the Logos conferences that he organizes for Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion--and to really good effect.

3) Be persistent. You will probably get more rejections of your invitations from women than from men. Women in philosophy (especially philosophy of religion) tend to be shouldering heavy administrational burdens and overcommitted on a variety of front. Don’t just make a token effort at inclusivity and then move on to the men on your list—keep trying.

4) Work towards critical mass. If you want to avoid exacerbating negative gender dynamics, you’ve got to have more than one or two women involved. As I mentioned above, at the Pacific APA session on this topic every single woman in the room raised her hand when I asked if anyone had been the only woman at a philosophy of religion-focused conference. Ideally, you’d have at least 25% female participation, but the real goal is a critical mass of women to avoid feelings of increased marginalization and isolation.

C. Dedicated resources to increasing gender equity in the philosophy of religion

This is actually something that the Diversity Committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers is working on--and we're not alone in that effort. (You can't tell that yet from SCP website, though. Baby steps, people! Baby steps.)

Again, this is a place where a little effort by conference and workshop organizers goes a long way. One of the (perhaps less-obvious) things that helps here is offering childcare and designating pumping/breastfeeding spaces at conferences. Not holding conferences over the weekend (the usual Thursday night-Saturday schedule) can also make it easier for people with small children to attend.

"But this requires funds!" I hear you saying. "And funds are hard to come by."

Yeah, I get that. Which is why it's awesome that there are small (and not-so-small) grants available for just these sorts of things through, say, the APA. Your institution might have some money socked away for diversity and inclusivity efforts, too. You never know--it's always worth an ask.

D. Facilitating networks and communities for women who work in the philosophy of religion, where they can get candid advice, etc., from other people in a position similar to their own.

This is another area that has taken off in the broader field of philosophy since 2012, when I first gave this talk. See, e.g., the workshops advertised here, here, and here. (Women. They're so hot right now.)

To the best of my knowledge, though, there's nothing along these lines aimed at women specifically in the philosophy of religion. Even something as simple as a listserv can make a difference. (That said, at my college, there's a dedicated listserv for ‘women at Calvin’...the existence of which offends/threatens some male faculty and staff on the grounds that it lets women build networks of power that aren’t available to them. In reality, the only time that listserv gets used is when people want recommendations for primary care physicians and plumbers and such.)

I get that 'women-only' (or at least 'non-male-identified only') events raise hackles. No one likes feeling excluded. The thing is--in a sub-field with roughly 90% men, it can be incredibly affirming to spend some time in a setting where you're not the outsider. And, like I said at the outset, I take it that the goal here is to make the philosophy of religion a better place for everyone. Maybe it's not so bad if the dudes in the field suddenly have to wonder what the women are saying about them. What was that inscription at the temple in Delphi again??

("Know thyself." It was "Know thyself.")

E. The “Why Stay” and “What We’re Doing about What It’s Like”” blogs, etc.

Several of the things that I've mentioned above are 'top-down' in the sense of being strategies most relevant to people in positions of authority. There are plenty of opportunities for everyone to get involved, however, no matter their gender or status in the field.

There are also resources that emphasize the positive aspects of being in philosophy for women in the field, and that offer encouragement and support for women in all stages of the profession. See, e.g., Why Stay and What We're Doing about What It's Like. There are also specific resources like Women Philosophers of Religion.

Finally, for far more sage advice about this general topic than I could hope to provide here, see this interview with Jenny Saul at The Philosophers Magazine. I realize that at this point, I must look like a total Saul fangirl. Which is fair enough, because I am. There are tons of other people out there doing fantastic work in these areas, too, though. Check out the websites of the workshops and such that I've linked to for the bare beginnings of such a list. (I'm not even going to start naming them here, because I will either not be able to stop or leave off people that I would like to include.)

One last time, my goal here is to encourage people to stop talking about the lack of women in the philosophy of religion and get pro-active about changing things for the better. Because greater gender equality is better. For everyone.

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Written by Christina Van Dyke
the academic world
philosophy professor at a liberal arts college, writing about medieval views on the afterlife, gendered eating, and the perils of on-line dating.

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