On the Climate for Women in Phil. of Mind: A First Look at the Survey Data

I’ve gotten about 30 responses to the survey I posted last week, and as I begin to look through the data (this takes a while, as I have to enter them into an Excel spreadsheet in order to break them down), some interesting trends have emerged. In this post I’ll note a few things about the responses to the first two questions, which concerned the climate for women very generally – in future posts I’ll have a bit more to say about this issue, plus some discussion of the questions about the relevance of feminism.

The first question in the survey asked respondents to identify the strength of their agreement with the following claim: Among those who work in empirically-informed
philosophy of mind, there are a sizable number of leaders and
up-and-coming stars in the field who are women, regardless of whether
they take up feminist issues.
Here is how the responses broke down overall:

  • “Agree strongly”: 12.9%
  • “Agree somewhat”: 45.2%
  • “Disagree somewhat”: 29.0%
  • “Disagree strongly”: 12.9%

Similarly, the claim at issue in the second question was: In empirically-informed philosophy of mind,
there is a culture of taking women seriously, treating them
respectfully, and including them in social networks and professional
The breakdown of responses was:

  • “Agree strongly”: 22.6%
  • “Agree somewhat”: 51.6%
  • “Disagree somewhat”: 12.9%
  • “Disagree strongly”: 9.7%

These responses suggest a generally optimistic view of the status of women in the field, and they accord pretty well with (what had been) my own sense of things. (Note that nearly all the respondents identified themselves as specialists in the field.) The picture is complicated, however, when we break things down by gender. Among men (n=15), responses to the first question broke down along the following percentages: 13% “Agree strongly” / 67% “Agree somewhat” / 13% “Disagree somewhat” / 7% “Disagree strongly”. By contrast, among women (n=12) the responses were: 8% “Agree strongly” / 25% “Agree somewhat” / 42% “Disagree somewhat” / 25% “Disagree strongly”. Responses to the second question followed a similar pattern: for men it was 40% “Agree strongly” and 60% “Agree somewhat” with no one choosing either of the “Disagree” options, whereas for women it was 33% “Agree somewhat”, 33% “Disagree somewhat”, and 25% “Agree strongly”, with one “I don’t know” and no one at all choosing “Agree strongly”. Put another way, between these two questions we can observe the following trends:

  • Men were more than twice as likely than women (80% vs. 33%) to believe that sizable numbers of women are prominent in the field, whereas women are almost four times as likely as men (77% vs. 20%) to believe that this is not so.
  • Men are more than three times more likely than women (100% vs. 33%) to believe that women in the field are taken seriously and treated with respect, and whereas while nearly three-fifths (58%) of women were inclined to disbelieve this, no men at all shared this opinion.

These divergences are striking, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were statistically significant.

This pattern suggests something I rather expected to find, which is that men have a more positive view than do women of the climate for women in empirically-informed philosophy of mind. More specifically:

  • Men are more likely than women to believe that there are sizable numbers of women who have prominent positions in the field, and less likely than women to believe that there are not.
  • Men are more likely than women to believe that women in the field are taken seriously, treated respectfully, and included in networking opportunities, and less likely than women to believe that this is not so.

This is a very big deal! – and note that this doesn’t change even if you believe that the female respondents were actually getting things wrong (for whatever reason). For even the mere belief among women that the climate for women is unfavorable constitutes the climate as such, at least to some degree, since this alone is enough to keep women from entering the field, to give women who do work in the field the sense that their opportunities are limited or that they are not being taken seriously, and so on. Whether accurate or mistaken, these impressions are out there, and they deserve some real attention.

Comments are open.


  1. P.S. A grain of salt: whatever the statistical significance of the above trends, it goes without saying that I cannot be confident that the survey respondents are representative of the overall population that works in the field.

  2. Josh Shepherd

    Hi John,

    Thanks for putting together the data! These results, even if not representative, suggest that representative data should be gathered. I wouldn’t know how to go about this, but surveys at the SPP or ESPP seem like a place to start, if such a thing would be allowed.

    I didn’t fill out the survey, for one reason – I don’t feel qualified to report. The experiences I draw on are some conferences, some anecdotes, and some friendships with fellow empirical phil mind folks. But I’m not sure what constitutes the culture of our sub-discipline. Behavior at conferences? The existence and/or re-telling of horror stories? The behavior of empirical phil mind philosophers in general? Experiences with empirical phil mind journals/reviewers (for example, one friend – not in phil mind – has complained about always getting reviewer comments which refer to the author as ‘he’)?

    I mention this in case it’s helpful for future surveys (more specific questions might be helpful, or they might not: I suppose it depends on what you want to know). The possibility of a massive difference in perception between gender on this question suggests that future surveys are worth doing.

  3. duncan

    If I’ve got your data right, then running a Mann-Whitney U test to compare responses for each question between genders gives these results:

    Question 1: U = 49.5; Exact Sig. = .047
    Question 2: U = 18; Exact Sig. = .000

    So for this test both questions give statistically significant differences in responses between genders, though the usual provisos about sample size and sampling bias apply.

    Kudos for doing this.

  4. Disturbing and somewhat surprising, given that I grew up on Patricia Churchland and Kathleen Akins.

    A nice comparison would be how much men/women think people, in general, are respected in this subfield. People with an empirical “hard nosed” approach could be seen as dismissive jerks in general. I know the biggest tools I meet in philosophy, and the most dismissive arrogant pedants, have been those that take a quasi-scientific approach. OTOH, that’s who I tend to interact with most.

    One very prominent philsci guy said, to a woman who was specializing in ethics, ‘I will probably look into ethics once I get old’ with the clear implication that he would do this when he was too stupid to do the hard-core work. Everyone was like WTF. She was junior faculty and just shrank into her seat. It was very uncomfortable.

    Another very prominent guy would come into a group of new grad students and give what he called ‘little IQ tests’ which were often math puzzles. He would see who could answer them the fastest, with a very smug demeanor. The guys would get all eager to kiss his ass and perform like little seals, while the women would squirm at this hypermasculine attempt for him to judge his charges, and often say (to his face) they didn’t feel comfortable with this strange behavior.

    Both of these guys everyone here would know their names, they are almost universally respected (even by me…they indeed do very good work). For those that know my history a bit, please note that neither jerk was Paul Churchland, who I always found to be a great guy very egalitarian in his dealings.

    Note one of the two was an asshole to everyone without discrimination (the ‘iq test’ guy). The other I would never have predicted it. Did he say the comment about ethics because it was a woman? Can’t say.

    At any rate, sort of surprising disappointing it would be cool to see this fleshed out with truly random sampling and more control questions.

  5. Eric Thomson

    Thanks. One thing I was not clear on–I wrote as if only men can make the climate uncomfortable for women. That is clearly BS.

    Also, another factor I didn’t bring up is the whole kid thing. Now that I have a child (15 months old) I see just how unfriendly academia is to women who want to have children/family. I understand more than previously why so few women stay on in science. Perhaps philosophy should be more mother-friendly, because you don’t have labs to tend to and experiments to do. But I am probably wrong about that. You still have heavy teaching loads and such, and wanting maternity leave can be looked at as a diversion or dalliance.

  6. John Schwenkler


    Amen re: your point about kids. Worth adding that academia is also unfriendly to *men* who want to have them, esp. if we don’t want to leave our wives doing all the caretaking. I can’t think of the last time I was able to attend a multi-day conference from start to finish, instead of dropping in for barely a day, in order to get home and resume putting my boys to sleep.

  7. Eric Thomson

    Great point! I was thinking of the first few months, where breastfeeding and such (which is so stressed by drs nowadays) will tend to be the duty of the woman.

    Duke has “parental” leave, but for one parent. So either my wife, or me, but not both, could stay home with Ella. Since we went the breast-feeding route, that policy effectively said that I didn’t get any time off to help her out with Ella for the initial period. I used sick/vacation days the first week. I complained about this to our postdoctoral association, but got blown off (if I were a woman perhaps they would have taken my complaints more seriously, but my impression is that they really don’t want to touch this issue because they don’t think it is important).

    Without having family around to help out, or being wealthy enough to afford a nanny, it is nearly impossible for parents to have kids and both be truly full-time professionals. E.g., when Ella gets sick, and can’t be at day care for four days in a row, somebody has to miss work. There is no getting around it. In most relationships, the woman ends up being the one making the bigger compromise for the family. Certainly that’s how it has played out in my marriage, I’m not proud to admit.

    Slight tangent, and sorry to get all psychological here, but I do think this is all in the orbit of the original issues, and I do think family/kids is the number one issue (at least in science) keeping women feeling less welcome. When there is more equality in marriages, I think departments will become much more kid-friendly.
    OTOH one nice thing is that academic jobs are more flexible than most other jobs. I can come into lab at 3am if I have to. So that is nice. 🙂

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