On the women-friendliness of epistemology: a challenge

Kathrine Switzer running in the Boston Marathon, 1967.

Kathrine Switzer running in the Boston Marathon, 1967.

Posted in Certain Doubts on by

In the past few months, I have heard several epistemologists make remarks about epistemology’s relative lack of friendliness to women (in comparison with philosophy’s other subfields).  Perhaps the most often-cited evidence was the ratio of men to women in epistemology, compared to the ratios in other subfields of philosophy; salient high-profile epistemology conferences at which most or all of the invited speakers are men; several high-profile epistemology volumes at which most or all of the invited contributions are from men; and the relative lack of women epistemologists on many epistemology syllabi.  I have not done any investigations to confirm any of these allegations (and I have not compared epistemology to other subfields).  Still, it seems to me that we have a problem so long as these are the impressions that are had by prominent epistemologists.   (I also cannot say that my experiences in epistemology give me confidence that these claims are wholly inaccurate.)

I do not post this to cast aspersions or to accuse.  Rather, in the spirit of the undergraduate women students at Northwestern who recently started the WiPhi (“Women into Philosophy”) group here in the NU Philosophy Department, I post this to challenge the epistemology community.   With these excellent undergraduates (and the many, many others like them all over the world) in mind, I challenge us to see whether, within a period of a few years, we might change our practices in such a way that, far from being seen as not particularly women-friendly, epistemology will be, and will come to be seen as, one of the most women-friendly subdisciplines within philosophy.  (Of course, this should be part of an effort to make philosophy as an entire discipline more women-friendly, as well as more friendly to all underrepresented groups; but perhaps this smaller and more focused effort can help these larger aims.)

In order to ensure that this effort has a fighting chance, I think it is important at the outset to offer proposals with which everyone working in epistemology (or near enough) might agree.  I offer the following suggestions in that spirit (and other suggestions are welcome as well).

First, there are some large-scale efforts that I would propose: (1) program chairs for epistemology conferences or workshops are urged to take all reasonable measures to ensure a happy gender representation, both among the invited sessions and among the chosen submissions; (2) editors of epistemology volumes and special editions of journals are urged to take all reasonable measures to ensure a happy gender representation among contributors; (3) those teaching epistemology should ensure that at least some women epistemologists are on the syllabus, to be read and discussed; and (4) those on search committees for positions defined to include epistemology should make sure to give extra scrutiny to all of the applications from women candidates, and also to familiarize themselves with the various ways in which such applications are dismissed prematurely, or on insufficient evidence.

But there are also some efforts which, though perhaps on a smaller scale, are ones each one of us can make: (5) let’s be aware of the phenomenon Sally Haslanger calls the “micromessages” we communicate to others, and (to the extent this is feasible) aim to address these in our own behaviors; (6) let’s recognize and resolve to address the various ways in which women get unfairly treated at conferences (raised hands not acknowledged at all, or acknowledged only late in a session; points made not acknowledged at all, or only acknowledged after a male colleague makes essentially the same point after her, thereby illustrating a form of what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice”; other, more subtle exclusions from group conversations; etc.); (7) let’s recognize and resolve to address the various ways in which women get unfairly treated in the classroom; and finally (8) let’s all attend to the empirical work that is being done by many excellent scholars regarding the reasons for the low numbers of women in philosophy (as compared to other disciplines), and let’s all resolve to act in small ways and big to address these.

I should add that I do not think it is wise to conflate the aim of making epistemology more women-friendly with the aim of increasing the visibility and prevalence of feminist epistemology.  My point here is not against feminist epistemology – not at all.  It is rather that the role of feminist epistemology within epistemology should be settled by the outcome of philosophical reflection and discussion among epistemologists (including but not limited to feminist epistemologists).  By my lights, conflating these two aims would be unfair both to women in epistemology (as it would implicitly regard them as having to work in feminist epistemology), and to feminist epistemology (as it would assume that the case for the significance of feminist epistemology requires something beyond the normal give-and-take of philosophical exchange).  It is an open question how the aim to increase the women-friendliness of epistemology bears on the aim of increasing the visibility of feminist epistemology.  I think that is as it should be.

I am well aware that I have no official standing to offer this challenge, other than as a concerned person whose research life is mainly in epistemology.    I can only hope that this challenge is understood in the spirit in which I offer it: made out of a sense of commitment to (and love for) epistemology, in the face of a concern I have with this aspect of the state of our field.  It is my further hope that many other epistemologists find themselves in the same position, and will join in the efforts to address this matter head-on, without defensiveness.

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