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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