This may come as a surprise to some readers, but all I know about nightclubs I have picked up from watching Knocked Up (thanks Rebecca) and reading Tom Slee’s excellent No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (I’d go further, and claim, shocking as it may be, that no reader of CT has less direct experience of night clubs than I do). From what Slee says (and Apatow confirms) bouncers think of themselves as creating the very good to which they are controlling access. What people want is to be around a high enough proportion of good-looking/cool/well-dressed/female/young/
sophisticated-seeming-but-ultimately-dull-witted people, and the club provides that good only if the bouncers admit a high enough proportion of such people.
I was reminded of this when I read this excellent paper by Sally Haslanger about the position of women in Philosophy Departments (via Leiter). I’m going to resist the temptation to summarise for two reasons: one is that all faculty members in Philosophy Departments should read the whole thing and carefully, the other is that I don’t want any misimpressions caused by my summary to influence subsequent discussion. Read it.
Why was I put in mind of the little I know about night-clubs?
Because graduate admissions committees are, in fact, the way that Tom Slee and Judd Apatow present bouncers as being, but I also suspect that they are often not fully cognisant of that fact. I suspect that many committees think of themselves as simply trying to predict the success of each individual applicant, or perhaps as trying to award places on the basis of individual merit. But in fact each admissions decision influences the ability of other students to learn. Rather uncontroversially, each student benefits (or loses) from the presence of each other student. Of course, it is incredibly hard to predict of each particular admittee what his or her effect will be on the ability of each other to learn. But dealing with large enough numbers, it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to suspect that the situation Haslanger describes herself as being in in grad school was not optimally conducive to someone’s succeeding (I’ll add, for the non-philosophers, that Haslanger is a very well respected and unnervingly accomplished philosopher with diverse interests ranging across epistemology, history, metaphysics, moral and political philosophy, and feminism). Reversing the situation with respect to gender is not an especially good aid to imagination—I suspect, for example, that I’d have learned better myself if my own graduate experience had been dominated by women rather than by men. But if it had been dominated by Americans or Tories I might have felt more alienated, and less able to learn, than I in fact did (I went to grad school in the US, but my department had almost as many Brits as Americans during my time there. I don’t mean to be rude about Americans or Tories, here, just noting that one of the things that put me more at ease than I might have been was the presence of numerous compatriots. It is no accident that foreign students flock together, because they provide each other with support and community). Choose your own cause of alienation and do some imagining (I suspect that there are enough libertarians in the profession for them to survive philosophy grad school, and I know there are enough Christians in the right places, but I imagine true Conservatives can expect an alienating experience not conducive to learning well in many places).
It seems blindingly obvious to me (but I’m willing to stand corrected, of course) that individual women, whatever their individual merits, have a better shot at success in grad school if there is a critical mass of other women in the program. Admissions committees create that environment (or fail to create it) by their decisions about the gender balance of entering classes. Haslanger herself is deliberately cautious about making very strong recommendations, but my (possibly ill-informed, but nevertheless entirely relevant) thought that graduate admissions committees are like night-club bouncers convinces me that graduate admissions committees should work very hard indeed to achieve gender balance.