Giving women in academia genuine equal opportunities

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 8, 2013

Happy international women’s day!

I want to use this occasion to share some thoughts about how to given women in academia a fair chance. I’m not talking about affirmative action or quota, but rather making both the environment more welcoming to women, the formal practices fairer to women, and the informal practices such that they are less disadvantageous for women. The reason why these things need to be discussed is that I increasingly encounter academics (mostly men, I fear) who think that there are no further issues with the environment/procedures/practices, and who believe that in reality women now get better chances in academia than men. While there may be isolated cases of such favorable treatment of women, my judgement of the situation is that all things considered many women are still in many (subtle and not-so-subtle) ways disadvantaged, and that unfortunately many academics do not understand how the practices in academia are disadvantaging women. So, let us look at some of these factors, and ask what each of us can do to give women an equal chance in academia.

Implicit bias
In many situations the causes of women’s unequal chances are small and not visible to those not trained to diagnose the situation. One cause is the effects of implicit bias, which implies that if a piece of work is being done by women, it will be judged of lower quality than exactly the same piece of work done by me, due to non-conscious associations we hold. Or, a certain skill, capacity or personality trait will be judged positively if we see it in a man, and less positively or even negatively if it’s a trait of a woman. A typical case is being assertive, which is in men seen as a sign of leadership, but in women quickly interpreted as being aggressive. Implicit bias is often at work in how we judge CV’s and publication list: a woman with a strong publication list will be seen as ‘promising’, a man will be seen as ‘excellent’. These differences in evaluation are documented in studies on implicit bias, but many colleagues (from various universities and fields) who know about implicit bias, have seen it work in evaluative situations (like hiring committees) in which the work and capacities of men and women were evaluated.

In my view, we won’t be able to make a significant improvement in the position of women in academia if academics in positions of power and authority (that is: those who hire people, judge non-anonymous grant applications or paper/books submission etc.) will not fully understand the workings of implicit bias, including some of the empirical research that documents implicit bias. Feminist philosophers such as Jennifer Saul and Sally Haslanger have done a lot of work on implicit bias, so anyone who wants to know more can read it on the web, for example here.

Networking and mentoring
Another cause is that due to the fact that there are many more senior male academics than senior female academics (supervisors, lecturers, professors), it is much harder for a young female academic to find a mentor of the same sex. When I was a grad student in economics in Leuven, around 1997, I noticed that the male PhD students, postdocs and lecturers would once in a while do a joint activity in the weekend, such as playing football or going for a hike. There were about 3 female PhD students in the department, and none was invited to join; and in fact these women may have felt awkward since this group of men were clearly friends. But there were no female professors and hence no female mentors for the young women with whom to hang out and learn much about the academic labour market that one doesn’t learn from the books. No-one did anything wrong and still the young women were disadvantaged in getting access to informal information about the workings of the academic labour market.

One of the things that has struck me being on hiring committees in recent times is that some young women have clearly been badly advised about what to publish, where to publish. In my part of the woods, publication track outweighs other factors in deciding whom to hire. Since numbers are small it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from this, but I’ve seen a number of good or very good women, who nevertheless had a publication record that was much weaker than they presumably could have had if they had received proper advice on how to develop a sound publication strategy. My hunch is that given the gendered structures of informal mentoring and networking, young men get much more and much better of such advice then women.

Any senior academic, whether male or female, therefore has an opportunity by scouting, intellectually nurturing, informally mentoring and guiding young women – undergrad and Master’s students, but also PhD students and young Postdocs. I have had several such senior people who adviced me when I was younger, and it has made a significant difference to my chances on the academic labour market. Many of them went beyond the call of duty — I was neither at their institute nor a former student of them, and still they supported me in numerous ways, including responding to endless questions I put to them about the workings of academia. Several of them were men. In fact, the person who supported me most in the crucial years after I got my PhD, was a man (not my supervisor). I am not quite sure they would want to be named here, but since they know who they are, let me just say: thank you.

The gender-representation of a discipline
It is very important for younger women to have older women to whom they can relate as role models. The Gendered Conference Campaign has argued at length why all-male conference, summer schools, and other events are bad. I’m not going to repeat their arguments here. But let me add that I’ve increasingly come to the view that although it is better to have a conference with 1 female invited speaker and 6 male invited speakers than a conference with 7 male speakers, it is still only marginally better than having an all male conference. So I propose the following: as a strict rule: no all male conferences. As a guideline to which we should strongly aspire and make any efforts we can to realise it: any conference, Summerschool or other event should not have less than one third of speakers of either sex.

Balance = at least one third of either sex.

There is the old insight that if members of a certain group are represented with less than one third in the composition of the larger group, then members of that group will be stronger identified in their capacity as members of the underrepresented group. So if you have a conference with 4 keynote speakers (1 female, 3 male), then the female speaker will be more perceived as a woman then if the division was more equal (in this case: 2/2). The paradox of this is that we should invite women so that they are no longer perceived as women first, but as professionals in their field: but to reach that goals we must make sure we invite at least one third of them. If you don’t quite know how to make a conference gender-balanced: the Gendered Conference Campaign has some ideas on how to do that, but feel free to add more in the discussion.

One problem I’ve encountered with activism on this topic is that when you notice an all-male event, it is often organized by people in your field, including your friends and also colleagues with whom you collaborate in various ways. So if then, as a woman, you notify the organisors, this can become very awkward: they may interpret it as that you are really saying that they should have invited you. In fact, it has happened to me that via social media I drew attention to an all male event, only to receive an invitation the next day. This is of course not what one wants to signal if one addresses gender-imbalanced events. It is therefore very good that there are independent media such as Feminist Philosophers, who can on more neutral grounds draw attention to gender imbalanced events.

Transition problems
One problem with the current situation in which in some fields there are only a handful of women, is that these women are asked to serve on all committees, since it is in itself a good thing to have more gendered-balanced committees. But if you only have 10%-15% female full professors (as in my country), but you want at least one woman on each committee (often committees consist of 5 persons, but I’ve also been on 2-person committees), then it means that female professors will be called upon much more to serve on committees, giving them less time for their teaching and research. I’ve noted this issue in my professional life, and virtually every female professor I’ve discussed this, has the same experience. I don’t see how we can solve this: if all goes well it clearly should be ‘merely’ a transition problem — but one that will take probably a very long time.

Sexual Harassment
There are other hurdles and problems for women in academia. In an interview in The Times Higher Eduction, Jennifer Saul mentions the many testimonies of sexual harassment she received when she started the blog What’s it like to be a woman in philosophy? Some of the accounts there are horrifying. Yet I should say that I have never had a friend, colleague, or student who gave even the slightest indication of being sexually harassed. I suspect this is pure statistical coincidence, but it may also be a difference between subcultures within countries or something else that I am overlooking. But by all means discuss this in the comments if you have some advice to share on how to solve this problem.

Families and the labour market
Finally, there are issues that affect women in academia as they affect all women workers, especially women who want to have a job that is time-wise demanding. One issue is that many women who have been succesful in academia had supporting partners. Yet we also know that the demand for truly egalitarian men is smaller than the supply of truly egalitarian men; and that those young heterosexual couples who manage to be egalitarian often move to less egalitarian arrangements once they become parents. There are suggestions for institutional reforms that could address these issue, including the #1 solution which is to provide for high-quality affordable childcare, but also radical and somewhat less radical solutions regarding maternity and parental leave. Yet these affect all women and men, and not those in academia in particular.

So join me in celebrating International Women’s Day by sharing what you believe could help in giving women genuine equal opportunities in academia. And many thanks to all those who, often over many years, have done so much work trying to give women in academia more equal opportunities.



SusanC 03.08.13 at 9:29 am

Conference program committes are often selected in a rather arbitrary way. Which authors get their paper accepted into the conference is usually done in a way that at least tries to be fair (anyone can submit a paper; sometimes there is anonymous double-blind referreeing of submissions etc)., but the choice of who is going to be refereeing the submissions is often less sastisfactory.

Recently, a major conference (I won’t say which one) decided to take steps to address the potential gender imbalance you get in the programme commitee. Simple measures can be quite effective, like the organizers starting out by writing down a list of female academics who are suitable qualified to be on the committee, and then when they’re deciding who to actually invite to be on the committee, they’ve got a list in front of them of suitable candidates who might otherwise have just been forgotten about.


christian_h 03.08.13 at 9:45 am

Thanks Ingrid this is very helpful. May I add an appeal to my fellow men in academia? Speak up. If an older colleague mentions how they could not follow a talk b/c the female speaker “was too pretty” (paraphrasing to avoid offense), speak up. If a colleague complains that “all the jobs/grants go to women”, speak up (and invite them to check the rather blatantly different facts first). Don’t force your female colleagues to always be the ones to speak up (which – of course – will get them a reputation of being “impossible to get along with”).


bad Jim 03.08.13 at 10:11 am

I’m not sure we ought to leave affirmative action off the table, since we have quantitative evidence of the discounts applied to women applicants. If we can measure the bias we ought to be able to compensate for it.

An orchestra may be able to avoid discrimination by having players audition behind a screen, but in general it’s difficult to impossible to make selection gender-blind. Just add a correction factor: women get an extra 10%, or whatever the last experiment revealed.

Of course we have to make the entire process better, we have to find every problem and fix it, but in the meantime we ought to be able to estimate the result we anticipate and approximate it, which would help with the fixing as well as delivering immediate results.


Katherine 03.08.13 at 10:19 am

“Affirmative action” is a specifically US phrase. I prefer “temporary special measures”, as laid out by, and allowed (nay, required) by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Pretty much every country is the world is signed up (although some with less meaning than others), so you’ve got a decent legal basis right there. Downside is that the US is one of the few countries that has not signed up to CEDAW.


Chris Armstrong 03.08.13 at 10:52 am

This is a great post, Ingrid. I think that out of pure luck, many – if anything a disproportionate number – of the best young people working in the field I’m immersed in at the moment (global justice / territorial rights etc) happen to be women. But this doesn’t prove by any means that the measures you suggest are unnecessary across the board. I think they are. I would also add that the networking / mentoring disadvantages you mention are widespread and affect everybody (again, not to belittle the specific problems faced by women) – a lot of people get bad advice at the beginning of their careers, and to the contrary in some places someone’s status as a professor is partly a result of what one can ‘do’ for the careers of people who have studied under him / her. I’d say that’s one reason why blogs, specialist groups and wider networks are so important: they allow the dispersal of the ‘folk knowledge’ about how to get on in a field, gossip about positions and other opportunities that might be open, and so on. So there’s a wider democratisation / equalisation of useful information and advice that should go on, which would help anyone outside of privileged circles.


Chris Bertram 03.08.13 at 11:16 am

Thanks for this Ingrid. I think the way career structure interacts with with family issues is the real killer here, and it isn’t an issue that can be dealt with at the level of the couple, however egalitarian people are. Obviously, there are women who manage to combine having children and academic success, but not many (in my Faculty, there has been just one female full Professor with children across a dozen or so departments, and she’s recently retired). The problem is, of course, the fertility window, which is longer for men than for women. As things stand, if you decide to have children around the time you’re finishing your PhD, trying to build a publication profile as a young lecturer etc, you’ll probably get outcompeted by the childless. For men that might not be such a big deal (count the male full Professors in their 40s and 50s with children with younger partners) , for women it is a much starker choice. (Goodness knows how women cope in systems where the PhD has to be supplemented by a Habilitation.) Hard to deal with this issue except at the institutional level by implementing women and family-friendly policies, and hard to get more than lip service for that in an environment where institutions see themselves as competitive corporate entities that take no prisoners and set impossible performance targets for their staff.


buford puser 03.08.13 at 11:59 am

I have no doubt that the conditions described prevail in many disciplines, but thought I would offer a contrasting perspective.
My work involves public health (behavioral HIV research); I seldom find myself in a room in a professional context that is less than two-thirds female; there are two men in a leadership position at the NIH-financed Center with which I’m affiliated, and eight women (including the director and deputy director).
The undergraduate students where I work currently run 70% female- we have one male undergrad research assistant in our department and a dozen women; there is one male grad student working with our group within the center, and five female grad students.
While the problems described are real, and clearly I may work in an outlier area, I can’t help thinking they are waning fast, and we may soon be looking at expanding academic opportunities for men.


Pamela 03.08.13 at 12:45 pm

Your post is excellent – thanks for making the time during a very busy time of the academic year to share it. In Canada the Council of Canadian Academies recently released this report (full disclosure: I was one of the panel members):

Among many things the report includes an excellent review of published research pinpointing the elements of gender gaps in universities. Happy International Women’s Day!


Adam Roberts 03.08.13 at 1:03 pm

I agree with Katherine #4: “temporary special measures” is a better label than “affirmative action”. It’s an easy sell: these measures will remain in place until women make up 50% of all academic staff/senior staff/professors delete as etc. etc.


krippendorf 03.08.13 at 1:18 pm

There is now an *enormous* amount of empirical scholarship in sociology and related social sciences on women in academia, implicit biases, tokenism, disparate service and teaching demands, tenure clock stoppages and its effects on careers, etc etc. Most of it is based on survey data, but there’s also experimental work as well. (e.g., Fran Blau has a great paper on the effects of a mentoring program for junior women faculty in economics that uses a randomized experimental design.)

The explosion of research on women in academia of late is partly attributable to NSF’s ADVANCE program. The ADVANCE institutions — there are about 40 by now, I think — run the gamut from elite privates (Cornell) to flagship publics (e.g., Michigan) to community colleges. Many have websites with materials on “best practices”, written by academics for academics — e.g., Cornell offers several training programs on avoiding implicit biases and other gendered processes in faculty searches, in the on-campus interviews, and in tenure and promotion reviews. As an NSF program, the ADVANCE directorate is focused on women in the sciences & social sciences, but most of the same issues — and solutions — are applicable to the humanities and arts.


SamChevre 03.08.13 at 1:58 pm

Random typo:

In the sentence “any conference, Summerschool or other event should not have more than one third of speakers of either sex’–I think “more” should be “less”.


harry b 03.08.13 at 2:13 pm

Disciplines starting from similar places in, say, 1970, vary a lot in their composition. Philosophy is an outlier in the humanities and social sciences, including the more quantitative and more theoretical parts of the social sciences. Its hard to believe that certain structural features differ much (level of sexual harassment might well vary by discipline, but not the difficulty of competing with the childless in publications, etc, surely?). My guess is that, among other things, philosophers have more self-confidence that they can correct for biases in their heads than other people do. Anyway, I’d be interested what the discipline-specific features are that explain the variance. Maybe, among other things, there is some path-dependency — the first movers in tackling discriminatory practices and culture got a comparative advantage that was self-replicating?


Ingrid Robeyns 03.08.13 at 2:23 pm

SamChevre: thanks! – fixed it.
Many interesting thoughts here! I’m running from one seminar to the next today, so no time to respond before tonight.


Chrome Yellow 03.08.13 at 2:52 pm

Chris Bertram, I’m a bit puzzled to to read that the family/career clash “isn’t an issue that can be dealt with at the level of the couple, however egalitarian people are.” Pregnancy and maternity leave are not so very long, and in any case are easier to take account of. What really kills women’s careers is long-term responsibility for childcare and household chores. If more academic women were supported by full-time and efficient stay-at-home spouses (like most of the fathers I work with), with the consequent freeing up of time and mental energy, would this not have an impact on their careers? Or, more realistically (and desirably IMO), if more academic dads were pulling their full weight at home, the norm for an an academic career would start to move away from 70-hour working weeks, and academic mothers would find themselves on a slightly less slanted playing field. It is only if we assume that mothers are responsible for childcare, and fathers are not, that this becomes such a big issue.

But in any case, putting all the emphasis on parenthood seems to miss Ingrid’s very significant point about implicit bias. Not to mention the explicit bias to be found in What It’s Like To Be A Woman in Philosophy,, and everyday dealings with colleagues and managers.

Like other commenters, I am sceptical that we will be able to address this issue without some form of “temporary special measure”. Organisations that have achieved a less embarrassing gender balance than most have almost invariably done so by taking positive action.


Cheryl Rofer 03.08.13 at 2:58 pm

I like this little tumblr.

It’s from younger women who are recognizing some of the constant pressures that are put on women, mansplaining in particular, and in academia in particular.

Sort of a consciousness-raising session, continuous and accessible from anywhere. (That’s how this older feminist sees it.)


PatrickinIowa 03.08.13 at 3:03 pm

Excellent OP. I have to chime in with #2: it’s incumbent on us men to speak up when we observe privilege in action.

Let me also add that when race, class and sexual identity are also in play we need even more vigilance. There may well be more all white search committees than all male ones. (Does anyone know?)

Finally: Prof. Haslanger read a paper here at Iowa last year that touched on these issues. Wow, is she good. I’m not a philosopher by trade, but what she said felt right, it was presented flawlessly and her responses to questions were amazing. The idea that we’re missing people as good as, or even nearly as good as she, because they’re women, is sad beyond words.


Chris Bertram 03.08.13 at 4:13 pm

@ChromeYellow Of course I’m all in favour of greater egalitarianism at the level of the couple and of men doing their share of childcare. And I wasn’t meaning to suggest that this issue should crowd out other questions Ingrid raises, like the implicit bias one. My point is just that the career pressures vis a vis family life are such that we need an institutional solution (one that there’s likely to be strong institutional resistance to) and that academic child-unfriendliness poses tough choices for women earlier, and at a more inconvenient career moment than it does for men. (Incidentally, I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that all academics are partnered with academics. Also, single parents.)


Chrome Yellow 03.08.13 at 4:50 pm

Chris, certainly didn’t mean to imply that. I am in fact a single parent, so no need to be snarky.

My point about academic dads pulling their weight was not that they would be lifting a load from academic mothers. (Anecdotal evidence indicates that this is an unlikely outcome.) I must have been very unclear. Let me have another go at explaining myself:

1. Academic dads pull their weight at home, drop children off at school, take time off when they are sick, and so forth.

2. As a result, a more significant number of academics are unable to offer the university unconditional and unlimited availability.

3a. A serious conversation about workload ensues, in which “work-life balance” and flexibility are no longer seen as solely female concerns.

3b. Expectations of performance are no longer based on a norm of an individual with full-time (unpaid) back-up at home. (I often think that single people without kids are equally disadvantaged vis a vis those with stay-at-home partners.)

5. A rainbow coalition of parents and non-parents, single and partnered, rejoices.


Chris Bertram 03.08.13 at 5:02 pm

No intention of snark Chrome. Re 1. I’d just say that this was me. My partner was commuting to a job in another city and so I was the one with the pick up, drop off, mother-and-toddler group, and “A is feeling poorly, please come to take him home.” I’m not recounting that to get kudos, but to observe that whilst I could get away with that 20 years ago, colleagues would cover etc., I doubt whether this would be possible now given the evolution of British universities. It is hard for me to see that in the current climate, you could assemble a coalition of child-friendly academics to stare down their managers and demand better just by refusing their “availablilty”. They’d be picked off one by one.


Chrome Yellow 03.08.13 at 5:32 pm

But what’s the alternative? Those poor suckers who have no choice but to do the drop-off and pick-up get picked off?

Equally, it’s a version of this argument that exacerbates inequalities within relationships (“Sorry but it’s just impossible for me take the day off when A is poorly”) and within departments (“X is a total flake, always taking the day off when his kid is sick.”)

I do see your point, but we are in danger of saying that only the unencumbered can survive, and that is impossible for academic dads to pull their weight at home. This is manifestly untrue – some clearly do, even in today’s climate.


Brett 03.08.13 at 5:33 pm

I’ve noted this issue in my professional life, and virtually every female professor I’ve discussed this, has the same experience. I don’t see how we can solve this: if all goes well it clearly should be ‘merely’ a transition problem—but one that will take probably a very long time.

Would it help if you noted that you asked such-and-such to attend, but they were unable to do so because of work/etc? At least then people know that you made the effort.


Chris Bertram 03.08.13 at 6:00 pm

Chrome: well the alternative is unions and politics, basically. I agree that the climate is not auspicious, but individuals taking a stand will not succeed unless they can at least count on solidarity and unless they can get some political traction too. Somewhat chicken-and-egg I grant you. Lots of variation in individual circumstances of course. In academic/non-academic relationship is will often be the academic (male or female) who ends up at the sharp end because, though our work is time-consuming and demanding, we usually have more control over how we structure our day and can catch up “later” (whenever that ends up being).


praisegod barebones 03.08.13 at 6:06 pm

Of course, in British universities, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the middle managers who are putting people in this kind of position and the Union reps who you’re looking to to protect them, since they’re often one and the same person (or at least, people frequently move straight from one role to the other.)


christian_h 03.08.13 at 7:19 pm

Chris is getting at the important point that the current academic job destruction and corresponding work speed up (which most academics will not complain about in any organized fashion b/c our self image is not as workers, but as professionals) make the understanding that equal opportunities are an issue of solidarity for all of us, and not “merely” an issue for women in academia, all the more important. I know from my field (mathematics) and the current experience of my partner (who is younger, hence at an earlier career stage) and myself trying to solve our two body problem that the huge pressure all our young colleagues (grad students and postdocs) are under right now leads otherwise enlightened people to exhibit biased behaviour basically as a survival skill in competition. (Which is no excuse!)

Which is to say, we really need a huge dose of solidarity in struggle.


Horia 03.08.13 at 7:19 pm

Well, your entire argument is based on the fact that women are different from men (in a non-biological way), and those differences should be emphasized (“the female speaker will be more perceived as a woman”). Which is obviously not right.


Hector_St_Clare 03.08.13 at 7:20 pm

The arguments have also been made that women have lower IQ variance than men (as well as being less variable for a lot of other traits), so it’s likely that in fields calling for super-high intelligence (e.g. physics) there are going to be less qualified women than men.

(FWIW, in my field, biology, there are more women than men at the graduate student level, at least).


Hector_St_Clare 03.08.13 at 7:22 pm

Re: (Incidentally, I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that all academics are partnered with academics

The work-childrearing tradeoff is, in fact, a good reason for academics *not* to partner with other academics.


buford puser 03.08.13 at 9:13 pm

I think a far greater concern, that typically goes almost entirely unaddressed, and indeed unnoticed, is the continued dearth of minority academics of any gender (and particularly minority men, it might be noted)- a notable contrast to the enormous amount of attention given in the academy to equalizing opportunities between upper-middle class male and female academics.
I realize it is International Women’s Day today; I may have missed all the attention to this issue last month (Black History Month).
I assume everyone here commenting is white, like me and 99% of the rest of academia?


Paul J. Reber 03.08.13 at 9:16 pm

Hector — the variance claim is *extremely* suspect, don’t put too much weight on it. Not only is there no obvious mechanism for increased variance on both ends of the distribution, the purported “evolutionary” mechanism is backwards — when there is high selective pressure on a trait, it tends to have *lower* variance (because you rapidly select the upper end of the distribution).

More relevantly, in my field (psychology) as well, the gender ratio at graduate school and department faculty levels are quite unequal — many more female grads, many more male faculty.

The reasons for this are probably all of those reviewed by Ingrid. I think about the child care issues the most and can share this personal observation. I have 4 children and am heavily involved in childcare and raising them. This has unequivocally impaired my career progression at least to some extent, and likely would have even if I weren’t at an institution somewhat famously bad at childcare support (e.g., there is basically none).

I once thought that I could provide a role model for struggling with but managing the home/work balance the way I do, but there is a problem. As a man, I end up getting lauded for “extra” childcare work. A woman doing what I do would not be seen the same way — the implicit bias is profound and saddening.

I do my best to advise our graduate students about issues of bias and planning for balancing family issues. But every time another female student talks about opting out of the academic track, I cannot say that I blame them for making a poor decision.


rf 03.08.13 at 9:24 pm

“I think a far greater concern, that typically goes almost entirely unaddressed, and indeed unnoticed, is the continued dearth of minority academics of any me and 99% of the rest of academia?”

Out of curiosity do you have any stats on this? Comparisons on race/ethnic/class/gender lines?
Though surely you can favour greater equalisation of opportunity on a whole number of lines?


buford puser 03.08.13 at 9:39 pm

Is there a male black professor in your department?
It is risible to ask for stats on this- look out your door.
Equalization of opportunity on all possible axes is a good thing.
However, again is it notable the disparate amount of consideration given to equalizing opportunities among white, upper-middle-class academics along gender lines, as compared to the occasional lip service to addressing the far greater disparities along racial and class lines.
You are right to point out the latter as important, although the discussion here is about equalizing gender opportunities for advancement in fields occupied solely by members of the upper-middle class.


js. 03.08.13 at 9:42 pm

Thanks for the post — very helpful! For instance, what you call transition problems had never occurred to me. Rather catch-22-ish.

(And could we please avoid the We’ve got it worse sweepstakes. Those are abominable. And no, I’m not white.)


christian_h 03.08.13 at 10:07 pm

Can we skip the concern trolling? And can we at least keep in mind as well that in academia specifically ideas of biological racism have very little traction, whereas nonsense about IQ distribution differences among sexes has wide purchase among even liberal academics?

The underrepresentation of black academics in particular in maths (the area I know best) is indeed shameful. It is also the case that it is so extreme even on the level of lower division undergraduate courses that anything we are discussing here barely applies.


Hector_St_Clare 03.08.13 at 10:39 pm

Re: I assume everyone here commenting is white, like me and 99% of the rest of academia?

I’m mostly South Asian, for what it’s worth.

Re: Hector — the variance claim is *extremely* suspect, don’t put too much weight on it

Well, a quick look at some citations seems to indicate it’s a matter of hot debate. There are, at least, a number of studies which find higher variance in men (and some which don’t). For example:


buford puser 03.08.13 at 11:24 pm

The problems discussed in the OP and below are important in the next decade or so for incumbent academics, but are unlikely to survive the coming mass retirement of baby-boom academics, given the gender disparities among undergraduate and graduate students; large majorities of both groups are women, very large majorities in fields like psychology and medicine; this of course varies terrifically by field.
I’m not sure racial disparities will be so quickly solved, with only 4% of grad students in any discipline being black men (10% are black women).
Women got 55% of the science and engineering PhDs in 2006; blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans collectively got 7%.
No, it is not trolling of any stripe to point out a simple truth: No academic field is as overwhelmingly male as _all_ fields are overwhelmingly not-black/Hispanic/Native American.


leederick 03.08.13 at 11:47 pm

What’s the problem with the childless out-competing those with children? I don’t see why people who dedicate themselves to a goal shouldn’t manage to do better than those who don’t. If you have a job which is time demanding you won’t have a great deal of free time.

I don’t agree with Chris that less competition is the answer. Things are tough in academia with the massive overproduction of young academics – but things are better for women than when the career was cosier.


leederick 03.09.13 at 12:59 am

I’m not sure it’s concern trolling. Hard sciences have terrible gender ratios. But they are very diverse in term of students and faculty with international backgrounds. You don’t see social studies or philosophy departments hiring many people with thick accents and eastern bloc or developing world backgrounds – middle class women who are native speakers are much better cultural fits – but these people do turn up in maths and physics departments.


buford puser 03.09.13 at 1:46 am

Amusing to see that I having been removed from the conversation, with a “Your comment is awaiting moderation” for more than two hours, after my initial posts appeared immediately, apparently for pointing out that self-interest and social justice may not always coincide as neatly as we might like.
Wonderful standards for an academic blog: open discussion is encouraged, provided one agrees with the proprietors?


buford puser 03.09.13 at 1:50 am

Since my last comment appeared immediately, it occurs to me that perhaps my previous comment is held in moderation for having too many links (citing the requested stats on the much greater disparity by race than gender in academia, in the US at least); if so I withdraw my above comment, and of course apologize.


Debra Satz 03.09.13 at 5:32 am

Great post. I am convinced the problems in philosophy show up early in the pipeline: we need to do much more to encourage undergraduate women to be philosophy majors. By the time we are looking at PhD applicants, the numbers are already very low. Medicine has made huge strides reaching out to under-represented groups as early as high school. My own campus has a fantastic program bringing talented high schools students from disadvantaged backgrounds to work in labs over the summer. We need more programs that reach students early: programs for talented high school women debaters to take philosophy classes over the summer, etc. I fear that the tendency is to intervene too late and too little to make any difference.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.09.13 at 8:13 am

buford puser @38/39 – it was indeed as you point out in @39 — apologies accepted.

I take the point about other dimensions of underrepresentation, but as someone based in the Netherlands you can’t accuse me of not knowing about Black History Month. ‘Race’ is not an issue in this country, though coming from a (non-western) immigrant background is. I think for young people from immigrant background the issue is that they are clustered in just a few disciplines – law, economics, medicine – so in my discipline (philosophy) they are almost entirely invisible.

Debra (@40): science studies analysing why there are so few female academics have used the metaphor of the ‘leaking pipe’: women fall behind at every stage. In this country there are more female than male university students (I believe this has been like this for quite a while), although the female/male ratio differs a lot between the disciplines. But in all cases the female/male ratio worsens when one climbs up the ladder (graduate-PhDstudies-Postdoc-lecturer-professor), so I think we need thinking/awareness and intervention at every stage.


Chris Bertram 03.09.13 at 8:37 am

@leederick “What’s the problem with the childless out-competing those with children?”

As more and more jobs demand “110% commitment” (or whatever inane phrase is used) there’s a big problem on a social level with people feeling they have to sacrifice an important human good (or put it off until they have a problem conceiving) because of career demands (many of which may be about signalling rather than objective necessity).

From a gender point of view (and here’s my point above again), the point is that, in your terms, men can out-compete those with children, get tenure, promotion etc and then have children; women can only have children during the phase of maximum competitition. So without something to compensate (a partner who does the child-care work, a different attitude to families from employers …) this “out-competing” is going to be worse for women for men, because they have to choose, and men don’t. Of course there are lots of women who find ways to cope and to succeed as academics with children anyway. However, there are lots who can’t and don’t find a solution.


harry b 03.09.13 at 12:48 pm

Ingrid — the leaking pipeline is clearly a big issue — but there is a time lag issue, no? Looking at the US, people who are full professors went to college when i) the sex ratios were more equal and ii) girls still were being discouraged from pursuing academics in a way they are not being now. Its only in the past ten years that the sex-ratios have favoured women so much (less in the more selective sector from which academics are drawn, because that sector, being selective, gets to practice quite a bit of affirmative action for boys in admissions — I’m very interested what will happen when this gets into public consciousness and the courts).

For what it is worth, I am very conflicted about what to do with Philosophy in particular. The ratios are egregious, and despite what I said above, most of that is the responsibility of those of us in the discipline. I feel that entering the profession is a very bad gamble for just about anyone right now, and can’t, in good conscience, encourage anyone to do it if they have other options. So, I don’t know how I feel about targeting non-whites and non-men to get them into the pipeline (I encourage people to major, as long as they double-major, but not to go to graduate school). Once they have committed, of course, we should put lots of investment into them, and, as your post indicates, I think men have a special responsibility for all sorts of reasons, including the unfairness of having the burden falls disproportionately on their female colleagues.

If, as a woman, you are invited to a conference, you can pretty sure that the initial invitees include a woman. But as a man, you can’t be so sure, so there is no harm at all, especially if you know that you have the standing that organizers will probably listen to you, in immediately suggesting the names of 2 or 3 women whom the organizers should have, but might not have, thought of to invite. As a conference organizer, it is really not that hard to view balance as a sine qua non of a successful line-up.

Thanks for your email, it was lovely.


Maria 03.10.13 at 6:51 pm

Thanks for this post, Ingrid. It nicely articulates issues and possible responses for outside of academia, also.

Re. academic dads pulling their weight, I was struck a couple of weeks ago by a ‘week in the life’ article about a prominent Irish historian and public intellectual, Diarmuid Ferriter.

He basically works 6.5 days a week and his only regular solo childcare of his three children under the age of eight is a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. i.e. He is able to do do what he does by dint of extraordinary talent and effort, yes, and also, presumably a partner who accepts an astonishingly uneven distribution of domestic labour.

I found it striking in lots of ways – Ferriter did some good, feminist history under Margaret McCurtain, early in his career, so he’s not one of the typical run of Irish historians for whom women’s lives are quite simply beneath their notice. And also, that it is almost unthinkable for a woman historian (in Ireland, at least) to have a domestic set-up that provides a clearly loving family, but is so congenial to the mother’s work ‘outside the home’, as our Constitution so nicely puts it.


rf 03.10.13 at 7:10 pm

Slightly against Ferriter, and not being smart, but his weekend is taken up because he chooses to write for the Times and appear on RTE..that’s not a neccessity in his professional life but a specific prioritisation of his extracurricual activities (although that doesn’t dispute your the comment and I guess is pretty much the point you were making?)


Ingrid Robeyns 03.10.13 at 7:16 pm

On the suggestion that implicit bias may be worse among philosophers than in other academic disciplines — see the post that was just published at NewApps by Helen de Cruz,


Ingrid Robeyns 03.10.13 at 7:23 pm

Maria – thanks for the link. The case you mention is not untypical; I know of several male academics who are in a household where their spouses do a much larger share of care and unpaid work and household management – making it possible for them to spend many hours on their jobs. I very much agree with Chris that there are structural issues here that need solving, but there is also the personal issue of “justice within the household” as regards to the gender division of labour — on which I have seen so many leftist, intelligent, progressive men being unable to acknowledge that the personal is also political.


Chrome Yellow 03.10.13 at 8:35 pm

Amen to that, Ingrid and Maria.

Not to hate on Ferriter, but as well as all the time – and flexibility – for work, note also how much leisure time he gets – six runs a week, and a couple of hours in the pub with a pint and the papers on Sunday. He makes this point that this is key time to think and plan, and I can well imagine this is true. How many mothers of three young girls would get the opportunity to do this, though?


Maria 03.10.13 at 9:00 pm

rf & Chrome – yes, indeed. It wouldn’t be fair to nitpick anyone’s schedule, not least because Ferriter uses the time freed up by his partner to make a real contribution to Ireland’s public and intellectual life, alongside being by all accounts an excellent and caring teacher and thoroughly good egg. It’s just striking how, in the context of the article, this is a) unremarkable, b) predicated on someone else’s silent contribution and c) more or less unthinkable that a woman historian would have a similar arrangement.

Put it this way, no one’s breathlessly asking him how he ‘does it all’.

Ingrid/Chris, re. both structural and familial equality, I’ve been re-reading Carol Shields’ superb novel, Unless. It expresses a profound disquiet at how the incremental and typically legislative feminist advances of the last few decades have made little impact on the underlying values that nourish gender inequality, the structural argument, if you like. It dramatised, for me at least, the old debate between Marxist and liberal feminisms, with the added twist that the characters most angry about incrementalism’s sparse achievements were classic liberal feminists, back in the day.


engels 03.10.13 at 11:45 pm

As a guideline to which we should strongly aspire and make any efforts we can to realise it: any conference, Summerschool or other event should not have less than one third of speakers of either sex.

Balance = at least one third of either sex.

I hate to be the village troll and I have a feeling this has been brought up before but is this true of any of the CT seminars linked in the sidebar on this page? I haven’t checked properly but it looks to me that being optimistic you can say that one or two almost make it (2:5 or something). Quite a few seem to be quite a ways off


Ingrid Robeyns 03.11.13 at 6:59 am

Engels: good question/remark! Since the one third is something one should aspire to, it can’t be read of the outcomes. And for the last seminar, and the next one coming up, I can testify that the organisors did a great effort in having enough women on board (in fact, for the Knight/Johnson seminar Henry send me on his own expenses by speedmail a copy of the book when a woman who signed up dropped out last-moment, in an attempt to restore the gender balance). For the next seminar (on Erik Olin Wright’s book) there was a gender balance in the initial list of those who signed off, but since I failed to meet the (postponed and postponed) deadline it will most likely become more unbalanced (I have 4 days left to avoid that outcome but I’m not optimistic that I’ll succeed).


Anon 03.11.13 at 4:49 pm

It’s important to remember that women can be sexist too–sexism is a system that affects all of us, and the most dispiriting experiences I’ve had have involved women being sexist toward me (I’m a woman), and I know of many cases of women being biased toward other women, including sexual harrassment. Getting women into positions of power and influence may be a necessary condition for women’s advancement, but it’s not sufficient, and women looking to navigate life need to look out for sexism from everyone, not just from men.


Hector_St_Clare 03.11.13 at 8:55 pm

Re: Balance = at least one third of either sex.

Because heaven forbid that one sex, on average, might be better equipped, more interested in, or more willing to make the tradeoffs to excel in a particular field.

There shouldn’t be discrimination against men or women who want to work in (most) fields, but I don’t see why we should assume that the distribution of talents, interests, etc. is going to be the same between the sexes, in every particular field.


Mario 03.12.13 at 9:44 pm

Mr Philip Greenspun (who you might not know, but is an historical person in computer science) has the theory that women are underrepresented in science because they are smarter, and because biological constraints make sound life planning more important for them.

Here’s a quote from the article I linked:

Summers […] claimed to be giving a comprehensive list of reasons why there weren’t more women reaching the top jobs in the sciences. Yet Summers, an economist, left one out: Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.


Meredith 03.13.13 at 6:05 am

Picking up on Cheryl Rofer@15.

Since this excellent list of things to attend to is little different from the lists being drawn up in the 70’s and 80’s (except that phrases like “sexual harrassment” were only just being invented to identify a very old problem, and except that things were much more difficult for women then), could I suggest that younger women (and men) in academia turn to the older women around them, few as they may be, to consult their experiences and insights? In an odd way, so I believe, women’s progress has been stalled by the lack of connection between women of different generations. (I sometimes wonder if women have succumbed to what were formerly male problems, like anxiety of influence. Was Gilligan so wrong, or so right, about women becoming their mothers?)

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