A Psychotherapist’s Observation

I was in San Francisco over the weekend and while wandering around the de Young Museum looking at American art, S and I ran into some people that he knew. One of these was a psychotherapist from a mid-western urban center. Her patients were almost entirely from one of the major universities located where she lived. We chatted a bit in that way that one does when you are trying to get to know another person a little and very quickly. In the course of that discussion, I told her that I was a philosopher. “Many of my patients are graduate students and the women in philosophy and the sciences are really struggling.” She told me that she had one woman patient who had recently just given up and quit, finding the environment in her graduate program too inhospitable, particularly after two of her female friends quit. “What is it about women and philosophy?” she asked me. I pointed out that it could simply be that there were fewer women in the field that made it harder for women to enter it, but of course this isn’t a very good explanation because many of the fields where women are now 50% were fields where men once were the majority. Then I offered some of the other explanations that are sometimes offered. That there is the emphasis on the mind in philosophy and the association of women with the body is possible explanation of why there are fewer women. I didn’t get very far with this line of thought because we were joined by another couple and dropped the conversation. This was just as well I think because I didn’t really have a good, coherent explanation, though I would have been interested in exploring it with her.

Here was someone outside of the profession commenting on a feature of it that so many of us have noticed from the inside. I felt something almost like relief that this psychotherapist was providing independent confirmation. No, we are not imagining it. Other people have noticed as well. I would have loved to have known more about her patient, the other women who had left the program, and so on. Was there something in particular about this program or is it a more general feature of philosophy that was the problem? I am not committed to any particular explanation but rather suspect that there are a variety of expanatory factors that all contribute to varying degrees in specific causes but that they may be all causally relevant in a variety of ways that are difficult to sort out. Investigating by asking people why they leave instead of just guessing (and by “asking” I mean asking through good quantitative methodology) seems like an essential first step to understanding what is and is not causally relevant.

I hesitated to post this story because some of the comments about philosophers and the APA more specifically have been focused on how unpleasant the profession is for women and the psychotherapist’s experience would seem to support that. I am wondering how useful it is to dwell on the negative. Here is another confirmation that it is bad for women in the profession (at least in this one urban university’s philosophy graduate program). What are we to make of it? Reporting that the profession is particularly difficult for women is important for audiences that do not know this, but most of the readers of this blog are aware of it already, so this story has limited usefulness beyond reinforcing what we already believe. But noting that the story is true and that its truth is not particularly helpful in moving us to action is itself worth pointing out. It is important to be clear about, acknowledge, and document the fact that there are not many women in the field, but this is just the beginning. From here we need to move to the next step. How do we re-create philosophy as a profession that doesn’t drive women into therapy but rather is part of a fulfilling life? We don’t really need more evidence that this is not where philosophy is at the moment but rather ideas and plans about how to be different. Still, I would have liked to have finished that conversation.

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3 Responses to A Psychotherapist’s Observation

  1. KateNorlock says:

    It’s worth posting, trust your intuitions!, if only for the note of independent confirmation. The subject of trying to articulate this problem to outside observers is also tricky territory which bears at least recognition. How are we to articulate answers to questioners who actually say, “What is it about women in philosophy?”, and move on to constructive solutions at the same time? Hard, I agree! Yet one must try to do both.Dare I say that by posting this, you have continued the conversation, which may be the most important thing to do.

  2. Flying Lily says:

    I think many women just go to other fields where they find the study and the methods more congenial – philosophy’s loss, but not a sad outcome for them if they find a better fit. I see numbers of bright philosophically inclined women move into anthropology, psychology, theology, history, classics, physics, graphic design, etc. All of these are fields which offer more diversity of topics and approaches than mainstream Anglo-American philosophy today. Departure is not an internal solution though. We need to change academic philosophy from the inside. In quiet little ways that is what I personally try to do, but revolutions don’t come with quiet and little!

  3. adam brown says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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