Welcome to our discussion of “The Past 110 Years: Historical Data on the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy Journals” by Nicole Hassoun, Sherri Conklin, Michael Nekrasov, and Jevin West, published in the most recent issue of Ethics. You can find the paper here. Eric Schwitzgebel’s critical précis is immediately below. Please join the discussion!!
Nicole Hassoun, Sherri Conklin, Michael Nekrasov, and Jevin West present data that should shock no one who has been paying attention to gender issues in mainstream Anglophone philosophy. Women constitute only a small percentage of authors of philosophy journal articles – about 19% of authorships in the most recently available decade. Although not surprising, Hassoun and collaborators’ work is novel for the depth with which it explores this issue.
Hassoun and collaborators examined authorship records for 56 philosophy journals in the JSTOR database from 1900 through 2009. They classified eighteen journals as “top” philosophy journals, based on online prestige rankings; twenty-two as “non-top” philosophy journals; and sixteen as “interdisciplinary”. It is plausible that this is a representative sample of journals. In particular, the “top” group includes most of the journals widely perceived as elite by the mainstream Anglophone philosophy community, such as Philosophical Review, Noûs, Mind, and Ethics.
Hassoun and collaborators classified authors into the binary categories of “woman” or “man” based on data from the top 1000 gendered baby names in the U.S. Social Security system from 1880 to 2010, excluding names commonly used for both boys and girls. Unfortunately, this procedure disregards nonbinary people, presumably misgenders some others, excludes authors publishing under first initials (who might disproportionately be women), and disproportionately excludes people from non-Anglophone backgrounds whose names are likely to be uncommon in the United States. Nonetheless, when dealing with very large datasets, it is impossible to wholly avoid such shortcomings.
In this manner, then, the gender distribution of 52,865 authorships was estimated for a large number of philosophy journals over the course of 110 years – an impressively large and valuable dataset.
Hassoun and collaborators report the following:
(1.) The proportion of women authors was only about 5% through the 1960s. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the proportion rose to about 19%, not materially increasing between the 1990s and the early 2000s. (See Appendix C, Figure C1.)
(2.) Through most of the period, the “top” philosophy journals had a lower proportion of women authors than the “non-top” and “interdisciplinary” journals.
(3.) In the 1990s and 2000s, the top journals had about 10% women authors, while the non-top and interdisciplinary journals had about 20-25% women authors. (See Figure 6.) By the early 2000s, women constituted about 23%-25% of faculty in the U.S. and other major Anglophone countries. Thus, their underrepresentation in top philosophy journals is striking even compared to their underrepresentation among faculty as a whole.
(4.) Based on estimated proportions of women faculty in various subareas in the U.S., women are especially disproportionately underrepresented in top general philosophy journals and top journals in value theory. (See Figure 9.) (Hassoun and collaborators acknowledge, however, that faculty subarea proportions might differ between the U.S. and the global population of authors publishing in English-language philosophy journals.)
(5.) Journals with anonymous review practices do not in general publish higher proportions of women. (See Figure 11.)
Why are women so underrepresented in elite philosophy journals? Hassoun and collaborators suggest that women might be more hesitant than men to submit to these journals. Hassoun and collaborators don’t speculate in detail on the possible sources of such hesitancy if it exists, but sources might include expectations of being held to higher standards, anticipation that their work will not be valued, a preference for different or more specialized journals, or less encouragement from colleagues or journal editors. Alternatively but not incompatibly, Hassoun and collaborators suggest that women might disproportionately work on topics (such as value theory or specific subareas in value theory) that are not seen as valuable by the editors and referees of elite journals.
I will raise two questions, then discuss implications.
One question concerns the extent to which we can determine whether these are field- or subfield-level effects versus journal-level effects. For example, the category of “top” value theory journals contains only two journals: Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs. Thus, the underrepresentation of women authors among top value theory journals might be due either to factors specific to one or both of those journals (such policies of one or a few particular editors), or to field-wide or subfield-wide factors, such as a tendency for mainstream Anglophone ethicists in general to privilege certain approaches to or subtopics within value theory. To the extent journal-level effects dominate, change might be effectively achieved through specific changes at a few individual journals. To the extent field- or subfield-effects dominate, change might require more general policy or attitude shifts.
Given the statistical approaches that Hassoun and collaborators use, it is plausible that some of the results are field-level effects not dependent on factors specific to individual journals (see for example Figure 1, which shows top journals disproportionately among those with lower proportions of women authors). For other analyses, such those of top value theory journals, there’s plainly no statistical means to separate subfield-level effects from journal-level effects. For still other analyses, it’s unclear how much the results are driven by one or a few individual journals. Multi-level statistical modeling or journal-level analyses might help clarify the issues.
Consider Hassoun and collaborators’ analyses of anonymous review policies. Only nine journals engage in triple-anonymous review and only six use non-anonymous review. The remainder, the large majority, use double-anonymous review. Without multi-level statistical analysis, it remains unclear whether the discouraging results regarding anonymity are a consequence of atypical results at one or a few journals in the triple-anonymous or non-anonymous categories, perhaps for reasons idiosyncratic to those individual journals. Because of this ambiguity in the results, I recommend caution regarding general conclusions about the value of anonymous review.
(Hassoun and collaborators acknowledge a version of this issue in footnote 70, where they discuss the fact that methodological choice to include Hypatia and Feminist Studies in the “history” subfield might be largely responsible for the relatively larger proportion of women authors in that subfield.)
My second question concerns the fact that the analysis runs only through 2009 (due to data availability). This is unfortunate, since one might naturally wonder whether the situation has changed in the past thirteen years. Hassoun and collaborators argue that it’s unlikely that the situation has changed much, since change in such matters is typically slow. It is perhaps notable that the nine authors of the other articles included in this particular issue of Ethics are all men, if I have gendered them correctly. (Please correct me and accept my apologies if I am mistaken.) Looking at the most recent issue of Philosophical Review, plausibly the most elite general philosophy journal, it appears that nine of the ten authors are men. This at least anecdotally suggests that Hassoun and collaborators are correct that the situation has not changed dramatically.
In general, the gender situation in academic philosophy has not changed much since the early 2000s. Nails and Davenport estimate that women were 26% of philosophy faculty in the U.S. in 2017. Beebee and Saul estimate that women were 30% of permanent academic philosophy staff in the U.K. in 2021. These numbers might be important increases over the approximately 23%-25% of the early 2000s (Beebee and Saul estimate a 6% increase over comparable data in 2011), but change has been slow at best. Looking at data from the National Science Foundation on philosophy PhDs earned in the United States, my collaborators and I also found remarkably little change in gender proportions since the 1990s, with women receiving on average about 27% of philosophy PhDs in the 1990s, the early 2000s, and the early 2010s, with perhaps a slight uptick to about 30% in the most recent available years.
The lack of gender diversity – but not only gender diversity – in philosophy is regrettable. Philosophy should be among the most diverse academic disciplines, not among the least diverse. Philosophy explores the most important general features of the human situation, challenging our presuppositions and critiquing culturally dominant understandings. It drives toward the roots of what we take for granted. To do this well, philosophy needs to welcome people from as wide as possible a range of backgrounds, especially people who might bring a new or different perspective. People from minority cultural backgrounds, people who have unusual life experiences at odds with the cultural mainstream, and people who have been systematically disadvantaged by mainstream society, should be disproportionately overrepresented in philosophy, not underrepresented.
What can we do to rectify the situation? Given their results, Hassoun and collaborators are not optimistic that anonymous refereeing alone will bring journal authorships closer to gender balance. More active and creative measures are required. To start, we need more knowledge: Hassoun and colleagues encourage journals to collect data on the diversity of their authors so that they can measure and track progress in improving diversity and knowledgeably evaluate the effectiveness of new policies. Appendix J contains a concrete list of specific proposals developed in consultation with a large number of editors, authors, and experts on diversity, which I hope we might discuss further.