On Monday of last week, the Philosophy Course Union held its first Women in Philosophy (WiP) conference. The goal of the conference was to celebrate and advocate for women in the field of philosophy, through a series of talks by female philosophers (faculty, grads, undergrads) and talks about women in philosophy. Philosophy has one of the worst reputations for gender representation, both because most of its corpus and undergrad syllabi are focused on dead white guys, but also because of the stereotypes and discrimination which happens behind the scenes. The conference was meant to shed light on these affairs, and take steps toward increasing female representation. (And it totally did).
Almost every department and area of study—and shucks, most of the workforce and social world—discriminates against women and other minorities. As the next generation of scholars, workers, employers, and People, I think it’s worth reflecting on our practices a little bit. But this blog is about our experiences, so let me start by sharing some of mine.
In my first year (way back when), I was in a tutorial and asked what I thought of the argument we were studying. I started: “I have to say, I find his argument utterly compelling, because—“ but was cut short. “You mean her argument”, my TA interjected. And he was right. We had been studying all and only men up to that point in time, so I had implicitly assumed the next would be too. But you know what they say happens when you assume…
Of course, I felt like a fool. And I should have. Shame on me. (And if you don’t think I deserved shame, consider: what if it was the work of a woman in the room? What message was I sending: that this work is so good that it must have been done by a male?) But it was a sobering moment, allowing me to reflect on my implicit biases: patterns of thought which are programmed into us. And, in being able to recognize those biases, I was able to start watching my behaviours more closely. But it wasn’t easy.
Updating our beliefs is hard. Consider the following. Say I believe that all leaves are green, but stumble across some orange leaves on front campus. I compare my belief (or be-leaf) that all leaves are green against this new evidence to form new beliefs. But there are two things that could happen. First, I could say “Oh no! An orange leaf? I guess I was wrong about all leaves being green!” and go about believing, instead, that most leaves are green. Or, I could say “This leaf appears to be orange, but I’m quite certain that all leaves are green, so I guess this is a hoax or not a real leaf”.
The problem is, when it comes to implicit bias, we often go the second route, because we aren’t consciously aware of what we’re doing. Just as I wasn’t aware that I was assuming the female author was a male author, until I got called out on it.
This is what the Women in Philosophy conference sought to do: to call out implicit biases and challenge the ways in which we think about our peers in the classroom and in the world. And while this is but a brief blog post, the hope is maybe it will make you uncomfortable about the injurious things you might be unknowingly performing, enough to do the same.