Is philosophy worse for women than math is?

My philosopher friends today are all talking about the resignation/firing of Colin McGinn, a pretty well-known philosopher as I understand it, who as it turns out has been sending e-mails to his graduate students describing…. well, there’s no real reason for me to describe it, I leave that kind of filth for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Philosophy and math have roughly the same male-female ratio, but philosophy has blogs like What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? and math, as far as I know, does not.  Is that because math has actually created a culture friendlier to women than philosophy has?  Or is it because philosophy is closer to the social criticism tradition and philosophers are more likely to want to talk about these things openly?

I have one small data point.  I once heard a philosopher give a talk in which there was a weird joke about you have to be careful not to sleep with your graduate students because [some philosophy joke I didn’t get and don’t remember.]

Or rather, it read as weird to me, because I think it’s highly unlikely that someone would say something like that in front of a roomful of mathematicians under any circumstances.  Or if they did, there would be a burst of murmurs and everyone would be looking back and forth with the “Did he say that?” look.  On this occasion, only I was looking back and forth.  Nobody seemed to think it was weird, not the women, not the men.  It was an informal, jokey kind of talk.  But still.



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20 thoughts on “Is philosophy worse for women than math is?

  1. Christina says:

    Just a story, not a
    Data analysis, but I once had the (dis) pleasure of listening to some tenured turkey of a philosophy professor discourse on the discomfort caused to certain areas of his anatomy by a recent vasectomy. Apparently, he didn’t notice that the (few) female students in the class found the conversation extremely unpleasant and were reduced to thanking their lucky stars that he wouldn’t be breeding any more. Math faculty types were never anything except welcoming, friendly and appropriate. Guess which field I did more coursework in?

  2. Noah Snyder says:

    The only way to know is for someone to open a similar blog for anonymous stories from mathematicians and math students.

  3. "anonymous" says:

    My now former math PhD advisor told me I was fat and should eat less, told me married women didn’t need jobs, told me I reminded me of his ex-wife too much to talk to me, and told me about how he used to watch porn in the middle of the night and watch TV, for hardly ever more than 30 seconds (long enough to decide if it’s real) but it really doesn’t affect me (I am 70 years old). Interestingly, he also thought this was a great thing to email me about. On the plus side, he’s retired and won’t be advising anymore graduate students and I’m off to a postdoc. If math had actually created a culture friendlier, I’d be willing to attach my name to this post.

  4. NDE says:

    Not sure Christina’s anecdote illustrates sexism: for one thing, such “discourse” may be at least as unpleasant for men as for women; for another, it might be comparable to a certain actress’ going very public with her double mastectomy a few weeks ago (though a philosophy lecture does seem rather out of place for such revelations).

  5. Why, of course it happens. You just don’t notice it. Between my own stories, stuff I’ve watched, and stuff I’ve heard in confidence from other women, I could easily match that blog.

  6. Christina says:

    Yeah, no real argument there. I just thought the guy was enough of a creep that I never took another course in a discipline that otherwise interested me… Boorishness and sexism clearly aren’t the same thing. But I’d argue for a correlation!

  7. Richard Séguin says:

    Until high school I attended a tiny lab school. We had one teacher who was highly respected, liked and trusted by the parents and students. He was possibly our favorite teacher. Or so the male students thought. A few years ago I encountered an old classmate who had talked to others about a class reunion and he discovered that all of the girls in our class had been “very nervous” around him. Some males do have two faces and other males only see or witness one of them.

  8. Michelle says:

    Not having studied philosophy or hung around with any academics in that field, I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on the math vs. philosophy debate. But based on your story and the blog by women in philosophy… no, math is not friendlier.

  9. valuevar says:

    First of all, as I said elsewhere, the blog you refer to gives a very particular, selective slice of reality in philosophy departments: note also that it seems to provide little or no filtering or double-checking for factuality. I don’t even mean this as criticism; serving as a source for an objective assessment of day-to-day life in philosophy departments may not even be part of its mission.

    As far as remarks in lectures are concerned (as opposed to, say, bullying or harassment of individuals) – I wonder whether the particular subfield of philosophy matters? If things work out differently in analytic philosophy than in mathematics, then this is probably a genuine cultural difference without anything in the field as such to account for it. If, instead, we are talking about branches of philosophy were society/life/right and wrong are discussed, then it is easy to see how subjects that might become personal could be broached. Notice also that some of the points raised in “What it is like to be a woman in philosophy” are not about harassment, privacy or respect, but about ideology – as in, opposing positions being taken in an academic discussion.

    I am not implying that ideology is somehow inherently a vice; in some contexts, it is unavoidable. My point is precisely that there are subjects in which ideology (of any stripe) will come into the discussion much more frequently than in other subjects. How would, say, different kinds of feminism ever come into play in a lecture on topology?

  10. piper says:

    okay, Christina’s story is most certainly an example of a type of Boys Club sexism. and discussing penile discomfort in class is in no way comparable to the struggle with the decision to get a double mastectomy.

    as for philosophy vs math, i would hardly call math “friendlier.” and in fact a female philosophy friend was shocked to hear the sadly commonplace “joke” that “women mathematicians are neither women nor mathematicians”. so there is one data point of math being at least as sexist.

    i think if anything math is just less social; mathematicians may on average be less socially competent. it takes a certain something to pull off many of the stories i’ve heard from the women in philosophy blog. something that the average mathematician may not have (and those that do may have gotten that way via an awareness that makes overt sexism less likely). i could be wrong about mathematicians, but when i told a prof i’d worked with for a full year that i was not working the following semester b/c i (a married woman) was pregnant, he got so awkward, he backed away and talked to someone else without so much as a Congratulations. or i recently overheard a woman complaining that her new advisor couldn’t even handle the question “How are you?”

    i think in math there is a systemic lack of respect for women, but it doesn’t have the same sexual component that it seems to have in philosophy. i mean, so many mathematicians only feel comfortable talking about math. this used to really bother me, but maybe it is a blessing in disguise.

  11. NDE says:

    I think this is the first I’ve run across this “sadly commonplace ‘joke'”. Maybe some segments of the math community show a much stronger “systemic lack of respect for women” than others. Meanwhile I note that the suggestion “mathematicians may on average be less socially competent” is itself a sadly commonplace stereotype… Is it backed up by any quantitative evidence?

  12. piper says:

    obviously i have not done any research to find out if my anecdotes are supported by data. i think these comments are just collecting anecdotes. my experience in fancy pants grad school was that it was rare to find a math grad student who would not break some very basic rules of social interactions (and more rare to find social faculty). these students would certainly not be a representative sample of mathematicians, however being a fancy pants school, they might be a representative sample of academia, since overall i think a higher proportion of fancy pants grad students stay in academia than at non fancy pants schools.

    if you have a source with a high proportion of socially adept non-awkward mathematicians PLEASE TELL ME so i can move there immediately.

    but i was comparing to philosophy and in a discussion not on this blog my philosophy friend was talking about how important social interaction and fellowship were to a thriving philosophy department. that is 100% not the case in any math department i’ve been to. the math dept’s website might talk up some kind of social opportunity, but it will be a lie (as in it will be true only in theory).

    i’d love to be wrong. maybe our next move will change everything.

  13. Frank says:

    I am a mathematician, and in my mind one of the perks of my profession is that I really enjoy the company of other mathematicians. I was a grad student at Wisconsin, and I made lots of good friends with my fellow grad students, and enjoyed my interactions with the postdocs and faculty too. We talked math, sure — but we talked about plenty of other stuff too, played cards, drank beer, went camping… I could go on for a long time… the bottom line is that there was an intensity and an earnestness which I really enjoyed. I have had similarly good experiences with other mathematicians, both at other universities I’ve been at and at conferences. I look forward to the Joint Meetings every year for this reason.

    You mention that grad students break rules of social interactions. No doubt this is true: different people have their own rules, and I think many mathematicians (including myself) tend to delight (too much?) in bending the rules — not so much out of greed, but out of curiosity (what will happen?) or simple indifference to convention.

    And especially since I moved to the South for a tenure track job, I’m sure I break all kinds of rules. Once, in midsummer, I was asked “Can you believe how hot it is?!” I couldn’t think of anything that both seemed kind, and was true… not knowing what to say, I’m afraid I maintained an awkward silence until, thankfully, the other person continued speaking.

    I’ve had my share of awkward interactions with mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike. But I will happily defend mathematicians as a group. We’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m grateful to count many fellow mathematicians as my friends.

    And, also, many of us, again including myself — would very much like to understand and break down whatever is causing the systemic lack of respect for women in math, and in society more generally.

  14. piper says:

    i agree that mathematicians can be nice and that there can be groups of mathematicians who sincerely enjoy one another’s company. i have yet to meet a group of mathematicians that could hold their own on a social scene with non academics (i’m talking about young people here). isolated mathematicians for sure, but not a group. i’m not saying that they’re so awkward they can’t find any friends whatsoever. but there is a certain ease of speaking that comes across in the stories i’ve heard from philosophy women that i just don’t see as being common amongst mathematicians. i’ve seen in old movies that some men think it’s okay to slap a woman’s bottom or compliment her chest. at work. now i can’t imagine anyone i’ve ever met doing that. but part of it is that i can’t even imagine them doing that in a circumstance where it would be okay except in some terribly terribly awkward way. men who behave so terribly are Very Comfortable with it and very comfortable with themselves and altogether Too comfortable with women. individual results obviously vary, but my impression in general is that mathematicians tend to be Less comfortable with themselves and the male mathematicians tend to be less comfortable with stereotypical women. it’s not just math, but i think it’s not philosophy.

    anyone can have isolated incidences of awkwardness, but for example i do not know what it feels like to bore someone to death, to keep talking endlessly to a person who does not seem amused and without asking the person if they were busy or if i should let them get back to work. if you don’t know any mathematicians that you just pray will leave you alone, then either you have been very lucky or i have been very unlucky.

    it’s possible that the proportion of awkward to non-awkward mathematicians is the same as in other areas of life, but that the awkward ones are so much more painfully awkward than normal that it drags down my impression. i don’t know. i’d love to create a survey measuring social awkwardness and attitudes towards women separating those attitudes which are acted upon and those which aren’t. but for now i just have my theories honestly based on my experiences.

    i’m happy for anyone who has found happiness provided it is not at someone else’s expense. i don’t need to be right; i just have to be honest.

  15. Andy P says:

    @piper : I don’t think anyone would disagree with the claim that mathematicians are, on average, more awkward than “normal” people. Also, there are certainly extreme examples of bizarre behavior. However, I don’t think it is nearly as categorical as you describe. There are plenty of mathematicians who are perfectly normal and can easily interact with non-mathematicians. I find it very hard to believe that you’ve never met a group of them; I think that the majority of my colleagues (and certainly the majority of my young colleagues) don’t fit your stereotype.

    I also don’t think that philosophers are as “normal” as you claim. When I was a student, I was one course away from getting a degree in philosophy, so I interacted with plenty of philosophers. There were good number of weird and awkward people among them. This might reflect the fact that most of my professors were analytic philosophers. I suspect that continental philosophy has a different culture. But all of academia attracts strange people; that’s one of its charms.

    Finally, I strongly disagree with the claim that you have to be smooth and debonair to inappropriately hit on women.

  16. piper says:

    haha yeah certainly you don’t have to be smooth and debonair to inappropriately hit on women. have you read the blog posts on the women in philosophy page? the ones i’ve read just were not about awkwardness. it could be a coincidence, i suppose. but i think there is a reason why those posts are about not necessarily smooth and debonair philosophers, but socially competent ones. also, just to add, as a female i think i would find it easier to Ew+shrug off an awkward inappropriate gesture than dealing with a smooth confident inappropriate male. a big factor in harassment is, of course, power, and it’s hard to feel like an awkward person has any power (unless they are physically larger).

    as for awkward philosophers, yeah sure. i am sure there are awkward people all over. i don’t know anything about philosophy. just that there were more of ’em at my bar than math people. again it’s more based on the stories i’ve read at that other blog where the offenders did not come off as awkward.

    i’ve been a grad student at one school, taught at a different school, and my husband has worked at two schools. i only enjoyed social gatherings at one of these schools and even there i could only count three people i liked. as is probably unsurprising by now, i have never felt like i fit in amongst mathematicians and this has probably had a fairly large impact on my life and lack of mathematical career. maybe someday.

  17. Alexander Woo says:

    Some areas of math do seem much friendlier to women than others. This seems anecdotally clear to me. I don’t know if there is any data, and it might be hard to come by such data, because collecting useful data would require having someone who knew enough about mathematics to divide it into small enough areas! (And I certainly wouldn’t presume to be able to sort analysts.)

    It is true that philosophy is significantly smaller than math and presumably has fewer distinct areas, so a single sexist or boorish individual will have more impact, whereas such individuals in mathematics, while certainly having a negative impact on their areas (including infecting the cultures of their areas to increase bad behavior by others), will still leave at least some relatively problem-free areas.

  18. Frank says:

    >if you don’t know any mathematicians that you just pray will leave you alone, then either you have been very lucky or i have been very unlucky.

    Indeed I don’t: If I want to be left alone I apologize and excuse myself.

    I have some sympathy for your complaints. I started to grad school when I was 26, and one of my first impressions was that there was more whistling in the hallways, more tapping on desks, more chewing with mouths open. But the whistlers and tappers became some of my best friends. For one thing, they didn’t mind being asked to stop. But beyond that, they had a certain unsuppressed creativity, that when combined with genuine kindness and generosity of spirit, not to mention fearsome intelligence, made for really awesome people.

    I think this discussion goes beyond what proportion of mathematicians are awkward or “perfectly normal”. Roughly speaking, I think there are distinguishable aspects to mathematical culture: quirks are tolerated and often embraced; directness is usually welcomed; it’s often presumed that if you want something, you’ll ask for it, and so others don’t need to guess. This is probably related to the fact that in math it is useful to be able to *really* concentrate on one thing, to the exclusion of everything else. It is difficult to learn to turn that on and off. :)

    If you don’t like the quirks common to many mathematicians, I can’t argue with you. But it seems that most of what you complain about is unrelated to gender.

  19. piper says:

    yeah, i don’t think it’s related to gender. i just think certain types of behaviors are less likely to be coupled with certain types of quirks. i obviously do not know all types of people, but of the types that i’ve met, the overly-comfortable-with-women and the quirky-direct-“creative” types have not overlapped. i just don’t hear a lot of sexually inappropriate comments coming from mathematicians, even those that are being genderly (if you will) inappropriate. i think the problem with the philosophy departments we’ve been hearing about is that it’s not just a lack of respect for women, but that there is often a sexual component. it’s frustrating to have a colleague who doesn’t respect you, but when a colleague is sexually inappropriate, it is a whole different thing. it takes away safety. the quirks when coupled with other issues bother me, but i’ve never felt unsafe in a math department. i think i’d feel unsafe in many of these philosophy departments. i did not mean to get everyone side tracked on how awkward i think mathematicians are. i just really see a difference between the people i’ve met in math and the stories i’ve heard in philosophy. but it can always be a coincidence, or just a matter of numbers.

  20. vcvpaiva says:

    hmm, being a female mathematician who hangs out a lot with philosophers I’d agree with piper that the situation is as bad in maths as in philosophy. the philosophers are only better at writing about it. I also agree that mathematicians are more awkward in average by a non-negligible amount. and yes I have encountered the dual of the infamous joke above in many of its incarnations: that I was too pretty to be a good mathematician and too mathematical to be pretty at all.

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