Gender bias has become a hot subject in philosophy, not merely as a topic for epistemology — in the work of Lorraine Code, Nancy Tuana, and Miranda Fricker, for instance. Thirty years of feminist epistemology bears currently on the discipline in ways that it hasn’t since the emergence of the field in the 1980s. Whereas at that point a central contention was that women might bring different ways of thinking or different concerns to the discipline, now the issue is that all people — including philosophers — tend to be biased against women. Over fifteen years of research on implicit bias shows that across cultures (classes, and professions) people tend to underestimate women’s ability and qualification. Take the demonstration test and see! (Though the test is not meant to offer a personal diagnosis, taking it can be profoundly humbling.)
The effects of bias in philosophy have become apparent because women are now around 20% of philosophy departments, and often more. This is a rather meagre advance over the last thirty years, and the continued under-representation and leaky pipeline has earned the name “the philosophy exception” because it is so poor relative to women’s advances in other fields. Nonetheless, enough women work in the discipline that when philosophical forums neglect women there is quantifiable reason to complain. (This contrasts with the case for people of colour and other marginalized philosophers who don’t yet constitute a significant number of people in the discipline.)
Further, the evidence about implicit bias suggests that the reason for the problem is not personal or curable (though perhaps treatable) at the individual level and provides reason to demand systematic and institutional attention to the problem. Witness the Gendered Conference Campaign that “aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of all-male conferences (and volumes, and summer schools), [and] of the harm that they do.” This campaign recently received an apology from a co-editor of a Canadian philosophy journal, Dialogue, Mathieu Marion.
Ordinary critical thinking does not serve us well in addressing implicit bias. At least, reflection does not affect how implicit bias enters into our pre-discursive evaluations, poisoning our reasoning from the outset. To address and root out the default switches, the fast thinking in Daniel Kahneman’s terms, demands we develop a new set of tools. I think some of those tools may come from argumentation, as a discursive practice, and I think the success of the Gendered Conference Campaign bears that out: they write letters to organizers of events that under-represent women pointing out the problem. Philosophy will not be the same in ten years, we have reason to hope, for women; and that should set a precedent that allows the discipline to better address intersecting forms of marginalization.
We are all vulnerable to implicit bias — me too! And ordinary philosophical methods are no help. Introspection is a weak defence against socialization. So we must rethink our methodology, but philosophers don’t like to think about methodology. There can be good reason to stick with a general argumentative rigour, and follow intuition as well as evidence. However, the utter lack of any methodological sensibility renders philosophy prone to the vague pronouncements most susceptible to implicit bias. For instance, terms such as “smart” seem to apply most frequently to young white men, argues Jennifer Saul in The Philosophers Magazine.
Instead of introspection and personal resolve, assuming that good will can be adequate to the problem, addressing social biases head-on requires making equity into a principle of organization. Most of us reach for the names of old white men when looking for someone important or interesting to feature if we receive no further guidance. Organizational resistance to that proclivity can help us head it off, giving ourselves new patterns of practice by asking ourselves to look first for women, people of colour, disabled philosophers, and other marginalized people to feature in our forums.
Sometimes too, women and other marginalized philosophers may be harder to engage as speakers and authors. After all, women do more work than men hour-by-hour, in all cultures and classes; and other forms of social marginalization bring with them other obstacles to ready participation. Those obstacles provide another reason to prioritize the inclusion of people who are not men, not white, not able-bodied, not straight, and so on, and to do so systematically from the start of our editorial and organizational work. Without that priority we succumb not only to implicit bias but to systemic discrimination that lowers the quality of the philosophy we promote.