Social biases can be extremely difficult to observe in oneself, especially for those of us committed to social equality. However, once we come to accept how commonplace they are and get past being ashamed of them, we can begin to learn from the glimpses we get into our implicit associations.
Today for the first time I gave the finger to a woman in a hijab. I also yelled “you fuck off!” as she had given me the finger first. I had exclaimed about my right of way as a pedestrian when the (male) driver of the minivan she was in cut me off crossing the street. The most interesting thing about this for me is watching my mind try to negotiate the cognitive dissonance of swearing at strangers combined with symbols of religious or at least cultural fidelity. I was shocked at her behaviour especially because of the hijab, I think. Had it been a 20 year old man I’d have felt somewhat different I think, not more or less angry but less betrayed.
Clearly I will get over it, but it also brings home to me how wearing a hijab can make people feel — and perhaps actually become — safer from strangers’ hostility. The cognitive dissonance I experienced would seem to be at last partly due to my sense of respect for the hijab.
The situation of women in philosophy has received a lot of attention lately, including the Gendered Conference Campaign for philosophy developed back in 2009. Including women in academic venues (conference invitations or departmental hiring, notably) is not simply an attempt to make manifest a social ideal. There are many epistemological reasons to demand the representation of women be significant (I tend to find a minimum of 1/3 works well for most the arguments):
- Regarding the need to counteract the operation of implicit social bias in selecting people: Reasoners tend to (often unconsciously) prefer men over women. This general tendency tends to remain unaffected by one’s conscious political commitments such that women and feminists are vulnerable to bias against women just like everyone else (we may have ‘aversive bias’). The implicit association test (IAT) now provides massive evidence to this effect that builds on decades of social psychological studies of how people judge each other. (If you haven’t taken the IAT, then you should.) Such studies show that gender bias (e.g.) is not better for those trained to be objective, and in fact they (we?) tend to have a false sense of confidence that makes us actually moreprejudiced. This recent article by Moss-Racusin et al. on this psychological phenomenon shows that faculty members in science are just as biased as anyone else and more so if they consider themselves to be personally objective.
- Regarding the ability of women (and other marginalized social identities) to participate: Psychology reveals a robust phenomenon of (mostly unconscious) stereotype threat. It’s complicated, but one aspect of it, one trigger for it, is when few participants (only one or less than 1/3) belong to the same social group as oneself. Minority status is sufficient to trigger stereotype threat. The effects are that people in that group will not perform as well and will be deterred from participating (and they may never realize it).
- Regarding the quality of the discussion and emerging understanding or knowledge: (1) and (2) affect this, and there is further reason for concern:
- from feminist epistemology and philosophy of science:
- Helen Longino’s empiricist view of objectivity arising from critical discourse suggests that social diversity provides for a great range of background assumptions and therefore more meaningful criticism and response.
- Standpoint theorists argue that women’s experiences (i) provide a more complete perspective, or (ii) a critical outsider perspective, are (iii) less invested in current systems of power, and (iv) simply provide an underrepresented perspective.
- Standpoint theorists also argue that feminist and other liberatory perspectives provide valuable input because their understandings are (i) different from the more widely accepted perspective; (ii) are committed to developing understandings of a different future. More women tends to mean more feminist perspectives.
- from psychology (in Scientific American: I confess I haven’t read the original research) comes evidence that social diversity makes people work harder in groups.
Many of these arguments hold for any marginalized group, but the epistemic values sometimes run up against a lack of people having adequate training. That is no longer the case for women in philosophy, as we can be found in decent numbers (again 1/3) in almost all fields and subfields. At this point, the exceptions where women are not well-represented may well indicate that the field has been constructed in some way to include only the work done by men and thus that the field needs to change. (Despite great progress over the last 200 years, work remains quite gendered, and that includes academic work.)
Including women and other marginalized people may well require broadening a field or its methods, and that is good enough reason for change, but it’s justified on epistemological grounds as much as socio-political. It’s not easy to do, at all, and token efforts may be quite ineffective, as Carla Fehr (2011) argues. The above are all “diversity as excellence” approaches and they demand a lot of work to be effective. I’ve written this post in the hopes of saving people a step when you are called on to make arguments for the epistemological value of diversity, such as solid representation by women. You have here almost a dozen reasons, just to start with.