Why Is the Persistence Rate for Women in Philosophy So Low?

Heather Demarest, a new assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the lead author of a study that finds that the participation rate of women in philosophy was affected by students feeling dissimilar to professional philosophers, perhaps even their instructors. She notes that women make up about half of all students in introductory courses in philosophy but only 30 percent of the students in advanced courses.

Dr. Demarest surveyed philosophy students at the University of Oklahoma to determine what attitudes were good predictors of whether women would persist in the field. Those who did move on past introductory courses were more likely to agree with the statement, “I feel similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers.”

“People think of philosophers as stereotypically a dead white man, or old white man with a beard,” Demarest said. “But few people present Descartes as a devout Catholic, or as a father who loved his daughter, or as someone who liked to sleep in until noon. Nobody teaches it, and many students are left without anything to relate to, thinking of Descartes only as an abstract thinker.”

“If we present some non-typical information about the authors, that could go a long way to changing the make-up of the major,” she continued. “There are a lot of different strategies for making women feel more at home in this field,” such as examining current events in philosophical context.

Dr. Demarest concludes that “my research suggests there are a lot of small changes that could add up to a big difference in the attitude of women when it comes to continuing in philosophy.”

Dr. Demarest is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Colorado, where she majored in physics and philosophy. She earned a second bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Oxford in England and a Ph.D. at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The study, “Similarity and Enjoyment: Predicting Continuation for Women in Philosophy,” was published in the journal Analysis. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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