Gender Quotas on Philosophy Panels?

First it was gender quotas for the sciences–and
now it’s gender quotas for philosophy. Two philosophy professors are calling on
their colleagues to boycott academic conferences that don’t feature at least
one woman as a keynote speaker.

In the so-called “STEM” fields
(science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) men significantly outnumber
women on campuses. The Obama administration’s Education Department has decided
to do something about that. Its legal vehicle of choice is Title IX of the
federal Civil Rights Act, which forbids sex discrimination by educational
institutions that receive federal funding, as nearly all do. For decades the
Education Department’s rules interpreting Title IX have essentially required
colleges to make sure that the same proportion of women and men participate in
their sports programs as enroll in the university as a whole. Now the Education
Department wants to expand its Title IX enforcement mechanisms from sports to
STEM, making gender quotas in STEM fields inevitable.

Philosophy might be thought of as the humanities
equivalent of STEM. Maybe it’s because philosophy’s logical rigor calls on the
same male spatial-manipulation ability that correlates with men’s generally
greater aptitude for math, or maybe it’s because people-oriented women find
philosophy’s abstractions dull. The fact remains that only 30 percent of
doctorates in philosophy these days go to women, in contrast to nearly 70
percent of doctorates in English literature. Who knows but that the Education
Department might eventually view female underrepresentation in philosophy as a
national crisis on the order of its view of female underrepresentation in STEM
fields? Right now, however, it’s the philosophy professors themselves who are
trying to import quotas into their field. Last week two male philosophers, Mark
Lance, a professor of philosophy and peace and justice at Georgetown
University, and Eric Schliesser of Ghent University, in a post in their blog
New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science, called for their fellow
philosophers to boycott all professional meetings that did not include women as
keynote speakers. Keynote speakers are the “stars” of academic
conferences, typically chosen for their outstanding scholarly records. Lance
and Schliesser wrote: “One way in which we can change the way we operate
in our profession is if the insiders that benefit most from their ongoing
privileges change our norms.”

idea of choosing conference speakers solely on the basis of their sex instead
of their academic achievements is not new. In 2007 Manan Ahmed, then a graduate
student at the University of Chicago (he is now a professor at the Institut für
Islamwissenschaft in Berlin) put together a panel of scholars to discuss
“postcolonial identity” at the annual meeting of the American
Historical Society (AHA). Women receive just over 40 percent of doctorates in
history, and all the scholars Ahmed selected for his panel happened to be men.
The AHA, citing its commitment to “gender diversity,” informed Ahmed
that it would reject his panel unless he found a “female participant,
perhaps to serve as chair or a second commentator for your session.” So
Ahmed submitted the name of Rebecca Goetz, a history professor at Rice
University. Goetz’s specialty is early North America, not the postcolonial
Third World, but that made no difference to the AHA. As Inside Higher Education
reported, “the name ‘Rebecca’ did the trick,” and Ahmed’s panel was
promptly approved. Goetz herself was amused by her obvious token status and
wrote on her blog Historianess, “I won’t be doing any serious scholarly
work for this panel; I just show up and introduce my friends.”  

So “gender diversity” in the
humanities now means filling allotted slots with women, even if they don’t
deserve the honor of, say, being named a conference keynoter, or have no
expertise or interest in the subject matter of a scholarly panel. That sounds
insane–although it’s certainly no more insane than the Education Department’s
declaration that it will use its draconian regulatory apparatus to force
science departments to enroll higher proportions of women, even at the expense
of discriminating against men. But that’s the trend. The Lance-Schliesser
boycott proposal was endorsed by many of the philosophers who commented on the
pair’s blog entry. Indeed, “some proposed that the boycott be expanded to
include conferences with all-white line-ups or with lack of diversity in sexual
orientation or nationality,” Inside Higher Ed reported. The notion of
merit, aptitude or interest as relevant to scholarly endeavors from majoring in
chemistry to speaking at a philosophy conference seems to be falling by the




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