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Discrimination in philosophy

Diving into the Perfect Storm

Marina Sbisà
p. 134-150


Considering data concerning the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, I reflect on how it is that discrimination of individuals or of categories of people can take place in this discipline, and on what approaches can be adopted to analyse and contrast the discrimination of women in particular. I consider Louise Antony’s distinction between two different approaches: “Different Voices”, according to which women are discriminated in philosophy because of their difference, and “Perfect Storm”, according to which such discrimination is caused by a combination of independent factors. Accepting Antony’s criticism of the Different Voices approach, I offer a few considerations that hope to supplement the Perfect Storm approach by showing how the factors that combine to cause the discrimination of women in philosophy are interconnected. In so doing, I discuss the normative role of gender stereotypes, the role of care-giving in society and its place in our value system, and women’s difficult path towards the indispensable condition of being autonomous subjects and agents.

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Note dell'autore

This paper elaborates upon my contribution to the workshop on “Filosofia e Discriminazione” held in Torino on January 21, 2016. I wish to thank Vera Tripodi for inviting me to participate and the audience for the discussion. In November 2016, part of the material in the paper was presented at the Feminism Reading Group led by Jennifer Saul at the University of Sheffield: my thanks to Jenny and the audience for their questions and comments.

Testo integrale

1. Introduction

  • 2 Beebee and Saul (2011) found that the proportion of women among full time permanent philosophy facu (...)
  • 3 Url last accessed 5/12/2016.
  • 4 Italian regulations divide University research and teaching into officially listed Academic Discipl (...)
  • 5 The Italian academic world has structural peculiarities. The posts of Ricercatore Universitario (no (...)

1It is known that women are underrepresented in philosophy, and not merely as regards the past, but also at present in university departments: the proportion of academic posts occupied by women in the Philosophy area is much lower than in the other humanities subjects and is actually closer to the proportion in Mathematics. Extremely worrying data come from both the US and the UK and have rightly been the object of attention and discussion2. The Italian situation is somewhat more difficult to define and perhaps less alarming, but is not very different. A cursory inspection of the website of the Italian Ministry for University and Research3 reveals that in all subject areas, a lower percentage of women compared to men reach the highest position in the Italian academic career (1st level professor or Professore Ordinario): this ranges from 41.99 percent in the area of Classics, Literatures and History of Art, to 8.35 percent in Industrial and Electronic Engineering, with Mathematics in 8th position (out of 14 areas)4 with 19.52 percent and the sub-area of the philosophical disciplines scoring a very similar 19.86 percent. If we then consider the numbers of women with posts of 1st and 2nd level professor and tenure-track research posts, the subject areas with the lowest proportion are Industrial and Electronic Engineering and Physics while the one with the highest is once again Classics, Literatures and History of Art (50.94 percent), with the non-philosophical disciplines in the area of Historical, Philosophical, Educational and Psychological Sciences coming second (46.51 percent): the group of philosophical disciplines scores 28.41 percent, again similar to Mathematics (here in 9th position among the 14 areas, 29.52 percent)5.

2This paper starts by devoting some attention to how it is that discrimination of individuals or of categories of people can take place in philosophy, and what approaches can be adopted to analyse the discrimination of women in theory or contrast it in practice. I accept Louise Antony’s criticism of what she calls the “Different Voices” approach, according to which women are discriminated in philosophy because of their difference, but I then offer a few considerations that hope to supplement and extend her “Perfect Storm” approach (which sees the discrimination of women in philosophy as caused by a combination of independent factors) (Antony 2012). In particular, I try to show what can be gained by taking a perspective based on conceptual or phenomenological analysis (over and above the indispensable research into the psychological and sociological facts that enables us to identify strategies and guidelines for contrasting discriminating tendencies in practice).

2. Philosophy today and discrimination

3Can philosophy be discriminating or, in any case, can the exercise of philosophy host discrimination? I assume here that an interest in questions of a broadly philosophical character, or the need to ask such questions and try to answer them, appears here and there in human societies recurrently. This interest (as we experience it today) is accompanied by a desire for reflection, for understanding (of the world and of oneself), for clarity and insightfulness. It involves a search for truth (most often in the non-technical sense: as revelation, unveiling, authenticity, overcoming of conditionings and therefore freedom). It should (and often does) involve a commitment to the exercise of reasoning. I surmise that aspirations vaguely similar to these can be felt by human beings of any kind, and that such aspirations have contributed to the beginnings of philosophy and its subsequent development and transformation. I do not see how there could be anything wrong with these aspirations or with the need for philosophy which they reflect, but I take it that whoever is affected by them should be in a position to start “doing philosophy”. The problem of possible discrimination thus arises, and can sensibly be discussed, not in connection with the need for philosophy itself, but with how people have attempted to satisfy this need in given historical and cultural contexts.

4Let us briefly consider how we attempt to satisfy that need in present times and in contemporary Western society. We live in a consumerist society ever more dependent on technology, where the role played by electronic devices is increasingly important and pervasive; our world is becoming more and more “globalized”; science (and knowledge in general) has been split into many different specific branches, each of which is extremely demanding as regards the formation and expertise of those wanting to participate in it. This can have repercussions upon our ways of doing philosophy: on the one hand, it can suggest new philosophical themes, while on the other, it most certainly has an effect on the circumstances in which the need for philosophy is expressed and satisfied. If philosophy is to be a recognized branch of knowledge, it has to be just as specific and “professional” as the other branches. This aspect has been discussed elsewhere (Marconi 2014; see also Tripodi, 2016) and I just take it for granted that things cannot be otherwise. However, electronic technologies and consumerism collude in changing the conditions of production, diffusion and fruition of philosophical writings: in the context of professionalization, the technologically facilitated preparation for print, in philosophy as in other fields, accelerates production times and triggers increased production, which means that there is more and more material around to read, and that in many cases, this reading becomes compulsively fast. As for globalization (which email and the Web feed in), its effect is felt in philosophy through the gradual fading away of received divisions between philosophical traditions, often national or otherwise local in character, and through the appearance of a “global market” for the circulation and fruition of philosophical products of whatever geographical and cultural origin, so long as they are written in English and satisfy certain criteria regarding (together with quality) genre, style and cultural fashion. There are good sides to all these changes: of course it is positive to enjoy easier international contacts and faster connections enabling rapid exchanges of drafts and discussions with colleagues who live far away. But there are also new risks. Some people might not be able to keep up with the consumerist-rooted cycle of speedier writing and reading, or might refuse to be forced to think more quickly. Others might not be able or willing to adapt to current conditions for being on the global market: conforming to other people’s way of working, relating one’s research to recognized open issues already under debate, and contributing something new within an accepted paradigm (usually in opposition to something that others have claimed), thus failing to adopt anyone of the mainstream styles, genres and cultural fashions. These people are very likely to suffer discrimination: dropping out of university courses if they are students, not being admitted into the academy if they have just got their PhDs, or kept in the academy in low-level or temporary positions and never given professorships. Of course, a university system must be selective to ensure quality, but if the same categories of people are regularly found to be at risk of dropping out or not managing to progress in their careers, then discrimination may be suspected, which, as many have observed, no longer serves to keep standards up, but instead impoverishes the subject by preventing new forces from contributing to it.

5There are many ways and contexts in which at least one of the two conditions I have indicated as potential sources of discrimination – failure to stand the consumerist spiral and failure to adapt to the global market – exists in academic philosophy. Of course, there might be others too. In the case of women, to which this paper is devoted, it is quite clear that both conditions are more likely to affect them than their male companions and colleagues. For example, women may be hindered in their attempt to cope with the consumerist rhythm of today’s philosophical production when they perform a time-consuming and energy-demanding dual role (in the family and at workplace). Moreover, complex social, psychological and cultural circumstances may make it more difficult for women than for men to develop their philosophical thoughts into a sufficiently competitive form to be put on the global market successfully. Some of these circumstances may concern not the woman philosopher herself and her philosophical work, but its reception by reviewers, editors, and committees, as when an unconscious, implicit bias against women leads to unfair evaluations or decisions (see Saul 2013; Lee 2016). Another circumstance may be actual underperformance, due not to lack of quality, but to acting under “stereotype threat”, that is, under the influence of the anxiety-generating belief that women are no good at doing philosophy (see Saul 2013; Blum 2016). Finally, a role may be played by those phenomena termed “micro-inequities”, those seemingly innocuous ways of behaving at the workplace, which can still be sources of discrimination, for example making some group member feel not really part of the group (Brennan 2013, 2016): in a discipline such as philosophy, in which verbal exchanges are so important, exclusion from or incomplete integration in verbal exchanges with colleagues may cause serious damage.

6Can (and should) philosophers do something to keep the exercise of philosophy from hosting discriminations? First of all, we need to have the conviction that discriminations are totally undesirable, and abstain from embracing and defending theories that may legitimate discrimination, or argue against them if any other philosopher defends them. Secondly, if certain changes in attitudes or practices, beneficial for the way we do and teach philosophy, are inspired by an attempt to contrast an alleged source of discrimination, these changes should be adopted anyway (even in absence of conclusive evidence about the alleged source of discrimination they attempt to neutralize) (as argued Saul 2013; see also Schouten 2015). Thirdly, we should stay informed about the social and psychological mechanisms that can lead us unconsciously into discriminating behaviour (as argued by Washington and Kelly 2016): since research can now explain just how these work, we can (and therefore should) adopt measures designed to keep them from influencing us.

3. Different Voices vs Perfect Storm

7Among the causes of women’s underrepresentation in philosophy, some have included women’s very “difference” from men. Women are supposed to be different from men in ways that are relevant to the current ways of doing philosophy, and to be discriminated against for that reason. They may have different intuitions, which are not taken into serious consideration by male philosophers, about how to answer certain philosophically relevant questions (such as those raised in certain thought-experiments: see Buckwalter and Stich 2014). They may have a different attitude towards competitive argument, since they prefer to be collaborative (Tannen 1990, Moulton 1993), and therefore may not be able to stand philosophical disputes. More in general, they may have different ways of tackling ethical questions (Gilligan 1982), and even different “ways of knowing” (Belenky 1986), which are not adequately recognized by mainstream philosophy. Against this approach to women’s underrepresentation in philosophy, Louise Antony (2012) has argued that it presupposes intrinsic gender differences, which are not confirmed on empirical grounds, and differs from misogynistic or anti-feminist stances only because it does not conclude from those differences that women are not up to doing philosophy, but puts the blame instead on mainstream philosophy for not finding room for them. In her opinion, what she terms the Different Voices approach is both intellectually flawed, and unhelpful and potentially self-defeating in practice. As an alternative, she proposes the Perfect Storm approach, which traces women’s underrepresentation back to how familiar kinds of sex discrimination which operate throughout society come together in philosophy. In this perspective, philosophy discriminates women because pre-existing discriminatory forces converge and interact in it, and their effects are intensified, “just as a geographical site can serve as the point of convergence, intensification, and interaction of meteorological forces” (Antony 2012, 233).

8Approaches to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy which take a Perfect Storm view (either explicitly or de facto) tend to be external. The behaviour and psychology of women, or the behaviour and psychology of those who discriminate them, are studied from outside, drawing on explicit reports and statements or revealing unconscious aspects by means of experiments. Interventions to be introduced on this basis are aimed at making the Perfect Storm less powerful by contrasting one of its elements. Obviously, any such action is welcome (and certainly more promising than the attempt to prove alleged intrinsic gender differences). But we are left with the impression that it is no mere coincidence that the circumstances giving rise to the Perfect Storm all come together when women attempt to do philosophy, and this is something we simply cannot ignore. Interconnections might become clearer if we explored the internal aspects of the problem (by that I mean the aspects that can be investigated phenomenologically or conceptually): the concepts and assumptions on the basis of which we (women) represent both ourselves and philosophy, and on the basis of which we are represented and understood. To see that there is a role for the exploration of internal aspects, we may also consider the kinds of partial failure affecting positive actions undertaken from outside and (by practical necessity) separately from one another, such as when a woman sitting on a committee is actually not committed to an equal-opportunities perspective, or a book on a reading list has been chosen simply so as to include something written by a woman. Be that as it may, an exploration of the conceptual or phenomenological aspects connected with being both a woman and a philosopher might enable us to notice how the elements that generate the Perfect Storm are connected to one another, and eventually to detect and combat its logic.

9In the rest of this paper, I will consider some aspects of the relationship between being a woman and doing philosophy, on which philosophical reflection can, in my opinion, have an internal take. Firstly, I will discuss the role of gender stereotypes; secondly, the role of care-giving; and thirdly, women’s difficult path towards the indispensable condition of being autonomous subjects and agents.

4. Gender and stereotypes

10Let us begin with a few considerations on gender stereotypes. The feminine gender stereotype which appears to be active in our society is complex and pervasive, and has implications for many spheres of activity: various features of it are particularly at odds with the exercise of public functions involving competence and power (including academic careers). I am convinced that although this may at times seem trivial, close attention needs to be paid to its contents and internal make-up. However, we should also ask ourselves what role stereotypes play in discrimination.

11Is the mere fact that a stereotype exists negative or dangerous? Let us first consider whether gender stereotypes can be defended with the motivation that they represent empirical generalizations and have heuristic value (Antony 2016). Stereotypes may indeed be confirmed by statistical data. But such data are themselves influenced in turn, and in various ways, by stereotypes. For example, behaviour caused by sterotype threat (see above, section 2) typically confirms the stereotype. Moreover, complying with one’s gender stereotype appears to have its advantages: it makes social life easier, for example by enabling the person to be attractive to people of the opposite gender (of special interest to heterosexually oriented people) and by letting her or him socialize more easily with same-gender persons. So the mere existence of the stereotype affects statistics. Statistical data are descriptive and open to change whenever the world changes, whereas stereotypes appear to be resistant to change, and normative.

12Can this normativity be rescued by viewing the stereotype as a norm for inference? A gender stereotype translates into a bias: namely, an unconscious attitude that leads a person to react to a target or assess it in certain ways, which may have a heuristic function. We cannot always rely on actual and up-to-date statistical generalizations (we cannot have polls all the time and on everything). The stereotype might be seen as a device replacing a statistical generalization and acting as a cognitive instrument for drawing quick conclusions and making rapid decisions with a reasonable degree of approximation to truth and effectiveness. But is that the whole story?

13Suppose I have to buy a present for a colleague: she is a woman, so I can expect her to like necklaces, for example. A necklace would therefore be an appropriate present. If I have to buy a present for a male colleague, however, the necklace is not an option. But if I happen to discover that for some reason the woman colleague dislikes wearing necklaces, or that the male colleague actually wears them, my plans will change. Reality has no obligation to adapt itself to heuristics: in the presence of a clash, what is suggested by the heuristic is put aside, at least for the time being. As for stereotypes, on the other hand, the stereotype’s hold on the actual case is not completely neutralized by its being an exception: the woman colleague who does not like necklaces may be considered as not very “feminine” in this respect, and while I may buy a male friend a necklace as a present, because I am familiar with his habit of wearing necklaces, his behaviour remains counter-stereotypical. Gender stereotypes are resistant to counter-examples, and may even be used to assess counter-examples (usually negatively), which does not happen with mere heuristics. So the normativity of stereotypes is not that of norms for inference, which are defeasible. Apparently (as it appears also from the discussion of generalizations and stereotypes in Blum 2016), they have other psychological and social normative functions besides the cognitive, heuristic one. There is therefore no cognitive reason for saving gender stereotypes as such.

14The troubles raised by gender stereotypes are connected to their normative status: if there was no normative weight to stereotypes, stereotype threat would be easier to avoid or overcome (if it existed at all). Generally speaking, the normativity of stereotypes is manifest in everyday educational practices, as when, for example, little girls are only given toys “for girls”. Moreover, if some facets of the stereotype are not complied with, it is a violation. If a violation is symbolically relevant to the reference social group, it yields social disapproval; and even small violations may lead cumulatively to “bad performance” in the gender role. Such negative assessments undermine self-confidence and create interior conflict between the gender stereotype and the person’s “deviant” wishes or habits. Non-self-confident people and people in a state of internal conflict are more likely to underperform (unless perhaps there is a cast-iron decision to “demonstrate” that there is no real conflict).

15In the case of women reading or doing philosophy, we may want to understand to what extent and why the feminine gender stereotype clashes with the requirements for performing well in the discipline and becoming a recognized professional philosopher. What exactly are these requirements? Do the “professional philosopher” requirements in our society form another normative stereotype which clashes with the feminine gender one, and in any case, are they actually conditions for doing philosophy, or only for doing philosophy within the academy as it presently exists? Could one do philosophy (in principle) also according to other models? There is weighty evidence that philosophy, which started as the highest intellectual activity of free men in a society largely segregating women and whose economy relied on slave work, continued to confirm throughout history (in the words of distinguished philosophers) its “male” affinities. Of course, we all believe that all human beings have a tendency to feel “philosophical perplexities” and so be prompted to ask philosophical questions, regardless of sex and of whether or not the relevant gender stereotype admits of this. But in our complex culture and in conformity with its strict division not only of labour but also of kinds of knowledge, much more is needed than a mere willingness to tackle philosophical questions. As to the current requirements for doing (professional) philosophy, it is not clear how much these derive from the received “male” affinities of the discipline: some of them might have other sources.

16One of our goals, then, is to combat the normative status of gender stereotypes, and stop assessing people as conforming or not conforming to them. A role can certainly be played here by counter-stereotypical examples: if they help people out of stereotype threat (Saul 2013, 51), this is precisely because they undermine the stereotype’s normativity.

17It should be noted that in suggesting that the normativity of the feminine gender stereotype be dismissed, I am not proposing what has sometimes been called “homologation”, which would consist of taking the masculine gender stereotype, as much as possible, as one’s norm. This practice may resort in a degree of loss of identity and paradoxically, in the case of philosophy, in confirmation of the received “male” affinities of the subject.

5. Value patterns and priorities

18There is a habit common to many women, be it because of their upbringing, of compliance with social norms and interpersonal requests, of psychological inclination, or what not: this is the habit of acting as caregivers. This habit or, rather, the aptitude or inclination to assume it are, obviously, part of the feminine gender stereotype. It is perhaps the component of the stereotype which is most likely to conserve straightforward normativity when motherhood has become optional, and heterosexuality is becoming so too. Whatever your sexual preference, and whether or not you have ever had merely the wish or opportunity to have a child, you are expected to have care-giving abilities and inclinations. Such is the norm for women. Notice that it is not an arbitrarily chosen norm, but the common trait behind caring for children and caring for men (and a whole range of very different activities may count as manifestations of this latter brand of care, from cooking and looking after the man’s clothes, to being sexually attractive and available, to volunteering with the Red Cross during a war).

19However, my aim here is not to consider the care-giving attitude as part of the feminine gender stereotype, nor the care-giving habit as an effect of the normativity of that stereotype, but take a further step in the direction of challenging gender stereotypes by considering care-giving activities as a practical necessity in human society. Not just in contemporary Western society but also elsewhere and in other times, stereotypical gender models have assigned to adult women the manual and psychological work that is indispensable for other members of the group to get on: for children to grow up, for men to work and do the public business in society, for old or sick people to survive or die in decent conditions. It is an old story, with a recent variation, because since the industrial revolution many things that used to be done by women in their homes with their own hands have been industrially produced or socially organized and women’s care-giving work has correspondingly become more and more a job concerned with psychological welfare on the one hand, and a matter of consumerism on the other. One would have expected care-giving work to become less essential because of these changes, but that is not what has happened. Care-giving is still indispensable and has become in some ways more demanding and difficult. In the old days, there was a whole series of informal care-giving roles which backed up that of the wife-and-mother (such as grandmother, aunt, and godmother): in today’s “nuclear” families, these no longer exist, or at least not in the same form (for example, grandmothers may still be workers themselves), while the new professional care-givers cannot give all the care needed. So if we are all to keep going, everyone must at least to some extent be a caregiver. It would be sensible and consistent to shift care-giving activities from the low place they used to occupy in our value pattern to a much higher one. This would amount to a change in priorities, especially dramatic for those men who are committed to an allegedly full-immersion job. Criticism of the feminine gender stereotype, therefore, does not just mean making sure it does not normatively govern our lives: it also means revaluing at least some of the activities it assigns to women which are in everyone’s interest and moving the related skills out of the stereotype to a respectable place in the socially shared value pattern.

  • 6 I am thinking of the Aristotelian distinction between “theoretical virtues” and “practical virtues” (...)
  • 7 The connection of dichotomous thinking with sexism and social conservatism has been highlighted by (...)
  • 8 This theme is highlighted in recent research by Sarah Jane Leslie (Leslie 2008; forthcoming). See a (...)

20While, then, the care-giving habit should not be called into question, we may well take issue with the stereotype of the philosopher as someone whose life is dedicated to “theoretical virtues”6 and kept separate from low-level practical necessities. As Saul and her collaborators have shown, there is still an explicit association of philosophy with maleness, but this association is open to challenge (Di Bella et al. 2016). In my opinion, this is not just a practical, equal-opportunities task (involving a change in the recruiting mechanisms of the discipline and therefore in the sex distribution in the “population” of philosophy departments). It is also a job to be done within philosophy, both (for women philosophers) with one’s own presence and style of working and to some extent, for any philosopher, in the content of one’s philosophical work. Indeed, various assumptions in philosophy itself (some metaphilosophical) may reinforce the received stereotype of the philosopher. For women philosophers who have already been recognized as professional academics, it is a question of being there, present and active and counter-stereotypical in relevant ways. But since, to varying degrees, a number of philosophical conceptions bear the hallmarks of the received, “male-friendly” way of doing philosophy – including, in my opinion, any conception of the subject that does not deal with embodiment, conceptions of reason that dichotomically oppose it to emotion, conceptions of theory as dichotomically opposed and superior to practice7, the essentialist reading of generic statements8, and perhaps the assumption that our concepts are perfectly delimited – women philosophers might want to examine them and, if finding them inaccurate, promote some redress or support better alternatives.

21This last proposal of mine might sound like an attempt to go back to the Different Voices approach, but I really do not believe that women philosophers have any particular philosophical claim to make or philosophical method to favour inasmuch as they are women. In general, it is a mistake to expect any particular stance or mode of behaviour from a woman in a position traditionally occupied by men, just because she is a woman, without any prior consideration of what the position requires, of how this constrains behaviour anyway (so that innovation may be minimal or merely symbolic) and in general of the kind of task involved. Nor do I think that philosophy is merely an arena for the expression and safeguard of interests, a place in which you can choose to “put it” in these or other terms just because they are more convenient or politically correct. I just think that women philosophers, whether they are aware of them or not, have obvious motives to subject to fresh scrutiny the conceptions outlined above and their possible alternatives, and that those motives or, at least, the choice of such a research topic might well be shared by male philosophers.

6. The narrow path to autonomy

22One particularly disturbing aspect of the feminine gender stereotype – which is not always apparent, but does surface if you pay close attention – is that women are usually dealt with as dependent on male judgment and assessment and, therefore, as not fully autonomous agents. Being autonomous would literally mean being ruled by norms of one’s own. The notion is often used in a broader sense, for example, to depict the status of a person who, having grown up and completed his or her education, has now got a life, and opinions and agency, independent of parents and teachers: but in this broader sense too, being autonomous or not has to do with abilities such as making one’s own choices and maintaining self-esteem in conflictual situations, which involve having values and assessment criteria of one’s own, as opposed to being prepared to adapt to someone else’s choices and evaluations. I take it that autonomy is crucial for the philosopher, since she or he must be able to think with originality and speak and argue in first person. The hurdles faced by women on their way to autonomy may constitute an internal factor leading to discrimination.

23I would like to note in passing that for the masculine gender, there is a short way (or perhaps shortcut) to autonomy, the Freudian killing of the father. This kind of event crops up again and again in the history of philosophy, if you look at it from this perspective. Perhaps this is another “male-friendly” feature of philosophy (which is perhaps a consequence, rather than cause, of its other “male-friendly” aspects). Women usually do not follow this kind of path and might prefer a cooperative attitude in the reading of the philosophers preceding them and in the elaboration of ideas stemming from them, which might mark them out as less original.

24To return back to women’s path towards autonomy, however, in philosophy just like anywhere else, one cannot make successful progress merely by imitating the masculine gender, that is, by embracing “homologation”. Mere imitation or emulation of the other gender does not enable a woman to think and speak for herself, in her own voice; she might remain, one might say, a spokesperson. Note, however, that autonomy is not necessarily a matter of speaking in a “different” voice. Nor is it a matter either of using one’s voice, whatever that may be, to report or to echo that of another.

25If it is patriarchy which is stopping women from being autonomous, why not look around for some feminist alternative? But invoking the alleged power of the Mother against patriarchy may produce ambiguous, if not actually negative, results. The Italian feminist school of thought called “the philosophy of sexual difference” (partly inspired by Irigaray), whose most representative thinker has been Luisa Muraro, tried something like this in the 1980s, proposing the recognition of the authority of the Mother (Muraro 1991) as a guarantee of feminist autonomy. But without any further elaboration, the maternal stereotype activated when invoking the Mother cannot foster individual or philosophical autonomy, since it revives the regressive ideal of initial mother-child unity, that is, the ultimate non-autonomous condition.

  • 9 Not everybody at the time understood that the point of the practice was to promote autonomous agenc (...)

26The autonomy needed to put forward claims of one’s own and defend them in discussion requires the woman to be a subject-agent not dependent on the approval of a father-like authority or continuously seeking to recreate a mother-child unity. What might this subject-agent be grounded in? I think that the answer can only lie in reciprocal confirmation between the subject-agent and her interlocutors. This is the lesson I take from what was one of the first feminist practices all around the world in the 1970s: the separatist discussion groups in search of “self-awareness”. In this practice, groups of women used to compare their life narratives, looking for common problems and solutions. It was an attempt to enable women to talk to each other without seeking confirmation in, or getting interpreted by, any father-like authority (which is why no male could take part), but directly recognizing each other’s subjectivity and agency, and recognizing in that the competence to describe, assess, diagnose, and make choices based upon criteria of one’s own making or elaborated in collaboration9. I take it that in other settings too, a basically identical mechanism could and should work. The main step is becoming willing to confirm another woman as an autonomous interlocutor and to accept one’s own confirmation from her.

27On the one hand, any conversation to some extent requires the reciprocal recognition of the interlocutors, as speakers of a language, as subjects with communicative intentions, and as agents of the speech acts their utterances are designed to perform. Therefore, some reciprocal recognition must also be there when participants in the conversation belong to different genders. But it is only on the spot that one can tell whether such recognition assigns to the speaker things like full competence of making judgments on a given subject matter, or full competence to assess and decide about something – or for some reason attempts to downgrade or restrict her agency. Reciprocal recognition between women interlocutors can do the trick of enhancing autonomous subjectivity and agency when competence and criteria are not deferred to external authorities but directly assumed or assigned, and elaborated upon. Direct communication between women interlocutors can thus connect the two subjects as distinct (a very different move from recreating the mother-child unity!) without invoking any patriarchal authority. This line of conduct can be helpful to women in conversation, in teaching, and why not, in philosophical discussion as well. The habit of behaving this way (together with the self-confidence gained) can then be exported to conversations or discussions involving males. Obviously, it is far from certain that once a speaker obtains an autonomous status this way, she will also be actually listened to as due by all her (female and male) teachers of philosophy or colleagues philosophers: there are still threats coming from outside. But a woman philosopher will be more able to withstand them, the more “autonomous” she has managed to be.

7. Some concluding remarks

  • 10 For the effects of overestimating one’s objectivity, Saul (2013, 43-44) refers to Uhlmann and Cohen (...)

28Now let me attempt some concluding remarks. When Antony gives the example of discrimination against black women in order to explain the Perfect Storm metaphor, she is referring to two independent attitudes, racism and sexism, which do not have the same source (2012, 233). Whereas the various ideas, expectations and assumptions that come together to produce the underrepresentation of women in philosophy make up a consistent picture. The feminine gender stereotype and the aspiration to high-level intellectual life (philosophy included) as a separate and superior status, to which many males have subscribed in the centuries, dovetail with one another. The contents pertaining to the feminine gender stereotype are not a random list, but make up a profile that is clearly functional to certain societal needs, basically those of a male-governed society, and including those of (male) philosophers. It is no coincidence, then, that in certain philosophy departments the service work is all done by the few women members, with the negative consequences reported by Antony (2012, 235): they do a lot of service work because there are few of them, but there are few of them also because of their role in service work in general. It is also perfectly consistent with the picture of philosophy as higher level intellectual activity that philosophers should consider themselves as being more objective, thus becoming more subject10 to those implicit biases about women which in turn, in an explicit form, are not foreign to their tradition.

29I believe that the care-giving habit is the locus of important connections. Of course, that is not to say that this habit should survive as being typical of women and part of what being a woman is or should be like. However, we women now are in a position not only to see that men too should learn to be care-givers, but also that the care-giving habit is so important for our society that it deserves to be ranked higher in our value system. Suppose this change were to come about and spread and get shared around: there would surely be both direct and indirect consequences in many fields, including the self-image of the philosopher and the access, both practical and symbolic, of women to philosophy.

30It is also apparent that the search for autonomy (in the sense laid out in section 4) is impossible without a wider questioning of the feminine gender stereotype. Were we able to reduce stereotypes to mere, culture-relative schemas or prototypes without any normative impact, we could still make a heuristic use of them, but we should drop them as soon as we see they do not apply to the current case. At the same time, reflection about the path to autonomy shows what is left to being a woman in philosophy once the normativity of stereotypes is neutralized, and why a no-gender perspective should not be equated to a no-difference perspective.

31Finally, I would like to emphasize that various interconnected aspects of our Perfect Storm are traceable to the usual underlying problems concerning the body, reproduction, and early development that all the various human cultures have to tackle and for which they all provide conceptual and practical organizations of varying degrees of specificity. This contrasts with a widespread tendency not to see the body when discussing matters of gender. Indeed, bodies sometimes disappear behind genders and voices. On other occasions, they are equated with the more societal-cultural stuff of which genders are made (for example, when it is claimed that they are as much socially constructed as subjects and genders). Sometimes they are just forgotten about. Antony, for example, speaks of “women who act like men”, correctly remarking that they are not thereby perceived or treated like men. According to her, this remark is consistent with her Perfect Storm approach, while the Different Voices approach could not predict the difference in reception. Her line of reasoning assumes that it is actually possible for women to “act like men”. But it is no coincidence that those women are not perceived or treated as men, because insofar as body and (non-metaphorical) voice can be recognized as female, there will be always some difference in what is done. One might say that this is a mere question of substance, of the material resources which a subject-agent draws on, while the form of the actions is identical. But it is not a substance you can stop perceiving: on the contrary, its perception, and its markedness for a sex (through various aspects of self-presentation), are of symbolic importance. Whatever a woman does, then, her performance will never be exactly the same as that of a man, and people’s reception of it will vary accordingly. This common weakness of various feminist approaches suggests to me once more that the subject’s embodiment is still a topic to be discussed in philosophy, hopefully by women or at least with the involvement of women.

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2 Beebee and Saul (2011) found that the proportion of women among full time permanent philosophy faculty in the UK was 24 percent. Brownstein and Saul (2016, 3) report that in 2011, the corresponding proportion in the US was estimated to be 16,6 percent. It appears that in the UK and in the US, more girls than boys abandon studies in philosophy “at the point of first easy exit”, so that the percentage of women in the discipline drops significantly (Di Bella et al. 2016, 283). See also Bishop et al. (2013).

3 Url last accessed 5/12/2016.

4 Italian regulations divide University research and teaching into officially listed Academic Disciplines (“Settori Scientifico-Disciplinari”): every academic position must belong to one of these. Academic Disciplines, in turn, are grouped in 14 Scientific Areas. The Academic Disciplines pertaining to Philosophy belong to the area of Historical, Philosophical, Educational and Psychological Disciplines.

5 The Italian academic world has structural peculiarities. The posts of Ricercatore Universitario (now no longer available) are covered by people who were at the beginning of their careers when recruited, but then failed to progress to professor, in many cases due to structural lack of opportunities. The proportion of women in these positions is – rather revealingly – higher (and in the case of scientific subject areas like Biology or Chemistry, much higher) than among professors or among the newly instituted tenure-track researchers (who are to progress to 2nd level professors after three years provided they have obtained the newly instituted National Habilitation and get a positive evaluation from their university). To obtain a sensible comparison with UK and US, I do not consider RU positions in the data supplied in this article. However, the proportion of women who are professors, RUs and tenure-track researchers is 54.23 percent in Classics, Literatures and History of Art; 16.23 percent in Industrial and Electronic Engineering; 33,53 percent in Mathematics (9th among the 14 subject areas), where women in RU positions reach 43.36 percent; and 29.81 percent in the sub-area of philosophical disciplines.

6 I am thinking of the Aristotelian distinction between “theoretical virtues” and “practical virtues” (the former are rated higher than the latter).

7 The connection of dichotomous thinking with sexism and social conservatism has been highlighted by Jay 1981. See also Gatens 1991.

8 This theme is highlighted in recent research by Sarah Jane Leslie (Leslie 2008; forthcoming). See also Antony’s comments on Leslie in Antony (2016, 186-188).

9 Not everybody at the time understood that the point of the practice was to promote autonomous agency, rather than perfect harmony among participants.

10 For the effects of overestimating one’s objectivity, Saul (2013, 43-44) refers to Uhlmann and Cohen (2007).

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Notizia bibliografica

Marina Sbisà, « Diving into the Perfect Storm », Rivista di estetica, 64 | 2017, 134-150.

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Marina Sbisà, « Diving into the Perfect Storm », Rivista di estetica [Online], 64 | 2017, online dal 01 aprile 2017, consultato il 19 agosto 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/estetica.2073

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