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"Philosophy is for posh white boys with trust funds".

A report by the Equality Challenge Unit in 2015 showed that over 70% of employed philosophers in the UK are white men. Of course, other countries might be a paradise of equality or this exchange might me. I suspect that this is not so.

I put my hand up to being a white man, no longer a boy, and devoid of trust fund. In my view, philosophy does not reflect the voices of women or minorities. This is of great practical consequence for our society, and for the future of philosophy as a discipline.

So how can this be remedied?

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    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 7:51
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    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 13:20
  • The question is not focused enough to receive a canonical answer. It could be broken into these questions: 1. What would it mean for philosophy to be “male-dominated”? 2. Is philosophy male-dominated? (Why or why not?) 3. If philosophy is male-dominated, should that be remedied? How so? Why / why not? Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 16:50

11 Answers 11

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Success in philosophy is largely down to saying things that other people agree with. Your work cannot simply speak for itself: it has to be accepted by others. There are substantial commonalities in life experience within certain demographic groups, and substantial differences between demographic groups, which affects:

  • How likely a reader is to understand a writer's background.
  • How much value people just assume a work has,1 based on how it's written.

This means, among other things, that some men can get away with producing incomprehensible claptrap, calling it philosophy, and being lauded for centuries, whereas some women (e.g. Simone de Beauvoir) don't get to be called philosophers until well after their deaths (in spite of their actual contributions).

I could go on.

  • Much philosophy is not communicated via essays; heck, most of the philosophy I'm familiar with was done entirely outside the academic philosophical tradition, and it seems to be completely ignored by mainstream academic philosophy. (Socrates warned about this; nowadays, we quote Socrates (via Plato).)
  • Many philosophers pay attention to what goes on outside their fields, and remark upon it, but that doesn't seem to be discussed in what little literature I've read. (Notable exception: a myriad-dozen weird distorted conceptions of quantum theory, that are apparently taken seriously by other philosophers!) There's lots of philosophy happening based on assumptions that we've known are wrong for decades, but criticising it doesn't get you respect.
  • Work that is recorded in primary sources as being due to women is still, unaccountably, attributed to men.
  • etcetera

But, while these things all feel very related to me – indeed, the self-same issue! –, I don't think I'll be able to explain that to this audience. (Some of you will get it from what I've written, and some of you will not: I encourage discussion, because many explanations are better than one.)


As for how to remedy this? Physician, heal thyself.

If two groups see the world differently, the criticism experienced by any individual member of the smaller group grows as the square of the ratio between the population sizes. (Note: I cannot find the obvious reference for this, and it's a really good explanation!) Add to that the tendency for the majority group to feel more comfortable expressing their opinions, and… well. Minority voices might as well not exist.

So: if you think you're a member of a majority group, consider scaling your contributions back a bit – or a lot: prefer fewer, high-quality contributions over many middling-quality ones. Paradoxically2, this can actually increase overall activity in a community! There's a similar effect – received wisdom in moderator circles – where removing those who are behaving badly towards others (even in the extreme where they're more prolific than everyone else combined!) significantly and measurably increases overall activity.

The idea also seems common enough in hiring circles:

A toxic person can easily ruin many people. Even if they are somehow the absolute best, say giving them a score of 100%. They just need to reduce each person they meet by 1%, then go meet 100 people in your company, and then his entire value is gone. It's not that hard for a toxic person to reduce someone else's performance by more than 1%, and also to meet more than 100 people in a decent sized company. — Nelson 2023-11-30 01:37:41Z

Also consider: Friends, we are not philosophers. I've noticed that certain people here on Academia Stack Exchange are actively rewarded for posting their own, largely-unsupported musings, and can even put their meta commentary on the main site – while other people get punished for such rule-breaking. It seems to have to do with how "academic" the authors sound. If you ask me, this doesn't seem like it's helping.3 (The attitude's not exclusive to this site, but we can at least avoid contributing to the problem.)

And please please please look for previous work to cite before you post that answer. Your thoughts are not as original as you think they are. At the very least check SEP.

  • It's well-known that women are more likely to give credit for others' work. (See Workplace sex composition and appreciation at work by Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne for recent research, though this has been folk wisdom for a long time. HGLEM's written about it a few times on Workplace.) People tend to implicitly assume that others behave like them: with the implicit assumption that uncredited work is original comes the perception that a community is more elite than it actually is. I'd expect this to inhibit contributions from non-expert women moreso than non-expert men.
  • The whole point of this site is to discuss philosophy: answers are much more useful if they reference other discussions, rather than just give a single point of view (yours) and leave it at that.
  • Referencing existing works helps expose those works to a wider audience, and makes discussions of the ideas more accessible to those who aren't already part of the in-crowd. The only way we can solve this problem is new blood.

1: Passive acceptance of a work without seeing any obvious merit, because "it's probably worthwhile", is the biggest factor in much of academia. Only some people get afforded that privilege, and review blinding only goes so far. (The philosophy-specific equivalent is probably seeing certain works as being worthy of rebuttal, while others aren't.)

2: Of course, it's not paradoxical at all. But I know my audience.

3: Yes, I know. Good spot. Now look for this elsewhere.

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How can this be remedied? https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/ is a positive example in the Petri dish.

At least, stackExchange gives the same opportunity to be heard to everyone as long as he/she utters in English language a clear question or a clear answer resp. comment from the field of philosophy. That’s made possible due to the following principles:

  • Access to the platform is independent from sex, gender, age, colour, country, etc.
  • The participation is anonymous, each participant may choose an arbitrary identification, which hides his/her personality and background.
  • The group, or at least its maiority decides about acceptance or rejection of the contribution.
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    Due to this site being English-language, we can't really say it's country-independent, either. And (as I've argued in my answer) philosophy is written from your own background, so you can't really participate independently of that.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 21:48
  • @wizzwizz4 Considering English is currently Lingua Franca for the western world, it will have to suffice. Sometimes 'close enough ' is the best you can hope for.
    – Mast
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 18:37
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I'll throw my ten gallon hat in to the ring. Looking at where people don't go is as important as looking at where they do. Looking at why people avoid something is as important as looking at why they move towards it.

Much of people's tendencies are set by puberty, based on how they were treated and what they observed. They are smart enough to pick areas (when they have a choice) where they might be successful. The research on this was by Piaget and those who came after him.

So, people's choices tell us about their environment more than about themselves. There used to be a saying, "Children learn what they live." As a child I didn't understand it, but I was learning nonetheless. Pick up a child from one area and put them down somewhere else and a lot will change. This is what is meant by 'Privilege', another idea it took me a long time to understand. The juggernaut reference to that idea is the book "Caste". Don't die without reading it.

We should really look at this question differently: why on earth would someone go in to Philosophy? I thought it was pointless when I took my 4th course in college. It isn't much use to someone interested in 'practical' things. Who is interested in impractical things? What does that say about them?

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I can give a practical answer based on some real-world data (although it certainly wasn't a scientific sampling). About 15 years ago, I was in an graduate-level academic philosophy program, and I actually had a number of female classmates. Every single one of them was from an all-female undergraduate program (all different ones). After talking to them about this, they self-reported that the difference in an all-female program versus a gender-integrated program was that in the gender-integrated program, they tended to be systematically undervalued and passed over by their professors.

There's also a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect, in as much as much of the historical work of female philosophers has been suppressed, lost, appropriated or misattributed--thus each new generation has to be a generation of pioneers. The book Whistling Vivaldi offers a good summary of scientific research that shows how self-fulfilling prophecies work. People who are stereotyped as not being able to do something perform measurably worse on that task, in ways that can be shown to directly relate to the stereotype (rather than to innate capacity). One example is how women have traditionally performed significantly worse in math in America, but not in China. The reason is because China doesn't have the gender stereotypes about math that America does.

So what's the solution?: In an analogous situation, switching to the now-nearly-universal practice of having musicians audition for orchestras behind a screen (so the judge could not see them) increased the success of women candidates by a significant amount. Maybe if grad school applications didn't have gender and race indicators, a more diverse group of students might be admitted. And rediscovering and publicizing the work of women philosophers (https://unbound.com/books/philosopher-queens) might help combat the stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies. With all that said, however, is academic philosophy really such a prize of a career? It's one of the best possible foundations for nearly anything else, but as an end to itself...?

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Yes, philosophy is male dominated. There might be several reasons for that. Traditional male chauvinism is one. The manner in which the philosophical canon is established and taught in academia (by men, who tend to forget or disregard the contributions of women) is IMO a big part of the problem: female philosophers, and writers and scientists in general, tend to get forgotten, erased from academic memory. Even those who were well known and popular in their days aren't remembered much. Hence the current effort to open up the canon, beyond dead white bearded males.

Who studies Simone Weill today? Who here have read the work of Hannah Arendt or Mary Midgley?

I wish to think that another reason is that there is much too much nonsense in academic philosophy for women to bear. Men are more suited for purely theoretical nonsense than women, in my (perhaps sexist) view. Men are easily fascinated by bizarre mental experiments, meaningless grand visions, absurdist claims and logical eccentricities. There's a form of escapism there, a flight from dull reality into delirium. In my experience, women tend to be non-plussed by the speculative or escapist tendencies in modern philosophy. My wife is a case in point.

Midgley vs Dawkins is another. He writes obscure, pretentious absurdities that sound deep, and while she did a very good job at debunking him with her luminous, witty and down-to-earth prose and arguments, Dawkins the charlatan remains the star and hardly anyone pays any attention to Midgley the serious scholar.

Because she wasn't as bewildering, as quaint and entertaining as he. She makes way too much sense.

Added: BTW, Mary Midgley was pretty explicit about being in Oxford in the 40's as a female student of philosophy:

During Midgley’s time in Oxford from 1938 onwards at Somerville College, she formed intellectually stimulating friendships with a group of other remarkable future philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch, all of whom joined Oxford in the years 1937-1939. Asked why so many brilliant female philosophers all began appearing at Oxford during the Second World War, Midgley said that “the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then.” [they were fighting the war]. In particular, Midgley describes how their small wartime classes involved men and women who were “all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.” (implying that the reverse was the case before the war with classes full of boys) Source

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Regrettably many aspects of society are male or female dominated. Jordan Peterson will tell you that proves there are inherent psychological differences between men and women. I cannot follow his reasoning, believing instead that the differences are at least in part due to the fact that girls and boys from birth are bombarded with inputs that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. If you buy your sons Meccano sets and your daughters dolls, don't be surprised if they grow up with different inclinations.

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I have already accepted an answer to my question. But I think that I can add a few helpful points. Lack of historical attribution to women is a major factor. In science, for example, Ada Lovelace has recently been recognised as major contributor to computer science. However, most sciences are now close to parity, as is medicine. So, I think that the perceived lack of utility of philosophy is a factor here. In my question, I also referred to minorities and deprived groups. Philosophy is generally perceived as an elite white activity. So, I think that the usual remedies to address inequality will be necessary but insufficient. Philosophy must address its own place in society.

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Preface

I know little about formal positions in fields of philosophy, or even what such people do at work. I know even less about positions in the UK. But I do know a thing or two about how life, humanity, and cultures work. And I've spent a great deal of time doing my own studies of philosophical issues and coming to my own conclusions based on a vast array of real-life challenges to various traditional, and new, philosophies.

In that time, I've run across many men and women who fancy themselves good at philosophy. Most of them aren't, even when they have advanced degrees in the subject. They're not, generally, stupid, but they aren't pushing the boundaries of the human experience either.

I have never noticed any particular trends in men versus women being good at philosophy. Men tend to be louder and more opinionated, but that doesn't make them more right or more wrong; just more heard.

So this isn't an answer to whether "philosophy" in general or in the UK particularly is "male dominated". I don't know. And really don't care.

This is a very partial answer to "why?", presuming the premise is true to begin with.

I mostly got tired of staring at Linux hypervisor partitions and ran across this question, so I just pounded out an answer without a lot of double-checking. Hopefully it's reasonably coherent, but don't expect a lot of feedback from me right now.

Summary

Men tend to be more represented in positions like philosophy because they represent power and authority, and traditional philosophies are based on these concepts.

Many of the traditions we have are based in genetic differences between the sexes that are important, if not critical, to our survival as a species, but haven't caught up to modern technology and sensibilities.

It's possible there are genetic reasons why women, as a whole, are worse at, or less interested in, philosophy than men. And it's very likely there are cultural factors negatively influencing women even if the genetic factors are minimal or non-existent.

It's largely impossible at this point to say with any certainty how much of these types of differences are at all related to male/female dimorphism except indirectly through aspects of society and psychology affected by strength, or traditional understanding of strength.

Since we're not really sure why women are less represented than men in this field, it's difficult to say whether there's anything to remedy, let alone what the remedy is.

But the general solution here is simply time: the more technology bridges the gap between male and female capacity to work, the closer we'll get to any genetic differences dominating the cultural issues, and career fields simply stabilizing around natural tendencies.

Similarly, the more time passes with hiring practices being based on merit, rather than stereotyping presumptions of merit, the more the stereotypes will be dispelled and representation will reflect actual differences in merit, if any.

Of course, this does depend on our current culture cooling down from the ultra-"feminist" standard permeating media and politics, so it's not driving a giant wedge down the aisle between ultra traditionalists who want all women back in the kitchen and the ultra "progressive" crowd who seems to think men should be relegated to non-existence out of some sense that modern women are owed something by modern men because other women were sometimes oppressed by other men in the past.

There will never be anything that resembles equality as long as everyone one has "half the human race is undeserving trash" shoved down our throats, trying to pit us against each other, instead of working sanely together.

Why Groups are Different

There are naturally going to be three reasons why group X is more or less prevalent than group Y in a given context.

  1. Group X is better or worse at the task.
  2. Group X is more or less motivated to do the task.
  3. Society presumes (1) or (2) is true and pressures group X to put more or less effort into doing the task.

For some things, men are clearly better, because those tasks are largely based in physical strength, and men are something like 50-100% stronger than women, depending on the task and what particular dataset you want to pull from. So standards will based around what men can do, and relatively few women will be able to keep up. Naturally, that industry will be "male-dominated".

The place women clearly excel, being energy efficient, isn't particularly useful in modern society where food isn't all that scarce, so you're not likely to see a huge difference here.

So then you're left with all the places where smaller differences might matter. But there's a problem: we really don't know what those differences are.

The Curse of Dimensionality, Part 1

Yes, we can do studies of a particular group of people. Say, English college students, or Malaysian low-income families. We can confidently say that men or women or tall people or short people are better at A and worse at B and about the same at C.

But what we can't do is clearly determine whether those differences come from nature or culture.

Some History

Back in the day, when we were all hunter-gatherers, men were big, fast and strong. So men did manly things: hunt, fight, and scout. Women did whatever was left: cook, tend the village, etc. Nature was fine with this arrangement because the weaker women also burned far less fuel, so the hunters needed to do less work to feed the group and the warriors needed to spend less time defending the hunters. The populations with this dimorphism succeeded better than those without because division of tasks led to better efficiency.

Then agrarian society came along. Men were still stronger, and still did manly things: build, harvest, and fight. Women still did whatever was left. Nature was still fine with this arrangement. It made sense.

Then came the industrial revolution. We built machines that amplify power. So now, it doesn't matter how many muscles you have when you type on a keyboard, activate forklift control levers, or run equations through Mathematica. Obviously, many career fields to this day rely on strength and stamina, but many do not, or at least don't to the degree they used to.

But the old ways, where strong men did strong things, also encapsulated the idea that men were leaders. Not because men are better leaders, necessarily, but because men were stronger, and the old ways were born out of the "right of might". The strong ruled the weak, because physics.

And society doesn't just turn itself on its head overnight. Tradition works. If it didn't, we wouldn't be here to complain about it. Something else might work too, and might work better, but we don't have any data to go on, because that's not what we traditionally did.

In this case, the tradition is for men to do the kinds of work that put food on the table, to lead companies and countries, and to do the large-scale thinking. Positions of philosophy at a university or high-end company would traditionally fall into all three of these categories, thereby preferring men and tending to ignoring women.

Potential Mental Differences

Because men are genetically engineered by nature to be stronger, faster, and better for fighting and hunting, it stands to reason men would also have been programmed to be more prone to engage in these tasks. Hunters need to switch between watching and chasing in a moment, and warriors need to switch between peace and slaughter in a heartbeat. So it seems natural that men would be more aggressive and more prone to physical conflict.

Similarly, because hunters need to stray far from the village to find prey, and warriors need to scout far from the village to ensure enemy forces aren't preparing to attack, it makes sense for men to be likely to wander and explore.

The weaker people should sensibly stay hidden, away from the fighting, and not spend a lot of time wandering in the wilderness away from safety. So it makes sense that women would be more passive, more timid, and more likely to stay near the safety of home.

Known Similarities Masquerading as Sex Differences

While some mental characteristics are likely related to sex, some traits we might associate with manliness or femininity aren't really programmed into us that way.

It's been shown that weaker men in the presence of stronger men (or at least what is perceived as stronger men) will tend to behave more deviously, attempting to win games through cunning and trickery. While stronger men will tend to be more direct, attempting to win through brute force. This happens even when playing games were strength is irrelevant, such as the board game Stratego, which suggests these tendencies are innate programming rather than rational decision-making.

This mentality of cunning and trickery has long been associated with feminine behavior, but might well be innate to all humans, and simply shows up more with women because women are more likely to be the weaker player in a given game. Sadly, the study I read didn't test women at all, so there wasn't an indication for or against women having the same traits.

Similarly, it's been shown that men who spend a lot of time cuddling babies are more likely to have "feminine" tendencies, like showing a great deal of empathy or spending a great deal of effort trying to nurture positively rather than teaching through negative reinforcement. Some men even start lactating, so I've heard, due to hormone changes.

So, again, we have a case where behavior is a product of context rather than genetics to at least some degree.

The Curse of Dimensionality, Part 2

Okay, so we know that men are strong and women are not, in general. So we should see a male-favoring disparity in strength-based fields. But we should see less disparity in other fields where strength is less relevant, or not relevant at all.

And it stands to reason that men would tend to have certain mental traits that women are less likely to have, and vice versa, because nature has clearly engineered us for two very different purposes. But it's also clearly the case that many differences traditionally associated with the sexes are at least partially caused by cultural norms.

So how do we test this? With great difficulty. Proper science requires repeatable tests with consistent results so we can change one variable at a time and see what effect it has. Then, we have to change another variable a little, then run through all the states of the first variable. Then another and another.

With things like gravity, this isn't terribly difficult. There are only a few variables to consider, so we don't really need to take that many measurements to confirm or refute a theory's validity to reasonable precision. (In the real world, it's tricky to weigh entire planets, so this might not be the best example, but it's still relatively straightforward.)

But human psychology is a cross-section of hundreds, if not millions, of independent variables. And our neural structures are constantly changing, so every single test alters the nature of the test subject, so we can't be terribly sure if different results from test to test are the result of programming differences or the effects from previous tests.

So even basic data about human behavior requires inordinate amounts of data collected across huge numbers of dimensions, just to have reasonable confidence we have a clue what we're talking about. The amount of data points required to understand humans at the same level as elementary school understanding of gravity are literally unobtainable.

The Lack of a Clean Room

The lack of data points, relative to the complexity of the topic, is compounded by the fact that there's no way to control the test subjects in a consistent way. Due to those pesky rules of ethics and morality, we can't steal a bunch of babies and raise them with robots in carefully controlled labs to see how they turn out. We certainly can't do this with millions of babies at a time.

Even if we weren't concerned with morality, the logistics of setting up such an experiment would be nightmarishly difficult, and we'd need to run the experiment many times to iron out all the wrinkles. Clearly, this isn't a realistically attainable goal.

So we're left with guessing at shadows on a wall, cast by the myriad personalities interacting in a complex morass of ancient social duties and modern sensibilities, and nearly everything we do to broach this subject is dubious, at best.

Conclusion

It's possible there are more men than women in philosophy because men are just better at it, and more likely to succeed.

It's possible the issue is that women just don't care, and are therefore less likely to pursue advanced standing or long-term careers in the field.

It's possible the people hiring for positions of philosophy believe women aren't very good at it, so preferentially hire men. It's likewise possible existing philosophers believe this, and tend not to help female coworkers succeed or actively pressure them (directly or indirectly) to quit.

And it's possible some combination of the above is true.

It's almost certain the third option is at least partially true, due to historical bias. And the people who believe women aren't good at "men's jobs" are often the women themselves, meaning traditional values are likely to cause the second option as an accidental side-effect.

And because women tend to doubt themselves, women will tend to do worse at the job. And because others doubt them, women will tend to get less training and feedback. So women will, in practice, tend to be worse at the job, making the first option true by proxy.

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It's tempting just to say yes, and for the same reasons that most of academia, science and other disciplines are male dominated.

But philosophy in particular seems to be hit hard by the disparity and it's more interesting to try and answer this question in a way that doesn't apply to the general trend of things being male dominated.

Why is there so much Phil and so little Sophie?

The first thing that stands out is historical precedence, Philosophy has been male dominated for 2,500 years. That's one hell of a head start. There were female Greek philosophers, but they are both obscure and in a minority. The reasons for the field being male dominated then were more typical, but the fact that it has been this way for so long is important.

Then there's the perception of what a philosopher is. Thanks to the above, it's hard to say the word philosopher without thinking about an ageing Greek guy with a beard. The only well known variable is sexuality, maybe.

This gives us a really persistent stereotype that I think is stronger for philosophy than any other field (except perhaps warlords, religious leaders and messiahs)

Of course, perception that something is male dominated is not the same as it being so, but it will exacerbate it, we know that people are more likely to develop an interest in something if an example has been set by somebody that looks like them.

Something else that is unique to philosophy - is the use of the term 'philosopher'. It's not used in the same way that 'physicist' or 'mathematician' or 'engineer' is used, it has a subjective, elitist meaning, like genius or saint, you're not one unless the rest of the world decides you are (colloquially, at least) and the word isn't popularly associated with very many women.

Again, this is both effect, and continuing cause of the disparity, because the situation is self perpetuating.

So... TL;DR Male dominance is self perpetuating over time and philosophy has had longer than other disciplines to develop this trait.

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  • It could be that with Philosophy being less evidence-based, it is harder for women to overcome the long-term biases and tendencies. Their contributions don't necessarily overturn anything the way they do in, say, CRISPR research.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 15:48
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    Medical doctors have been a male dominated profession for as long as philosophy. I don't believe in what happened 50 or 100 generations ago has any implications today.
    – d-b
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 16:27
  • True, but we don't talk about 'the great doctors' in quite the same way we refer to the Greek philosophers. (Apart from Hippocrates, and the average person thinks he was a philosopher...) Things happening then don't have direct implication today, but as long as they are remembered, especially in popular culture - they go a long way to shaping public perception of philosophy, which contributes to the problem.
    – Cotterzz
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 11:46
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Perhaps they don't like philosophy very much after all. Most women seem - to me - more interested in practical(*), "down to earth" things.

Australian researchers conducted a survey of students in the most popular introductory philosophy class at the University of Sydney. The female students were less likely to pursue philosophy than the men, because they were less interested in the field—from the start.

And to support my last argument, regarding practical(*), "down to earth" things, from another research :

In 2014, women earned 28% of the PhDs in philosophy. By contrast, they earned close to 60% in English, anthropology, and sociology—and 75% in psychology.


(*) practical : of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas; effective in real circumstances; feasible.

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Occam's razor suggest that the answer is that men are better philosophers than women. Simple as that.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits could be one reason to why it is like that.

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    So if we have, say, women showing higher Neuroticism (in the OCEAN research) is that because women or because how women are being treated? "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get ya"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 15:42
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    Think this is a bad interpretation of Ockham's razor. It does not mean "go with the simplest theory", rather "do not multiply entities beyond necessity". Indeed, avoiding generalisation especially when it seems that this imperative, would appear to show that we should multiply entities in finding a different explanation for this phenomenon than the one you have put forward.
    – sket
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 23:32

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