Stifled Voices: Women in Philosophy Through the Eyes of Fiona Jenkins

The Philosopher’s Stoned

In this regular column, Anthony Merlino seeks to capture the unique perspective of a different ANU philosopher each fortnight. In doing so, the column will act as a bridge between the School of Philosophy and the ANU student body.

France. November 1949. Bookshelves are filled with copies of Simone de Beauvoir’s renowned, yet provocative, treatise: The Second Sex. In many ways, the release of this text represents a landmark moment in feminist history. Beneath the ripple effects, however, lie more imperceptible currents of inequality. These tides still guide contemporary philosophy. Associate Professor Fiona Jenkins attempts to chart the interactions between these underlying currents in her current philosophical endeavours.

A report released by the Australasian Association of Philosophy in 2008 – Improving the Participation of Women in the Philosophy Profession – revealed the surface manifestation of many undercurrents that pervade philosophy. The report highlighted that women constitute over 50 per cent of the enrolments in first year philosophy courses. However, women at that time represented less than 10 per cent of professorial appointments. This anomaly was ‘a revelation’ for Jenkins. She realised that there can be a large gap between the lived experiences of women and their understanding of sexism. For example, when Jenkins was undertaking doctoral research at the University of Oxford, she did not view her experiences through the lens of gender. Looking back, she realises that ‘very sexist things were going on.’ Ultimately, the report shed light on various substructures underpinning philosophy.

After finishing her PhD, Jenkins held a teaching job at the University of Essex. She then accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Sydney. Following this, she moved to the Australian National University. During this journey, Jenkins became aware of the drastically unequal representation of women in philosophy departments. For Jenkins, the report united these experiences under one banner. A philosophical conundrum emerged from this realisation: Why do other humanities disciplines have a more equitable representation of women? In this way, the report was an impetus for Jenkins to begin investigating the underlying currents of sexism in philosophy.

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It is 2008. Internationally renowned philosopher Sally Haslanger pens an article from her office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this piece – Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy-Not by Reason (Alone) – Haslanger asserts her indignation towards the contemporary landscape of philosophy: ‘There is a deep well of rage inside me … [rage] about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy’. Five years later, Jenkins channelled this sense of outrage whilst co-editing the book, Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? When curating this text, Jenkins assembled prominent voices in the field. As a result, the text presents state-of-the-art arguments that collectively capture a wide range of feminist philosophical issues.

Most pointedly, the book confirms that the underrepresentation of women in philosophy is an undisputed statistical reality. The book incorporates data from nearly every Anglophone country with major philosophy departments. Above all, the findings demonstrate that women are underrepresented in philosophy on an international level. Interestingly, gender representation in philosophy has been extensively documented for several decades. As such, it has been clear ‘for a long time’ that philosophy underrepresents women. Still, change remains ‘very slow’. Reform occurs as progressive ideas, on the surface, slowly infiltrate the conventional structures resting beneath them.

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The renowned author, George Eliot, expressed philosophically charged musings about the status of women in her celebrated novel, Middlemarch. In a similar fashion, Jenkins identifies that the guiding forces of philosophy are intertwined with cultural, social and political spheres. In particular, class dynamics and racial factors compound underrepresentation. Still, these structures are also maintained through a self-legitimising academic culture. As Jenkins observes, philosophers are ‘surprisingly uncritical’ of the methods used to form judgments in disciplinary spaces. In her research, she examines how philosophical practices become cemented as ‘mainstream’. From this point, she seeks to propagate new understandings of women in philosophical contexts. As part of this, Jenkins targets one underlying structure – the ‘legitimating fictions’ used to justify inequitable situations.

One of the fictions currently targeted by Jenkins is ‘meritocracy’. To do this, she has been conducting ethnographic research from Michele Lamont’s peer review of grant applications. Through this, Jenkins highlights disparities on research boards between the empirical understanding of how decisions are reached and an idealised understanding of the deliberative process. One of Lamont’s interesting findings is how widely criteria of ‘excellence’ differ between people of diverse disciplinary backgrounds. This complicates the idea that there are rationally vindicable criteria for establishing rankings of research projects. Similar arguments can be applied to intra-disciplinary differences across sub-fields of philosophy. Ultimately, this can be used to question the ‘meritocratic’ rationales of a wide range of selection processes within the philosophical domain.

Evidently, women in philosophy face insidious barriers as a concomitant of these legitimating fictions. Jenkins contends that obvious sexist assumptions and practices in philosophy can be directly confronted. However, elusive barriers are more difficult to target. Some of these barriers include academic assumptions about ‘the real value of the discipline’. For example, the School of Philosophy ‘has a very high ranking for excellence as well as having been an overwhelmingly male-dominated department for a long time’. This has shaped the work that ‘is seen as the School’s brand on the world stage’. This gives a gendered basis to decision-making in a context where the research areas of men and women tend to be different. As a result, the masculine lineage remains strong even as women start to be hired into these areas. Philosophy is not alone in this respect. Jenkins’ current collaborative research project, Gendered Excellence in the Social Sciences, finds similar issues in disciplines such as political science and economics, where a powerful ‘malestream’ defines excellence.

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When attempting to foster a more inclusive environment in philosophy, Jenkins believes that academic departments need different approaches to engage women from varying backgrounds. Academic leaders should consider multiple dimensions of identity ‘as far as they can’. One example is the construction of a diverse curriculum. Next semester, Jenkins will teach a course titled What is Humanity? In this course she hopes to engage with feminist discussions on how humanity has equated with maleness, the distinction between humans and animals, as well as racist discourses of humanity. In Jenkins view, disciplinary spaces need to account for diverse manifestations of identity. Incorporating these considerations is challenging. Therefore, educators may need to employ an overarching group of methods that can filter into the categories delineating women.

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Evidently, the underlying currents that guide philosophy uniquely affect each individual. For many, these tides erect disproportionate barriers. Despite change occurring, women remain limited by the institutional structures imposed upon them. To surmount these barriers, Jenkins prescribes obstinate determination. In her view, institutional constraints provide individuals with the opportunity to ‘step sideways and decide not to be limited’ by systemic injustices. An ability to elude these obstacles is a mark of philosophical virtue.

These various underlying tides have become entangled with Fiona Jenkins’ philosophical ventures. Currently, she seeks to observe the complex interaction between these currents. As philosophers endeavour into undiscovered regions, the work of Associate Professor Fiona Jenkins will help dismantle the complex mechanisms that have stifled the voices of women philosophers.  A more potent exchange of ideas will ensue.