‘People think of philosophers as stereotypically a dead white man, or old white man with a beard,’ says Heather Demerest, who notes that Descartes was more than such a caricature
One reason female students of philosophy are under-represented is they don’t see a lot of philosophers who seem to be like them, and professional philosophers can take steps to reverse the trend, a University of Colorado Boulder philosopher has found.
“They always talk about this leaky transition, from about 50-50 (men and women) in introductory course to about 30 percent (women in advanced courses),” said Heather Demarest, who joined the philosophy department as an assistant professor this fall.
At the University of Oklahoma, she implemented a study of undergraduates “to see if I could find any attitudes that correlated with that transition.”
Demarest, a Boulder native and CU Boulder graduate, published these findings while a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma in the July edition of Analysis, along with several graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher at OU.
Her team found that the participation rate of women in philosophy was indeed affected by students feeling dissimilar to professional philosophers, perhaps even their instructors.
“Women who do not feel similar to professional philosophers, and who do not enjoy thinking about philosophy, are not likely to go on to take additional courses,” the paper states.
“Instructors who care about the retention of women should do what they can to show their women students how they are similar to professional philosophers and to make thinking about philosophical issues and puzzles more enjoyable.”
Demarest said that the statement, “I feel similar to the kinds of people who become philosophers,” was a strong predictor of whether women would choose to continue in philosophy. It was also a predictor for men, though with slightly less significance.
There were also fewer women in the study who agreed with the statement at the end of an introductory semester, compared to the beginning, though those numbers did not quite reach statistical significance.
Instructors who care about the retention of women should do what they can to show their women students how they are similar to professional philosophers and to make thinking about philosophical issues and puzzles more enjoyable.”
Such findings are also found in analyses of women continuing in Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, she said. Interestingly, changing the perspective of women could begin even before there are significant changes in the gender makeup of department faculty—nationally women only account for 17 to 24 percent of full-time faculty positions in philosophy.
“People think of philosophers as stereotypically a dead white man, or old white man with a beard,” Demarest said. “But few people present Descartes as a devout Catholic, or as a father who loved his daughter, or as someone who liked to sleep in until noon. Nobody teaches it, and many students are left without anything to relate to, thinking of Descartes only as an abstract thinker.”
“If we present some non-typical information about the authors, that could go a long way to changing the make-up of the major,” she continued. “There are a lot of different strategies for making women feel more at home in this field,” such as examining current events in philosophical context.
Demarest knows something about feeling a bit out of place in university courses, having majored in both philosophy and physics as a CU Boulder undergraduate (she was summa cum laude in both).
“I did find I was only the only woman, or one of only a few women, in class a number of times,” she said. “I don’t think I had a single female professor in physics.”
But while she might have felt out of place in terms of instructors and fellow students, Demarest said, feeling at home with the material was never a problem. “I was always so passionate about the subject matter — I knew that was what I wanted,” she said.
Demarest specializes in philosophy of science, metaphysics and philosophy of physics and will be teaching courses in metaphysics, philosophy and science, critical thinking and writing, the philosophy of physics, introduction to philosophy and an honors course in scientific method.
Demarest was well aware of the sexual harassment issues that preceded her hiring at CU Boulder, and hopes her presence helps women overcome any lingering fear about participating in philosophy courses.
“This is a big problem in philosophy, and not just at CU — it exists across the discipline,” she said. “For me, it’s always been important not to be discouraged by some bad actors.”
And as a woman immersed in physics and philosophy, as well as a mother of three small children in a family that does not own a car, Demarest seems to present the kind of example she wants to use in her introductory courses.
“I think most people in philosophy do want to see more women in philosophy,” Demarest said. “My research suggests there are a lot of small changes that could add up to a big difference in the attitude of women when it comes to continuing in philosophy.”