The Collective Lone Battle


My philosophy professor stood at the front of the lecture theatre and announced that we were going to do a class exercise. ‘I am going to write one word on the board’, she said, ‘and in twenty seconds, without giving it thought, I want you to write down whatever comes into your head. Go!’ She turned around and, in bold letters, scrawled the word ‘PHILOSOPHY.’

Old. Man. Beard. Wise. White. Reason. Socrates. Armchair. Unemployment.

My professor asked for our contributions, and we found that everyone had written similar things. I did not raise my hand. I had just become extremely conscious of the fact that I was one of five women in the lecture theatre.

My professor used this exercise as a springboard to talk about the struggles women face in philosophy, as the discipline crowned with the dubious distinction of being the second most male-dominated field in academia. She spoke about unconscious bias, and how ‘stereotype threat’ may impede women’s performance.

Stereotype threat is the anxiety of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group as self-evident. It’s particularly pertinent for women in philosophy, as a discipline which prides itself on its ‘objectivity’ and ‘reason’ – ideals which stand in diametric opposition with negative stereotypes about women as ‘emotional’ and ‘hysterical.’

I relate to this on a profound level. There have been countless times where I have been the only woman at my table in tutorial. I would be struck by some idea that I wanted to share, but before I could open my mouth to do so, had to make sure that my idea was not only relevant, but also novel, insightful and interesting. Inevitably, by the time I had refined my idea and perfected my sentence structure, the conversation had moved on. Women should be seen and not heard. My own silence became deafening to me.

I now understand what was going on in my mind. Consciously or subconsciously, I was painfully aware that I was the only woman at my table, conversing with men about ideas conceived of by men, in a discipline which defines itself by its conceptual exclusion of the ‘emotional’ and ‘the feminine.’ As a token member of my gender, I was terrified that my performance would be taken to represent all women. That’s a big burden to bear.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not confined to philosophy. Stereotype threat may arise wherever stereotypes exist, and they exist everywhere in our society. Boys are good at maths, girls are good at English. Men are better at thinking, women are better at feeling.

Why should we be worried about all this? The problem is that stereotype threat impacts our performance in real ways. In one study, equally qualified women and men were given a maths test. When one group of participants were told that the test had demonstrated gender differences in the past, the women greatly underperformed in relation to their male counterparts. Another group were told that the test had not yielded gender differences, and there was no difference in their test performance (Spencer et al. 1999). Equally qualified men and women, same test, and completely different results depending on whether or not the stereotype about women’s mathematical abilities had been rendered salient. Studies have shown that simply asking women to specify their gender before taking a maths test suffices to prime stereotypes and depress performance.

While underperformance on maths tests may not seem like that much of a big deal in the grand scheme of things, it impacts girls’ life chances in tangible ways. Stereotype threat may cause girls to feel that they don’t belong in maths classes, leading them to ‘disidentify’ and drop it on the basis of self-esteem. Because maths may constitute a pre-requisite for certain university degrees, this may deter women from applying for engineering, science or computer courses.

It’s not much of a leap to see how this process of socialisation contributes to inequality. While women made up 48 percent of the US workforce in 2009, they made up just 24 percent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs. This matters, because research shows that women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than their counterparts in non-STEM fields. The segregation of women into low-paid occupations has been shown to contribute to the persistence of the gender pay gap. This all sounds dark and dire and indeed, it would be glib to underestimate the power of stereotypes in defining our choices and, by extension, our opportunities. The truth is, we are all diminished by a system which attempts to define and confine us.

So what can we do? We can actively encourage girls to continue with maths and science, just as we should encourage boys to continue with English and social sciences. We can seek out examples of positive role models who have defied gender essentialism to become who they most want to be. And, most importantly, we can tackle the problem at its source, empowering students and adults alike with the tools of gender literacy – for knowing the power of stereotypes constitutes the necessary first step towards their transcendence.

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