The more prominent men are, the more prominent men are, and I’ve done the maths to prove it

Some graduate students in philosophy at University College London told me this week that Philosophy Bites had just put out a podcast compiling philosophers’ nominations, from previous Philosophy Bites podcasts, of who they thought was the most impressive philosopher they had met. There were load grumblings from these students about how there were hardly any women put forward. So I listened to the podcast, typing fingers at the ready, making a list of who was interviewed, and whom they put forward.

There were 47 people asked, of whom 9 were women, making 19% women.

Some people cheated and put forward more than one name of the ‘most impressive philosopher’ they had met, making 71 names in all. There were quite a few overlaps. But counting the number of times a male name was nominated, there were 66 times; female, 5 times. That makes 7% female nominations. In case anyone squabbles with this way of doing the maths, there were 39 separate individuals nominated, of whom 4 were women. That makes about 10%.

To recap: 19% of those interviewed were women; 7% of ‘impressive’ names put forward by total count were women; 10% of ‘impressive’ individuals put forward were women. So, comparing percentage of women interviewed to percentage of women nominated, by the ‘total count’ method, the women disappear at a rate of about 64%; by the ‘separate individuals count’ method, they still disappear by almost 50%.

It’s even more interesting when you look at how men and women nominate. Of the 9 women asked, they nominated 11 individuals in total, of whom 3 were women, which is 27.27%; 3 women nominated one woman, which is 33.3%.

Yet of the 38 men, 60 nominations were made in total, of which 2 were women, which is a pathetically low 3.3%; 2 of the 38 men suggested a woman, which is still only a measly 5.26%.

The women were 6.3 times more likely than the men to put forward at least one female name.

The women were 8.26 times more likely than the men to suggest a female name.

Oh dearie me. Men. What were you thinking of.

So, this might be one illustration of how successive filtering means that certain groups tend to get to the top and tend to get more and more exposure, and certain groups tend not to get to the top and tend to get less and less exposure. You have to be pretty successful to get to do a Philosophy Bites podcast in the first place, and a paltry 19% of women interviewees is nothing to boast to any equal opps committee about. Then, ask a question about who is even more successful than the list of average Philosophy Bites interviewees, and those people who are already pretty selective, will select down further still – it’s staggering how much less likely a man was to say he was impressed by a woman (5.26%) than a woman was to say she was impressed by a man (7 out of 9, or about 78%). Come on guys!

To be fair, perhaps it’s partly the question. I mean, is it a good idea to ask who ‘the’ most impressive philosopher you’ve ever met is? Is there one way of being impressed with someone, even as a philosopher, let alone as a teacher, a writer, a person? I am not at all sure that tunnelling our admiration of other people into narrow assessment of those who are already, by and large, fully in the academic limelight, can do any good and look, I’ve done some stats to suggest that it might even do a tincy wincy bit of harm, by further entrenching the relative invisibility of female philosophers.

So, to address the balance, and in thanks to the two female philosophers who taught me, I will now rave about each of them.

Jennifer Hornsby, what a gift to have arrived at Corpus Christi College to do the BPhil and to find you there. I had come as a very nervous and very shy young woman from an undergraduate degree at Keele, where I had had some truly excellent teachers, some of whom were however jolly scary. I was always somewhat scared of your intellect, but never of you. You were always such a lovely human being. You gave my work such careful attention. You really made me think in class, really stretched me, and I tried as hard as I could to be as good as you were. You were an inspiration.

Rosalind Hursthouse, you took me on for a term for my DPhil when David Pears was overseas, and how much I thoroughly and immensely enjoyed philosophy with you. What wild luck to get on the bus out to your house and to sit and drink tea all afternoon out of a giant thermos flask with you. We had such fun. You introduced me to new texts, you laughed, you made jokes, and most of all, did all this with such consummate openness and generosity of intellect and spirit it made me feel for all the world as if I might be able to join in philosophy and to do it, just the same as you. You made me feel like an intellectual partner. Thank you, thank you.

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