Stereotype Threat in Philosophy

Picture a philosopher. Go ahead, get a good picture in your mind. Do they look something like this? Or maybe this? Chances are that you pictured an older white man, possibly with a beard, maybe a pipe, thinking incomparably deep thoughts about important topics.

And in a lot of ways, you’d be right. (But do check out what lots of philosophers look like here and get yourself a shirt here.) In terms of diversifying the discipline, philosophy lags far behind the other humanities, and behind many sciences. In 2009, when I began a PhD program in philosophy, only about 30% of philosophy PhDs went to women, putting philosophy ahead of only engineering, computer science, and physics in that regard. In the top 50 philosophy departments (by a particular, but commonly used measure of the top 50), about 23% of tenured or tenure track faculty are women. If the numbers on women seem discouraging, you are not going to like the numbers on traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, who accounted for all of 4.74% of PhDs awarded in 2009. About 4.3% of tenured philosophy faculty in the U.S. are Black. There are similar tales to tell about other traditionally underrepresented groups.

Not unrelatedly, philosophy has a bit of a reputation for providing a bad climate for members of these groups. For some first-person experiences, see this, this, this, and this. Some of the departments that have been rocked by scandal are my alma mater, the University of Colorado, Yale University, the University of Miami, and Northwestern University.

Thus, issues of climate and diversity have recently gained a lot of attention in philosophy, with particular attention being paid to the role implicit biases might play in the profession’s climate issues. The strong social associations about what philosophers are like—who they are and are not—affect how we view philosophers who deviate from that norm. For example, subjects are more likely to judge the competence of a philosopher more harshly if they think the philosopher is a young woman than if they think the philosopher is an older man (particularly if they are in a good mood, a phenomenon called a ‘halo effect’). Philosophers have also paid quite a lot of attention to stereotype threat, which occurs when the looming weight of confirming a negative stereotype negatively influences performance.

In the context of philosophy, then, there is a danger not just that others will judge members of underrepresented groups in the discipline more harshly, but that they will actually underperform because of the psychological weight of the distance between their own identity and the norm identity. On this page, I will briefly outline three general epistemic (having to do with knowledge or thinking, broadly construed) disadvantages stereotype threat presents, focusing on their distributive impacts. While these disadvantages apply to all situations in which stereotype threat is in play, they may have particular significance in intellectual contexts, like academic philosophy.

Stereotype threat causes diminished performance.

The most straightforward epistemic disadvantage stereotype threat causes is diminished intellectual performance. It quite straightforwardly causes those affected to do worse than they would or might have in a non-threatening situation. What should concern us most about diminished epistemic performance is how it is distributed. It does not affect people at random in the same way that we might expect general test anxiety to do so. Rather, it disadvantages people who are in socially disfavored groups relative to those in socially favored groups. For these groups, or at least some members of these groups, like women philosophers, philosophers of color, disabled philosophers, etc., the threatening state is the norm rather than the exception (compare these findings in math). Iterated over time, this unjustly distributed performance will tend to reinforce the stereotype, providing what might seem like justification for its existence (i.e., the stereotype that women are ill-suited to philosophy might cause them to perform worse on an exam, then the exam results might seem to confirm the stereotype).

Stereotype threat imposes an interpretive cost on those affected.

Philosophers from underrepresented groups may feel like less is expected of them. They may feel like a token. They may be told they are successful or will be successful because of affirmative action alone. They know, in other words, the stereotypes about their group. They may also know that their performance suffers at times for reasons they cannot explain. A woman who experiences stereotype threat in a philosophy class—but does not know it—may come to understand herself as less able to do philosophy, or less able to do philosophy of a certain type. She may look around and see other people like her struggling in similar ways, but she may lack the resources to explain this data in a way that is helpful or productive. There may be a vague feeling that something does not add up, but an inability to explain it in purportedly-neutral terms.

When Lawrence Summers gave his infamous 2005 speech on the dearth of women in STEM fields (which share a surprising kinship with philosophy in this regard), he presented himself as a reluctant follower of the evidence. But where the evidence leads depends in large part on the conceptual and empirical resources of the community at large. This dearth of explanations that seem supported by evidence puts a burden on those who experience stereotype threat. They have to think that they are not good at math, or taking tests, or that they would just prefer to focus on something else. But this collective conceptual deficit does not equally disadvantage Summers and a woman who experiences stereotype threat. Summers may continue to think of himself as a well-meaning university president who made genuine attempts to understand and counteract a deep social problem but came up short because the truth was not on his side, while those affected are left to think of themselves as less capable.

Stereotype threat constrains options for those affected.

There are at least two ways in which stereotype threat constrains the future options of those who experience it regularly: disqualification and disidentification.

First, disqualification—a person’s intellectual options may be constrained because stereotype threat causes her to fail to meet the qualifications for some intellectual activity that she would otherwise pursue. Disqualification can be direct or indirect. For example, experiencing stereotype threat on the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, or MCAT could result in an otherwise capable applicant being rejected or offered less financial assistance since these tests play a large role in admissions and financial aid decisions. Stereotype threat may also have the effect of depressing grades in classes, meaning that people who experience stereotype threat are likely to have lower GPAs than they might have if they were not experiencing stereotype threat. GPAs, along with test scores, are used to weed applicants out for graduate and professional schools, colleges, and jobs. These effects are likely to build up over a person’s academic career. If a woman experiences stereotype threat in high school, she may get into a lower-ranked college, then a lower-ranked graduate school, and then a less prestigious job. This means that the pressures that create our professional classes, which have a near monopoly on identification with intellectual investigation, are sensitive to stereotypes. This is especially troubling when one considers that stereotype threat is most likely to affect the vanguard—the very best in the domain who are especially eager not to confirm negative stereotypes.

Second, disidentification—a person’s intellectual options may be constrained because stereotype threat causes her to alter her desires or goals such that she stops pursuing some intellectual activity. Since stereotype threat is often the most acute for the vanguard, those who value success most are the most likely to have their performance diminished by threatening conditions. Disidentification is one way of coping with this problem, whether it occurs before one has identified with a domain, or after one has done so and faced stereotype threat. That is, many women may find the prospect of disidentifying with philosophy (or certain sub-areas of philosophy viewed as more dominated by men) a more palatable option than facing the threat of stereotype confirmation. We all want to feel good about ourselves, which involves feeling like we can be successful in some pursuits to which we ascribe meaning and value. If it seems like we will be unable to succeed in some domain, it may be less painful to devalue the domain than to devalue our potential to succeed in that domain. This means members of groups who are traditionally underrepresented in philosophy are likely also disproportionately redefining themselves individually as people to whom these domains do not matter.

Both of these forms of constraint affect who is distributed where within professions and among them, and they may help to explain some of the trends in philosophy and other fields.

For now I have tried to lay out some of the reasons we should be concerned about stereotype threat, especially in intellectual endeavors, and perhaps especially in philosophy. But the news isn’t all bad. The strength of stereotypes may also be their downfall—we, as a community, can counteract them at both implicit and explicit levels. This website aims to be a tool in doing just that.

One thought on “Stereotype Threat in Philosophy

  1. Perhaps we can partner up? Check out our campaign: This Is What We Look Like.
    The This Is What We Look Like Campaign was started by two childhood friends (one of whom is a philosopher) and promotes the presence, awareness, and progress of women in traditionally male dominated fields by filling the web with images of women doing what is usually considered men’s work:


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