Why (presumably) there are no famous female philosophers

There was a time, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when humanities degrees (think history, English or philosophy) were dominated by women. Then something happened.


The chart above tracks the percentage of males and females that received humanties Bachelor’s degrees since the late-1940s.  There was a peak (for both genders) near the 1970s, but then it bottomed out during the 1980s.  There are many possible explanations for this, including how the Reagan-era recession resulted in students being more ‘career-oriented’ during college, and selecting majors that, to them, were easy pathways to jobs (ironically, history does repeat itself, and we see this happening today).   However, a current Inside Higher Education articles states that the ‘drop in share in humanities majors… comes entirely from women,” which highlighted a debate about the role of gender in the humanities (see here and here), and quite frankly kind of pissed me off.

So look at the chart again, and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  If you look at the chart, right around the 1950s approximately 15% of women majored in the humanities, while somewhere around 7% of men did so.  Now look at the far right-hand side of the chart, and you see that the percentage dropped to approximately 8% for women … and the percentage for men is about the same – or approximately 7%.  Ergo, the drop is ‘entirely’ attributed to women, since there is no change in the percentage for men.

My beef here is the statement does not completely account for the ‘entire’ data set.  Look at the mid-1970s; Women still outnumbered men, but there was a substantial growth for both genders in the field.  And then there was the drop; Both men and women ran from the humanities between 1970 and 1985, and it just so happened that now the percentage of men getting humanities degrees is the same as it was in 1950.  Since 1985, the fluctuations for both genders are almost parallel, and today the percentage of females and males that study humanities are almost equal.  If anything, one could argue that the humanities are un-appealing to both genders.  The fact that the current percentage of males earning humanities degrees today is the same as in the 1950s is spurious.

Why am I on a rant about this?  Because analyzing and interpreting information means providing context for all your data, and explaining the story accurately.  The word entire means ‘no part left out, or whole.’  And the IHE statement does leave out a significant part – all the men that left the humanities since the field’s peak.  Granted, the statement “Entirely from women,” is sexier, or at least grabs your attention and riles people up: Pitching the genders against one another always provokes intrigue.   But the more appropriate description of the trend is “Between 1950s and early-1990s, more women majored in humanities than men, especially during the 1960s when over 20% of females majored in humanities, and less than 15% of males did.  Today, however, we find that less than 10% of either gender receives Bachelor’s in humanities, which has been the case since the 1980s.”  It’s not as pithy, but it is factual, and more representative of what we know to be true.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be intrigued by (or care about) the gender difference when humanities degrees were at their peak.  That is an interesting question, and one that could help revitalize the field.  But it isn’t like every single female walked out of the history department, while all men stood and watched in wonder.  Many men followed the women.