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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Girls, women, and intellectual empowerment

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nickname in law school was “Bitch.” Senator Elizabeth Warren was sanctioned by her GOP colleagues when “nevertheless, she persisted” in her questioning of soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Senator Kamala Harris reminded Vice President Mike Pence “I am speaking, I am speaking,” as he attempted to interrupt and speak over her in a recent vice presidential debate. CNN found it more important to report that two women won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry than to report the names of the women who won it.

Women and intellectual disempowerment

Though we may wish to think it otherwise, women and girls are still routinely silenced and excluded from positions of power, expertise, leadership, and full participation in the public sphere.

Ample empirical evidence supports this claim. In the classroom, girls and young women are regularly silenced. Teacher biases can lead to teachers spending up to two-thirds of their time with male students. Teachers also interrupt girls more frequently and allow boys to speak over them. Students themselves play out these gendered assumptions and normalizations and boys believe girls talk too much, when in fact, boys speak far more often, and more authoritatively, than girls.

On the faculty side, several studies that show men speak more often and for longer amounts of time in faculty meetings. When women do speak more frequently, they are assessed as less competent than their male peers. Sources show that assertive women are considered bitchy, including this study from 2014, which also shows that women are given far more critical feedback from their bosses than their male counterparts. Likewise, a 2017 study of employee management shows that “[m]en who spoke up with ideas were seen as having higher status and were more likely to emerge as leaders. Women did not receive any benefits in status or leader emergence from speaking up.”

The newly coined term, “hepeating,” gets to the experience that professional women often have when hearing their ideas repeated by men—and then valued as they ought to have been in the first place. Other terms come and go in contemporary discourse. “Correctile dysfunction” and “mansplaining” (as well as the spatial corollary, “manspreading”) point to the ways that men are granted authority in terms of knowledge. Furthermore, while many workplaces have indeed seen an increase in “whole binders full of women,” women’s credibility in intellectual realms is clearly still seriously lacking.

This epistemic undermining is ethically harmful to both the individual herself and has broader social/collective consequences. Consider:

  1. On an individual level: When people are undermined specifically in what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls their “capacities as knowers” (Epistemic Injustice 2007), they are prohibited from exercising their full human range of reasoning. If a person lacks confidence in her ability to reason due to structural or identity prejudice, she is ethically harmed as a person. Epistemic conduct (i.e., the habits and characteristics of knowing), then, bears upon an individual’s personal development. Thus, when an individual person is undermined in her capacity as a knower, she is thwarted in her own projects, prohibiting full growth in her ability to cultivate epistemic insights and understand herself specifically as a knower.
  2. On a social level: When people are undermined in their capacities as knowers, everyone suffers. Fewer ideas become available in our collective social imagination; the scope of knowledge itself persists in its gendered stereotypes; problem-solving is weaker and less creative; and even workplaces are less productive and lucrative.

Women and intellectual empowerment

Intellectual empowerment does not mean that a person’s ideas are simply right by virtue of her having them, but it does mean that that person has a right to her ideas—and that her ideas may have positive value. The idea of “empowerment” doesn’t collapse into having opinions validated but instead points to the hard work demanded of intellectual life through continued deliberation, critique, and dialogue. Intellectual empowerment validates a person as a knower, even if or when she makes mistakes. Indeed, we might say that making mistakes is critical in helping a person cultivate her intellectual empowerment, especially in terms of gender schemas that put enormous pressure on girls and women to be “perfect” and not make such mistakes.

There are steps to take both within our discipline of academic philosophy and academia at large to offer correctives to the widespread exclusion of women in the academy. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Refuse to participate in all-male panels. “Congrats, you have an all-male panel!” is a phrase used to raise awareness via social media about conferences that feature only men when speaking about intellectual matters. Academics have begun pledging to not present their work at a conference if the only participants sharing ideas are men.
  • Ensure that a variety of formative assessments, rather than purely summative assessments that rely on memorization and repetition, are given in a classroom. Reinforcing dominant hierarchies of understanding through the “banking method” maintains a male-dominated status quo.
  • Seek out anthologies that include an abundance of women authors and avoid anthologies that exclude women or relegate them to sections on women only, or feminism, for use in your scholarship and in your classes.
  • Cite women in scholarly articles; use “she/her” and “they/them” pronouns when teaching and writing; encourage students to do the same.
  • Provide space for reflection and dialogue about philosophical issues in intentional ways that go beyond typical debate-style interrogations in philosophy in particular and academia at large.
  • Participate in climate studies at universities, gender and racial inequity initiatives, and other service-oriented opportunities.
  • Insist that women should not be responsible for the bulk of the invisible labor (service work for departments, programs, and universities) that keeps them from their research and scholarship.
  • Contribute to anthologies, workshops, journals, and conferences hosted and run by women, especially if you are well-established in your field.

In short, we can all be self-critical and open to learning about harmful behaviors and practices that come from epistemic injustices and take concrete steps to enact change on individual, institutional, and societal levels. Empowering girls and young women intellectually is crucial to the future of the discipline of philosophy, especially in light of crises of the humanities in our time.


Featured image by Margarita Zueva

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