Standing up to Socrates: Philosophy major invites more women to the table

October 8th 2013 | Mary Ellen Gabriel
Arts & Humanities, Students
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When Macy Salzberger joined the Socratic Society, an undergraduate club for University of Wisconsin-Madison students interested in discussing philosophy, she was hoping to find like-minded friends eager to engage with her on complex topics: contemporary ethics, the nature of consciousness, and more.

What she found, instead, was a fierce style of argument—and hardly any women.

“People were yelling and banging on the table to make their points,” she says. “It was basically a free-for-all.”

What Salzberger was experiencing was the “dialectic,” or method of argument philosophers use to resolve a disagreement between two or more people holding different points of view. The Greek philosopher Socrates introduced the method in the fifth century BC, encouraging his fellow Athenians to question the defense of one point of view, by vigorously eliminating the points in its favor. Over the centuries, the method has become much more combative.

[caption id="attachment_13411" align="alignleft" width="275"]Socrates teaching Perikles and others Socrates teaching Perikles and others[/caption]

As a first-year student, Salzberger (who is now a senior) often found herself drowned out at meetings.

“The environment felt hostile, and often I was the only girl in the room,” she says.

Salzberger decided to do something about that. She asked for advice from two professors whom she thought of as mentors: Claudia Card and Harry Brighouse.

“Basically, their feedback was, invite more women, and be intentional about it,” she says.

Salzberger found this simple strategy remarkably effective. With targeted invitations and encouragement to speak loudly and often, more women began showing up for the weekly meetings.

“I told women that I understood the problem, but that it was possible to balance out the combative tone if more of us came. The women who started coming were intentional, as well. They shared that goal.”

Salzberger, majoring in philosophy, is now serving her second term as president of the Socratic Society, an important discussion forum for undergraduate philosophy majors. Through her leadership, the club (which meets every Friday at 7 p.m. in Memorial Union) has sharpened its focus and seen an uptick in attendance — including more women.

[caption id="attachment_13427" align="alignright" width="159"]Philosophy Department Chair Russ Shafer-Landau Shafer-Landau[/caption]

“Macy has been an outstanding leader,” says Philosophy Department Chair Russ Shafer-Landau. “It’s absolutely vital that we enfranchise all who want to participate in philosophical discussion, and Macy's efforts have been exemplary in this regard."

Women are underrepresented in philosophy, comprising less than 20 percent of full-time faculty in the field (making the discipline an ‘outlier’ within the humanities, as reported by NPR’s Tania Lombrozo).

Does the fierce dialectic play a role?

In last month’s New York Times essay series on women in philosophy, women say they can handle the diatribes – but that more insidious problems, like implicit bias and stereotype threat, keep numbers low.

A recent study supported by the Society for Philosophy and Psychology revealed that women participated less in class discussions and felt they had less in common with “typical” philosophy majors and their instructors.

Dealing with these issues drove Salzberger to organize a panel on the status of women in philosophy in spring 2013.

“I had been reading more about why women are less represented in philosophy,” she says. “One article documented the “tapering effect,”which shows that even though a lot of women tend to major in philosophy as undergrads, there are a lot fewer in grad school and even less in faculty positions.”

The four guests on the panel (Professor Harry Brighouse and Assistant Professor Sarah Paul, as well as former graduate students Gina Schouten and Jeff Behrends), addressed two key factors contributing to this phenomenon: lack of women on the syllabus and lack of female mentors.

[caption id="attachment_13421" align="alignright" width="156"]Professor Harry Brighouse Brighouse[/caption]

“Insights arose from this panel,” says Brighouse. “It is easy for people to think this is a male discipline. But there are subtle things to ask. In my classroom: am I alert to women’s hands? Do I call on the men more? Am I equally encouraging to the women? That requires you to look much harder at your practice.”

And, while research shows that fierce debate doesn’t turn women away, Brighouse says, “there is a degree of aggression. Philosophers don't act in ways that others might see as polite.”

Adjusting the heat from “boil” to “simmer” would go a long way toward improving the climate for all undergraduates, he says.

Salzberger says the panel crystallized her sense of her own potential.

“I know I changed, after the panel,” she says. “We’ve had two meetings of the Socratic Society since then. My whole approach is very intentional and I am much more forceful in my role as discussion moderator.”

Brighouse points out that what Salzberger did to shift the dynamic in the Socratic Society is a great example of what can be done in the field.

“We should not just accept what seems apparent on the surface, but learn what can be adjusted or changed,” he says.