Archive for the ‘Sexism and Gendered Norms’ Category

At Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in as Prime Minister of Canada on November 4, 2015 he was asked by a reporter why he thought it was important to have a cabinet that is 50% women. His answer was simply to say, “Because it’s 2015,” and then give a shrug.

But, just as The Beaverton (Canada’s premiere satirical news website) predicted “50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet.” (Click here if you prefer serious discussions to satire).

For example, here are some comments posted to Miss Representation’s Facebook post discussing the new cabinet:

Good to see but interesting. Tick a box for equal gender representation rather than appoint the best person (ie qualification, knowledge, experience, ability to value add etc) for the role. It is quite possible there could have been 30/30 women in the Canadian cabinet if the most appropriate persons were appointed as ministers to serve their country. Gender discrimination ended years ago, Every employer appoints the best person for the role. Are Canadians being properly served here ?

Good to see but interesting. Tick a box for equal gender representation rather than appoint the best person (ie qualification, knowledge, experience, ability to value add etc) for the role. It is quite possible there could have been 30/30 women in the Canadian cabinet if the most appropriate persons were appointed as ministers to serve their country. Gender discrimination ended years ago, Every employer appoints the best person for the role. Are Canadians being properly served here ?

This comment compares government to private business “employers” but I think there is a significant difference between government and business, namely our system of government is representative, and so there might be a stronger case to be made that those who hold important positions within government offices should be representative of the population they are meant to, you know, represent.

Whereas private businesses have no mandate to represent any one in particular (except, perhaps, the shareholders), the government is created for the express purpose of representing the people. The two cases are not analogous, and I think a stronger case could be made to say that the government has an obligation to be representative of the demographics of the country.

if women only make up 20 or 30% of the MP's... why do they get 50 % of cabinet posts? Male discrimination!!!!

if women only make up 20 or 30% of the MP’s… why do they get 50 % of cabinet posts? Male discrimination!!!!

Here is the second thing that I think is interesting about the merit and representation discussion. First, I think it is revealing what kinds of representation gets focused on. In both of these comments (and the one below) it is gender-representation that is called into question. The argument seems to be that we don’t need a cabinet with a gender-distribution that represents and reflects the general gender-distribution of the Canadian population, and if we did try for such a cabinet we would thereby be sacrificing quality.

What I find interesting about this type of argument is not what is said, but rather what is not said. For example, Trudeau also tried to create a cabinet that had representation from across the Canadian provinces and territories in proportions that are roughly proportional to the populations in each. But we do not hear that this kind of quota-based representation is going to undermine merit. Nor do we hear that it is unfair because there is only 1 MP from Nunavut so it seems an over-representation to have any one from Nunavut in the Cabinet.

So why might it be that when we are talking about trying to create a cabinet with a gender-distribution that represents the gender-distribution of the country some people suddenly raise a number of concerns about the merit of the ministers selected. In contrast, when the Prime Minister tries to create a cabinet with a regional-distribution that represents the regional-distribution of the country (even when this means that some regions will be over-represented with respect to the population distribution of that region) we do not hear concerns about the merit of those found in the different regions. Why is there the difference in response based on different kinds of quota-based representation? I think the difference shows that there is a presumption that women lack qualifications, but there is not a presumption that there is a lack of qualifications attached to the different regions of Canada in which a minister might live.

I think The Beaverton article is funny, but I do take issue with the use of “guys” in the title of the article, because women are just as likely to be biased against women’s merits as are men (the implicit bias test at Harvard demonstrates that sexism against women is not limited to men, but also affects judgements made by women about other women’s merits). To show that I think women can be sexist, too, here is a comment by a woman from the Miss representation thread:

 It sounds like Trudeau is a politician with life experience. I'm a bit iffy about gender representation having to be 50/50, and still believe in the best person for the job. Surely making it 50/50 is reverse discrimination? For example, if a male applies for a job and is more outstandingly suitable than any other applicant, but the company must employ a female to balance genders in the workplace, this doesn't seem like the company is achieving the best outcome. This goes vice versa of course. I think gender equality should be mandatory, but is in danger of going too far to appease the new female voice which sometimes seems to demand 'over-equality' to catch up for the years of ignorance. Have I stirred the pot?

It sounds like Trudeau is a politician with life experience. I’m a bit iffy about gender representation having to be 50/50, and still believe in the best person for the job. Surely making it 50/50 is reverse discrimination? For example, if a male applies for a job and is more outstandingly suitable than any other applicant, but the company must employ a female to balance genders in the workplace, this doesn’t seem like the company is achieving the best outcome. This goes vice versa of course. I think gender equality should be mandatory, but is in danger of going too far to appease the new female voice which sometimes seems to demand ‘over-equality’ to catch up for the years of ignorance. Have I stirred the pot?

In any case, even if we are only looking at these alleged concerns about the “merit” of the ministers chosen for the cabinet from the perspective of argument analysis we already have reason to think that bias against women’s merit and leadership is at work because of the uneven way the concerns are mobilized against gender, but not regional, representation. And that is before you even look at the evidence: the women Trudeau chose have considerable merit and expertise for the portfolios they will be responsible for. Each of the previous links has a serious analysis, but to keep with the Facebook analysis:


Merit, representation, bias.

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There is a recently published article on Scientific American, “Are Men the Weaker Sex?” This article has been getting a good deal of attention in my Facebook feed. From the article:

Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species. These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers (Source)

I agree with many of the things in this article, but I find it a little hard to read. It seems to be doing something similar to what Emily Martin identifies in “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Gender Roles.”

The article is full of normative comparisons of non-normative developmental events. For example, it says that the male foetal development is “more complicated” and that

In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples).

Fair enough that ‘female’ is default, but does that necessarily imply “simpler?” Sure males have nipples as a result of vestigial similarities, but also (according to Elisabeth Lloyd) women have clitorises and orgasms as a developmental vestige of male reproductive function.

The article states:

The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate.

But is that empirically true that the male reproductive tract is “more complex”? Each seems to have their own unique complexities.

The whole thing kind of strikes me as a bit creepy. Can’t we acknowledge differences without trying to rank them as “more complex, “more advanced,” “simpler,” or “more basic?”

In fact, women and men evolve at the exact same rate. That is what sexual recombination is all about. One is not more simple or more basic and the other more complex or more advanced. This seems all kinds of distorted.

I am emphatically not saying that we should not look at particular vulnerabilities that men might face. I think we should. In addition, we should also look at particular vulnerabilities that women might face. I just don’t see why in doing so we have to rank these differences.

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Why are there so few women in philosophy? Maybe it is the content of the philosophical cannon, which is incredibly sexist, rather than merely the result of women’s delicate, empathetic minds, or the sexual aggressiveness of male philosophy professors. Maybe it’s not just the climate of philosophy, but also its content.

When discussions of women in philosophy are raised, the issue often turns to the ‘climate’ in which philosophy is taught (rampant sexual harassment, philosophers in positions of power who are not punished for harassing female students, etc.), or to the inadequacies of women as philosophers (lack of interest is abstract theory, unwillingness to engage in ‘aggressive’ debates, etc.). In short, these explanations tend to come in at the level of student preferences and weaknesses or teachers who make the climate inhospitable to women.

For example, from the 2009 version of this debate:

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level. (The New York Times Ideas Blog “A Dearth of Women Philosophers”)

Another discussion focused on women’s inadequacy for philosophical discussion from The Philosopher’s Magazine also from 2009:

…Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge whose theory of mind characterises male minds as “systemising” (driven to analyse or construct systems) and female minds as empathising. “Philosophy is, as you know, the pursuit of logic and the analysis of concepts as logical systems,” he told me. “It therefore requires ‘systemising’ and all areas of systemising (mathss, computer science, physics, engineering, etc) show this male bias.” However he stresses that biological and cultural factors can both play a role in developing these empathising and systemising traits. (Brooke Lewis “Where are all the Women?“)

There are hundreds of examples of sexual harassment, gender-based dismissal, and other issues at the blog What is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? The New York Times 2013 series on women in philosophy from the Stone floats a number of hypotheses (see end of this post for a brief summary of each). But all of these explanations focus on the ‘climate’ of philosophy departments and ignore the content of the cannon itself.

The Content of Philosophy

One thing that I think is sometimes overlooked in these discussions is an examination of what philosophers said about women. It was often very unkind and uncharitable (to put it mildly).

When I was an undergrad, studying ethics, I would *constantly* read things in which my gender was trashed by “the Great thinkers” such as Kant, Aristotle, Hegel, Rousseau and Plato. These passages were often part of the assigned readings, but were rarely discussed in class as though ignoring them would make them disappear or as though such sexism had no bearing on the credibility (and often stark hierarchies) built into their ethics. These passages were salient to me, but in class they were totally ignored.

It can be very demoralizing to read (and then re-read for understanding, and then re-read again for tests and essays) passages that reduce your gender to their reproductive function, and then reduce the reproductive contribution of your gender to something on par with a “flower pot” (Plato), or to hear that women provide the material cause while men provide the formal cause, with the latter treated as clearly more important (Aristotle), especially when the writers clearly think that women don’t contribute much other than reproduction. (So women are only good for reproduction, and our contribution to reproduction is not even that important!)

It is demoralizing to read “Great moral theorists” write that women are so delicate and emotional/irrational that they cannot be serious moral agents (let alone grasp difficult moral philosophy!) and should be confined to “passive citizenship” in which they are protected by the “active citizens” i.e. white, propertied, men (Kant). When one is then asked to write an essay where at least one of these views has to be defended against the others the process of writing the paper can be an assault on one’s self-respect (you mean I have to defend the view of someone who treats me like that???).

I coped with this issue during my undergrad by seeking out feminist reinterpretations, criticisms and discussions of these works. This helped me retain self-respect while doing the work required for a philosophy BA. None of these feminist works were included on the syllabus, however. This meant that doing a BA in philosophy was a lot more work for me than it would have been for many of my male peers who did not have to seek external sources to maintain self-respect in the face of blatant misogyny.

Feminist Philosophy is “Not Real” Philosophy

To make matters worse, even today, feminist philosophies are not considered “real philosophy” by many philosophers (including many female philosophers). Having the opportunity to take a course in feminist philosophies is often the first time that female students will have the chance to criticize and examine these racist, gendered and misogynistic things that have been said about women and non-Europeans. It is often the first time female students will read predominantly female authors, and it can make it seem like philosophy is “for” people like them after all. Reading criticisms of gendered concepts, gender hierarchies, and arguments about how a philosopher’s misogynistic views might, in fact, affect the content of his theory (rather than being merely peripheral) can be validating for those students who suspected as much when they were doing the original reading of the cannon.

When I have taught or TAed for feminist philosophy classes in the past, I have had a number of students express this kind of thing to me. Many women have written in their reviews of the class that it was the first time the read about “First Nations philosophies” or “Women’s views” or “African American philosophies” in a way that represented these views respectfully (rather than, say, talking about how women are not rational which comes up a lot in the history of philosophy). But classes in feminist philosophy are almost never required courses to complete a philosophy degree because they are not considered “core courses” for the discipline. Some departments don’t even offer any courses in feminist philosophy at all.


The result is that women and minorities are explicitly maligned and denigrated in the content of what we teach. Rarely is this denigration and disrespect raised in the context of ‘core’ philosophy courses (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, ancient philosophy, the rationalists and the empiricists). Instead this sexism and racism is treated as though it were peripheral to the philosopher’s main view. Feminist philosophy and philosophy of race do raise criticisms of the gendered and racialized concepts philosophers have relied on in creating their theories, but these criticisms are themselves treated as peripheral and marginalized within the discipline as it is taught today.

Why are there so few women in philosophy? Possibly because we read texts that explicitly state that women can’t do philosophy. Professors rarely address these statements. And the sub-fields of philosophy that do address and probe these sexist and racist views are themselves treated as peripheral and marginal to the core of the discipline.


I started writing this post in 2010 when I read a blog post on Playtonic Dialogues, “Where my Philosophy Girls At?” I left a version of this comment at Playtonic Dialogues‘ post “What it is like to be a woman in philosophy.” At that time, there was a flurry of interest in the lack of women in philosophy. I never published this post, because I intended to improve it first.

Now, once again, the issue of women in philosophy is being raised, in part as a result of recent sexual harassment allegations in the field. The New York Times’ Opinionator Blog, ‘The Stone’ has recently completed a five-part series on women in philosophy (links and a brief description of each blog post are at the bottom of this post). So once again, this topic seems timely. That is why I am publishing it now.

Link Round-Up below the Fold


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For valentine’s day, I thought I would post something about preventing spousal violence.

Earlier this year, a Justice Canada federal study was released, which details the incidents and costs of spousal violence. There are some interesting findings from the study. For one thing, the study estimates that the costs of spousal violence are very high: an estimated 7.4 billion per year in Canada (and this is said to be a deliberately conservative estimate). The costs include things like legal bills, emergency room visits, lost wages due to time off from injuries, the costs of personal safety measures such as paying for call display to identify stalking spouses, and possible moving expenses to escape the spouse.

Here is the findings on the incidence of spousal violence as reported by The Toronto Star:

Drawing on a Canada-wide police database, researchers found almost 50,000 cases of spousal violence reported to police that year, more than 80 per cent of them involving female victims. The cases included 65 homicides, 49 of them women. (Source: Beeby)

Here is the break-down of the costs associated with spousal violence by gender:

Altogether, total costs were conservatively estimated at $4.8 billion for female victims and $2.6 billion for male victims. (Source: Beeby)

I think that is interesting. Note that according to the study, 80% of the victims of spousal violence are women and 20% are men, but violence committed against men accounts for 35% of the costs associated with spousal violence. The Star article does not describe why the costs are higher for men than for women. If I had to guess I would say that the higher costs are likely associated with the wage gap, since men earn more than women on average, their time away from work would be more expensive. But that is just a guess. Perhaps the issue is that men have more disposable income on average than women do, and so men spend more on their own protection than women do. Beeby mentions that the study found that 80% of the costs of violence are born by the victim themselves (the remainder is born by public services and employers). I am not sure what else might account for the difference.

So this study shows that shelters save money. But they also save lives. It is interesting to note, however, that shelters tend to save men’s lives more than women’s lives:

Let us look at the statistics and see who is murdering whom. Going back to the 1970s we learn that the domestic homicide rates in the U.S. were about the same for men and for women, around 1,000 such killings per year.

Coming to today, the latest figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide a comparison of intimate homicide rates for 2005 compared with 1976. Here is the official breakdown for 2005: 329 males and 1,181 females were killed in that year by their intimate partners. Clearly men are much more likely to kill their partners than women are to kill theirs. We know from other research that same-sex homicide is predominantly male, a fact of some significance in the statistical breakdown because some of the male intimate homicide victims are not killed by women at all but by their male partners.

Returning to the discrepancy between the decline in the rates of female-on-male domestic homicide and the male-on-female rates, Statistics Canada (1998, 2005, 2010), and other Canadian sources reveal the same trend has occurred in Canada since the years that the women’s movement took shape. For the year 2009, for example, three times as many Canadian women were killed by spouses and ex-spouses as were men.

So what is the explanation for this striking decline in women killing their partners? Researchers including myself attribute the decline to the fact that women who often killed out of fear for their lives now had an alternative avenue of escape thanks to the availability of women’s hot lines and domestic violence services, including shelters. (Keep in mind that women who kill their partners are generally battered women, whereas men who kill are often striking out due to a break-up or threatened break-up.)

“Exposure reduction theory” is the term coined by Wells and DeLeon-Granados in a 2004 article to explain this phenomenon of the significant decline in male homicides by their partners. This theory holds that if a woman can escape from a dangerous battering situation, she will do so, and that if she resorts to using lethal partner violence, it is most likely a protective mechanism. In any case, it is a paradox, rarely realized that the proliferation of domestic violence prevention for which women and victims’ advocates have fought so hard is saving the lives of battering men more than of battered women. Many of the female victims who obtain help from domestic violence services are eventually stalked and killed. (Source: van Wormer)

Shelters provide women a way of escaping violent relationships, and this is more likely to save their male partner’s life than to save the woman’s own life. Clearly, we still need to be doing more for women, but what exactly? Would men’s shelters help reduce homicide of female partners? Van Wormer’s article is not as clear on that. She does suggest that stresses like job loss might increase the rate at which men kill their partners:

So we can conclude that socio-economic status is clearly a correlate of the male-on-female killings. In contrast, the economic factor is less striking in the female-on-male intimate homicide rates. We should also consider the fact that the recent rise in the numbers of murder-suicides and whole family slaughters is correlated with the high unemployment rates for men. (Source: van Wormer)

So shelters clearly help, and if job loss is correlated with spousal homicides by men, shelters should continue to be funded during times of recession. It is great that shelters save men’s lives, but we still have work to do thinking about how we can reduce the rate of women who die at the hands of their intimate partners.

Link Round-Up

Dean Beeby “Spousal violence costs Canadians billions, study findsThe Toronto Star. December 24, 2012.

Katherine van Wormer “Women’s Shelters and Domestic Violence Services Save the Lives of Men,” Psychology Today. December 11, 2010.

Katherine van Wormer “Reducing the Risk of Domestic Homicide” Social Work Today. Vol. 9 No. 1 P. 18. January/February 2009.

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Today I remember Geneviève Bergeron, 21; Hélène Colgan, 23; Nathalie Croteau, 23; Barbara Daigneault, 22; Anne-Marie Edward, 21; Maud Haviernick, 29; Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31; Maryse Leclair, 23; Annie St.-Arneault, 23; Michèle Richard, 21; Maryse Laganière, 25; Anne-Marie Lemay, 22; Sonia Pelletier, 28; Annie Turcotte, 21. They died because they were women. Who dared to study engineering.

This day marks the anniversary of the murders in 1989 of these 14 young women at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal.

December 6 by Evalyn Parry:

Lyrics and Links below the fold


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In any given news cycle there is likely to be a story about someone who said something or told some joke that is described as “offending” some persons. Earlier this summer there was the “rape joke” told by Daniel Tosh. This week Pam Palmater wrote about a racist joke in an Royal Canadian Legion newsletter.

Usually after such occasions the person or organization issues an apology “for offendingthe group or individual in question (or in the case Palmater describes, fails to apologize at all since “only one” person was offended).

I'm Sorry

I’m Sorry

In fact, this response is so common that Wikipedia even has an entry on it titled “The Non-Apology.” The Wikipedia article focus mainly on the apology as lacking the requisite contrition or admission that something was wrong. I think that is right, but I also want to focus on something else: the “I’m sorry I offended you” line misses one important target group for the apology.

You see, I am not so worried about those who were “offended.” Sure, it sucks to have to live in a culture that is basically a mine field waiting to explode with “humour” that reinforces one’s lesser status. But at least those who were offended recognize what was wrong with the statement. I am also worried (perhaps more worried) about those who were not offended.  As Palmater writes:

 Racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada is so ingrained that some in society can’t even identify it when they see it. (Source)

Those in the group who were not offended are the ones who really concern me because they are so blind to racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. that they were not even able to be offended by the alleged humour. So in addition to apologizing to those groups who were “offended” by the racist/sexist/etc. “joke” I think there should also be an apology to those who were not offended.

Perhaps something along the lines of:

I am sorry my hackneyed attempt at humour reinforced ideas of racial (gender, class, etc.) superiority among those who were not offended by the alleged “joke.” I am sorry that what I said perpetuated and reinforced your privileged blindness to the racism (sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc.) so prevalent in this society…

Because in addition to hurting those who are offended and reinforcing their lesser status in a given culture, such “jokes” also have the harmful effect of reinforcing arrogance and ignorance among those who failed to see what was wrong with the “offensive” “joke” in the first place.


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This is amazing:

What I find particularly interesting about this video is the way in which Sir Michael Parkinson cannot seem to get off the topic of Helen Mirren’s body. In fact, though her body is not that voluptuous and she is not dressed in a particularly revealing way.

One of the best/worst parts happens 1:33 when Parkinsons says “You are ‘in quotes’ a serious actress.” Mirren calls him on it. Then he asks if her equipment will hinder her pursuit of becoming a serious actress. She makes him spell out what he is trying to hint at. It is marvelous.

Basically, Parkinson’s argument amounts to the idea that there are no serious actresses because all actresses will have breasts. But Mirren won’t let him get away with it.

Parkinson is just so condescending and Mirren manages to make him look like a fool. It is great. She has such poise and even though he is being rather vulgar she manages to keep her composure.


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