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UNC department of philosophy works on gender inclusivity

Senior Writer

While some philosophy departments nationwide are wracked with scandal and gender issues, UNC is working to ensure inclusivity.

More than 650 people have signed a petition to the American Philosophical Association requesting a code of conduct for philosophy professors, following a string of sexual harassment accusations against professors at universities such as Northwestern University and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“Twenty years ago this stuff would have been swept under the rug,” said UNC graduate student Jennifer Kling. “There is a cultural problem in the department — but it’s in the process of changing.”

The field faces a longstanding problem of gender representation, and philosophers want to understand why.

“Philosophy has historically been the domain of middle-upper class white men,” Kling said. “We have very few women and few persons of color in the profession.”

About 23 percent of tenure-track faculty in philosophy departments nationwide are women, according to the association’s Committee on the Status of Women. UNC has more female philosophy professors and an equal number of men and women pursuing graduate degrees.

“No other department in the top 30 or 40 has anything remotely like that,” said philosophy chairman Marc Lange.

UNC faces problems at the undergraduate level, where the majority of philosophy majors are male.

The department will host a workshop in April to focus on ways to attract and retain undergraduate female majors.

It will feature philosophers, students, psychologists who have studied implicit bias, and a UNC physics professor who worked to increase female representation, said philosophy professor Mariska Leunissen.

Many have theories on why women are underrepresented. Some say being a minority might deter women.

“It is true that when you walk into a room with only white men and you’re not white or not male there’s a certain exclusion,” Leunissen said.

Kling said at conferences she has felt like people expect her to speak for all women.

“That can be threatening. That’s going to make me quiet,” Kling said.

Others point to the combative environment of philosophy debate as unappealing.

“There’s a sense in which philosophy is perceived as aggressive. We debate and discuss a lot, and those discussions are pretty hardcore,” Leunissen said.

The lack of female philosophers on syllabi could also discourage engagement.

“It’s hard to come in as a woman or person of color and think, ‘I’m not reading anyone like me,’” Kling said.

UNC added more women to course syllabi in an attempt to attract women, Lange said.

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Professor Susan Wolf said the climate of philosophy is different than it was 30 years ago.

“The women who were successful, a generation above me, were really tough women,” she said. “They wouldn’t dress in a way that called attention, wouldn’t talk about family — most didn’t have children.”

She said although the numbers aren’t even, women in philosophy today don’t need to fit a male mold.

Sophomore Sophia Catanoso declared her major in philosophy because she was interested in it, and didn’t know she was in a minority until after.

“When I tell people I’m a philosophy major they think it’s crazy,” she said. “But I don’t know why there aren’t more.”