What the University of Michigan has been doing about What It’s Like

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m reproducing below my response to the first prompt (“describe your program’s efforts and achievements to support and recognize women in philosophy”) on the survey recently circulated by the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women. I am also appending an editorial comment.

Five years ago, the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan had one woman faculty member. Today, we have six. These six are healthily distributed across academic ranks: two are assistant professors, two associate, and two full (one of whom is Chair). They are also healthily distributed across philosophical sub-disciplines, with research interests that include epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of feminism, ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of law, philosophy of physics, and the history of philosophy. A woman who pursues graduate study at UM thus has a good chance of finding a woman faculty member whose interests overlap with her own.

The gender demographic of our graduate students, particularly the cohort yet to attain candidacy, also makes it likely that a woman graduate student will find other women graduate students with similar interests. Half of our present first-year class are women; the majority of our incoming first-year class are women; in AY 2012-2013, well over 50% of our pre-candidate students will be women. Philosophy remains a disproportionately male field, one in which women are liable to feel isolated as women. We hope that our faculty and graduate student demographics temper that liability.

Every graduate student is assigned a faculty advisor upon matriculating. This formal mentoring is reinforced by mechanisms of informal mentoring, both by faculty and by advanced graduate student. Several of these bring women students and faculty together, for instance, a weekly women’s coffee.

We sustain a variety of programs that enable students (of any gender) to develop curricular and co-curricular interests, including interests that challenge the caricature of a philosopher as an ivory tower intellectual, aloof from contingencies of social context. Two examples of such programs are an interdisciplinary speaker series in feminist science studies and an afterschool philosophy tutoring program, conceived and staffed by graduate students, and set in a Dearborn high school.

The UM ADVANCE program develops and implements instruments for climate assessment, and counsels departments on strategies for improving the climate. The University requires every faculty member serving on a graduate admissions or faculty search committee to participate in an ADVANCE program documenting the impact of implicit biases on evaluations. It also requires periodic departmental climate assessments. Beyond these requirements, the philosophy department initiates work with ADVANCE when we believe it makes sense to do so. In 2009, and in response to a growing sense that climate change might be in order, we solicited an extraordinary climate study. Right now, we are working with ADVANCE to understand why only around 30% of our philosophy majors are women. (This is consistent with national averages, but we would like to do better.)

Climate is adamantly a matter that affects every member of the department. Still, it is not inappropriate here to cite what the most recent (March 2012) climate survey indicated about the departmental climate for women specifically. 100% of the graduate students reporting agreed that “there is a supportive department community for women students” (up from 32% in 2009), and 95% agreed that “the environment is one in which women feel comfortable and included” (up from 34% in 2009).

Editorial comment: Although we are proud of the recent climate survey data, I think it would be a mistake to read the survey numbers to indicate that our climate is perfect. Rather, I take them to be a signal from survey respondents that they’ve noticed that we value healthy climates, and that we’re trying to improve ours. Climates are by nature works in progress, so our improvement efforts are ongoing.
–Laura Ruetsche
Professor and Chair of Philosophy
University of Michigan

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