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Elon students & faculty research gender gap in philosophy classes

Supported by a grant from the Diversity Infusion Project through Elon's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, three seniors and three professors are trying to answer why women show less interest in taking philosophy courses or pursuing philosophy as a major.

From left: Sean Wilson '16, Associate Professor Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Claire Lockard '16, Helen Meskhidze '16, Professor Ann Cahill and Associate Professor Nim Batchelor.

By Sarah Collins ‘18

Visit nearly any introductory philosophy course at Elon, and you’ll find a classroom containing an equal number of men and women, yet women comprise barely a third of philosophy majors on campus. Compared to men in those same philosophy classes, women also show far less interest in taking a second course afterward - their lack of interest in a major itself notwithstanding.

A team of Elon students and professors in the Department of Philosophy want to know why, and their ongoing research is funded through a Diversity Infusion Project grant from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.

Early findings from senior philosophy majors Claire Lockard, Helen Meskhidze and Sean Wilson - and faculty members Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Ann Cahill and Nim Batchelor -  suggest that the gender gap in philosophy majors is not caused by happenings within the classroom. Rather, the research team found that women enter the university with preconceived notions that dissuade them from pursing philosophy.

After surveying nearly 1,500 students last year, researchers discovered both men and women find philosophy courses equally interesting despite women pursuing philosophy as a major, or even enrolling in additional classes, at rates far lower than men.

“It’s more an issue of getting non-male students into the room in the first place,” Lockard said.

With these findings in mind, the team has begun to consider how to promote philosophy among female students on Elon’s campus.

Possibilities include new marketing efforts to prospective students, meeting with faculty in other disciplines to help them accurately portray the study of philosophy, and modifying course offerings that may better appeal to women while monitoring the effects of those changes.

The research team has already presented its work at the 2014 meeting of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and a 2015 conference jointly organized by “Hypatia” and the American Philosophical Association’s Committee for the Status of Women. It is preparing results to send out to journals next spring, including sending the work for inclusion in “Teaching Philosophy” and “Feminist Philosophy Quarterly.”

“We’ve found that women are more likely to take ethics courses than theories of knowledge or critical thinking,” Bloch-Schulman said. “That will have an effect on the classes we offer, because we want to offer classes that draw women in the first place and have them come back for more.”

He also emphasized the importance of promoting an accurate understanding of philosophy across campus. “Any faculty who are teaching philosophy at Elon can have an impact on the way philosophy is perceived on campus,” Bloch-Schulman said. “We need to highlight that philosophy is a field fundamentally shaped by women.”

The Department of Philosophy reports that several students each year choose to pair philosophy with another concentration as a second major. “Philosophy teaches analytic tools that can easily be adapted to other disciplines,” Meskhidze said.

Philosophy also helps students understand difficult questions and find meaning in their own lives, according to the team.

“Being a part of the philosophy department means understanding what it is to live a rich human life rather than a career-driven life,” Batchelor said. 


Eric Townsend,
11/6/2015 9:00 AM