Participants in this project include:

  • Nim Batchelor, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy, Elon University,
  • Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Elon University,
  • Ann J. Cahill, Professor of Philosophy, Elon University,
  • Claire Lockard, Philosophy Major (’16), Elon University,
  • Helen Meskhidze, Philosophy Major (’16), Elon University,
  • Sean Wilson, Philosophy Major (’16), Elon University,

Hypatia conference panel

On May 28, 2015, this team delivered a presentation at the “Exploring Collaborative Contestations and Diversifying Philosophy” Conference at Villanova University.  This conference was co-sponsored by Hypatia and the APA Committee on the Status of Women.  [see Presentation Slides]

As a supplement to that presentation, we offer the following information:

Resources and Works Cited

Project Goals

The Philosophy Department at Elon has a typical problem in philosophy: we have a gender gap between our introductory classes (which are roughly 50 percent women-enrolled) and our major (which is 33 percent women-enrolled) and this means that many of our classes have significantly fewer women than would come from a random sample of Elon undergraduates. There is also wide-spread concern about the way women are treated in philosophy departments, particularly in the United States; philosophy has an unfortunately well-earned reputation for being unfriendly or hostile to women philosophers and philosophy students. With this in mind, we have come to see our project as having two goals, which we are interested in addressing in order of importance. The ultimate goal is to be a department both where the women who take our classes are well served and where the gender split in our classes, in our major and minor are consistent with the numbers who are undergraduates at Elon, rather than having a gender split that looks like philosophy as a whole. We take this to be not only a practical matter (this would likely increase our enrollment) but also one of justice. We believe that it is essential that we address any problems with the environment in our classes and in our department before we would set out to increase enrollment of women; we would not want to be encouraging students to enter a discipline and department where they are not treated well.

Our Process and Preliminary Findings

Our process began with a literature review of relevant articles in philosophy, in other disciplines that have addressed similar concerns, and more broadly in the scholarship of teaching and learning and in social sciences. The philosophic literature on the subject largely focuses on the problem of gender disparity within the profession, and often highlights the treatment of women who are in graduate school or who are in (or wanting to be in) the profession. In addition, much of the philosophical literature is focused on what we philosophers have done and continue to do that makes philosophy so inhospitable to women (including the way we have structured the cannon to ignore women’s place in our history, the way we have devalued women’s experiences and the insights that come from them and how philosophers as people have treated the people who study with us and work with us).
The prevailing wisdom within the philosophical literature can be summed up in this way: we professional philosophers are the reason for the mistreatment of women in the field, and this mistreatment is the cause of the gender gap within the field. With this in mind, we were particularly sensitive to the dual challenge of increasing our enrollment, but doing so only after addressing any mistreatment women feel within the classroom and in the department (whether it be from explicit or implicit bias, for example).
Along with our continued examination of the relevant literature, we have undertaken three major steps to understand and evaluate the problem(s) we face: 1. we have examined the departmental data to understand the trends over the past ten years, 2. we have done two surveys, a large and long random survey to 1440 students and a second, smaller, shorter survey for students who have enrolled in a philosophy class, and 3. we have conducted three focus groups, one with women who have never taken any philosophy classes, one with women who have only taken one, and one with women who have taken two or more philosophy classes.

Departmental Data

[See Data]

Looking back at enrollment and GPA numbers for the past ten years, we have two important finds, so far. The first is that different courses at the introductory level (this includes our 100 courses, “What Can We Know?” and “How Should We Live?” and our 200 level courses, “Ethical Practice” and “Critical Thinking”) attract different numbers of women, and that different courses have different effects on the number of women who, having taken a class as a first philosophy class, go on to take at least one more philosophy class (this is what we have been calling recidivism). And, lucky for us, we have found that some classes do both: they attract more women and create a higher likelihood that a women who is enrolled will take future philosophy classes. That is, some classes have a higher total yield (which we define as enrollment of women for whom the class is a first philosophy class plus the likelihood that a women in the class will go on to take future philosophy classes. In Table one, we show that, over the past four years (which we use to compare because “How Should We Live?” and “What Can We Know?” were added to the curriculum then), “How Should We Live” both has the highest women-enrollment and the greatest recidivism rate, and thus has the highest total yield of women. The other good news shown in this chart is that “How Should We Live?” not only leads to high women recidivism rates, but it also creates the most recidivism overall, meaning that the total number of re-enrollment for all students who start with a “HSWL” class is the best. This means that, regardless of why it is successful, by increasing the number of “HSWL” classes, we help both our women enrollment and our total enrollment.

We have also found that women both get better grades in philosophy classes compared to men in the same classes and get better grades, relative to their own overall GPA, than do men. We take this to be important piece of evidence that, at least in terms of the grades given, there is not evidence of a bias in our judgment of women students.


1. Large, random survey [See Survey Questions]

In October 2014, we launched an on-line survey to identify some factors that may explain the disproportionately high numbers of men in our philosophy courses. Our survey was emailed to a random sampling of 1444 Elon students.  We received 166 completed surveys; out of that total, 55 respondents had taken a PHL course, and 106 had not taken a PHL course. 115 respondents identified as female, 46 as male, 1 as genderqueer, and 1 respondent preferred not to answer.
We asked the students who had taken PHL courses a series of questions about their experiences in those courses, as well as their general interest in philosophy classes. For those who had not taken PHL courses, we asked a series of questions that attempted to isolate possible motivations for not choosing PHL courses.
Based on the research we have read, we were particularly interested in finding out whether women were more likely to have had negative experiences in the classroom; whether women were more likely to view philosophy courses as unrelated to their academic or career goals; whether women had less interest in philosophical topics; whether women were more likely to approach philosophy with a fixed mindset; and so on. A complete list of the questions we used are provided in Appendix A.
We received assistance from our university’s Institutional Research office in interpreting the results, and we found that there were only 3 questions that resulted in data that showed a statistically significant difference between the responses of those who identify as women and those who identify as men.
Among students who have taken a philosophy course, men and women largely seem to have similar experiences, except that women are less likely to believe that they can do well in philosophy.  This is particularly interesting given that on the whole, women report receiving higher grades (although not to a statistically significant degree) and, given what we have seen from our own look at students’ grades in philosophy classes and overall GPA’s, women both get higher grades then men in philosophy classes and get higher grades in philosophy classes, compared to their overall GPA, than men do.
Among students who have not taken a philosophy course, women are more likely to report that they don’t know enough about philosophy to make a choice about whether to take it, and less likely to report that they are interested in topics addressed in philosophy courses.

Interestingly, we found no statistically significant results that indicated any gendered differences in the following areas:

  • Role of intellectual goals in determining whether to take a philosophy course
  • Role of career goals in determining whether to take a philosophy course
  • Fixed/growth mindset re: philosophy
  • Concerns about the challenge of philosophy courses
  • Concerns about whether philosophy courses are interesting
  • Experience of feeling respected in philosophy courses by profs or students

So what can we conclude from the results of this survey?

We are, on the whole, reassured that there is no data to suggest that women find our philosophy courses less friendly, welcoming, or valued than men do. The gender differences that do exist seem to speak to the effects of pre-existing schema; that is, there seems to be some evidence that women are less confident in their ability to do well in philosophy, and less confident that the topics discussed in philosophy classes will be of interest to them.  Even the gender difference with regard to their pre-existing level of knowledge of philosophy may speak to a cultural association of philosophy with masculinity. We note that there are no gender differences among those students who had taken philosophy courses with regard to whether they perceive philosophy as useful or interesting. Thus, we tentatively conclude that actually taking a philosophy course may serve to ameliorate, at least somewhat, the effects of these pre-existing schema.

Although we have more to do in terms of analyzing this data, our preliminary conclusion is that we need to focus our efforts on counteracting the schema that are resulting in fewer women taking our introductory courses. However, from this survey alone, we do not have a compelling explanation for the gender differences in recidivism rates.

To examine if students come to even their first philosophy classes with a set vision of how much philosophy they will take

2. Small Survey

To get a better idea of why students were enrolling in philosophy classes, and to see if there is a gender difference in the reasons students are enrolling in philosophy classes, we devised a very short survey that was distributed to all philosophy faculty at the beginning of the Spring semester for them to pass along to their students, asking how important different factors were in their choice to enroll in a philosophy class.

We believe that repeating this survey at the beginning of the year, with a larger sample size, would yield better data and might lead to more insight about our challenges.

Focus Groups

[see Focus Group Questions]

Focus Groups
The two undergraduate, female-identified team members held three focus groups with undergraduate women: one for students who had never taken a philosophy class, one for students who had taken one and only one philosophy class, and one for students who had taken at least two philosophy classes. These were conducted late in the Spring 2015 semester. The data was coded and analyzed during the fall of 2015. Our paper describing and analyzing our findings will be published in a forthcoming issue of Feminist Philosophy Quarterly). Below is our abstract from that paper:

This paper is part of a larger project designed to examine and ameliorate the underrepresentation of female-identified students in the philosophy department at Elon University. The larger project involved a variety of research methods, including statistical analysis of extant registration and grade distribution data from our department as well as the administration of multiple surveys. Here, we provide a description and analysis of one aspect of our research: focus groups. We ran three focus groups of female-identified undergraduate students: one group consisted of students who had taken more than one philosophy class, one consisted of students who had taken only one philosophy class, and one consisted of students who had taken no philosophy classes. After analyzing the results of the focus groups, we find evidence that: (1) one philosophy class alone did not cultivate a growth mindset among female-identified students of philosophy, (2) professors have the potential to ameliorate (or reinforce) students’ (mis)perceptions of philosophy; and (3) students who have not taken philosophy are likely to see their manner of thinking as being at odds with that required by philosophy. We conclude by articulating a series of questions worthy of further study. (Lockard et al., forthcoming).

Extended Methodology Section:

“Using Focus Groups to Explore the Underrepresentation of Female-Identified Undergraduate Students in Philosophy”
This is a detailed description of one method undertaken by the Elon University research group investigating the underrepresentation of female-identified students in the philosophy department at Elon University: conducting focus groups. See Lockard et al. 2017 (“Using Focus Groups to Explore the Underrepresentation of Female-Identified Undergraduate Students in Philosophy”) for the complete paper detailing and analyzing the focus groups we conducted. The following is an extended version of the methodology section that may be found in the complete paper.  It is intended as a resource for those in other philosophy departments who want to facilitate their own focus groups.

Our FG methodology was informed by the survey we conducted which was addressed to a random and gender-diverse sample of Elon’s undergraduate student body. The survey data, to our surprise, did not reveal many significant differences in responses between gender groups or any reports of sexism or misogyny. We expected some degree of overt sexism within our department, since this is common in philosophy departments in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia (see the blog “What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?” for first-person reports of outright sexism in the discipline). Our survey data did, however, reveal some statistically significant trends which can be summarized as follows: female-identified students who have taken classes from the Elon philosophy department are less likely to think that they can do well in philosophy when compared to male-identified students who have taken classes from the Elon Philosophy department. Furthermore, when compared to male-identified students who have taken classes from the Elon Philosophy department, female-identified students who haven’t taken philosophy classes at Elon express less interest in the topics covered by philosophy than male-identified students (Cahill et al., in preparation).

Having analyzed these trends, we were interested to see if any new themes – or if any themes we expected to see in the surveys but did not see—would emerge in student-guided conversations with other students. We decided to have our FGs consist of only female-identified students because we were particularly interested in uncovering new insights into their experiences. Moreover, we thought that female-identified students would be more likely to speak candidly and frankly regarding their gendered experiences in a setting that did not include male-identified students or faculty.

It is also crucial to our methodology that we decided to have the two female-identified, undergraduate members of our research team recruit for and facilitate the FGs. The exclusion of the male-identified undergraduate member was premised on the concern that a male-identified researcher might have disrupted the honest conveyance of gendered experiences in the classroom. The exclusion of the faculty members (including one female-identified faculty member) of our research team in this part of our project was also intentional: namely, we felt that FG participants would be more likely to convey forthright opinions about philosophy and our philosophy department with researchers whom they considered as their peers. That is, we were concerned that professor/student power dynamics might disrupt the honest expression of opinions regarding the philosophy department, or of experiences in philosophy classrooms and/or with philosophy professors. Although researcher/participant power dynamics still existed even with FGs conducted by students, we hoped that the researchers’ status as peers might help balance such dynamics, and allow the participants to speak more candidly than they might otherwise. In short, having student-led FGs was intended to give us more honest feedback from students.


With the approval of Elon University’s Institutional Review Board, we began recruiting participants for targeted FGs. Participants of our study were self-identified female undergraduate students attending Elon University. We recruited these students by having two female-identified undergraduate members of our research team ask professors of general education courses for permission to speak to their classes. We estimate that we spoke to 15 classes or between 20 and 33 students over the course of two weeks in order to recruit participants. These classes included students from all levels of undergraduate study. Upon arrival to the classrooms, the two female-identified members of our research team asked the non-female-identified students to exit the room in order to establish a more welcoming, comfortable, and confidential atmosphere for the female-identified students in the classes. We incentivized participation with $10.00 gift cards to a local coffee shop and promised snacks at the FGs themselves. We recruited:

Five female-identified students who had taken more than one philosophy class or were currently taking their second philosophy class at Elon;
Four female-identified students who had taken only one philosophy class or were enrolled in their first philosophy class at Elon; and
Three female-identified students who had not taken a philosophy class and were not currently enrolled in a philosophy class at Elon.
While this is a lower participation rate than we had hoped for, the qualitative nature of this study allowed us to proceed; qualitative studies are intended to highlight participant voices, rather than draw statistically significant conclusions about a population (Gibbs 1997). Of course, it is possible that the samples were skewed—for instance, two students in FG2 were in the same philosophy class and thus may have been more likely to agree with one another’s experiences than if they had not been in the class together. Or students who had more positive experiences with their philosophy course may have been more likely to want to participate in the conversations. We hope to mitigate some of the effects of biased sampling by putting the FG results in conversation with extant departmental and grade data (Batchelor et al., in preparation), the survey results, and the existing literature on the underrepresentation of female-identified students in philosophy.  Each method of research that our department undertook (data mining, surveying, and focus groups) offered an important, though, limited, perspective. We hope that our FGs serve as a sort of corrective for some of those limitations and that the other methods can serve the same purpose for our FGs.


Since we did not have prior experience conducting focus groups, we took several steps to ensure that we would could facilitate them effectively. First, we met with Dr. Kimberly Fath, the assistant director of Elon’s Office of Institutional Assessment. Dr. Fath gave us some general guidelines about effective facilitation and directed us to some sociological literature on how to conduct focus groups. The two facilitators also did a practice focus group with some of our peers, running through the questions we planned to ask, and familiarizing ourselves with the recording equipment. The three undergraduate members of the research team also transcribed some of the conversation and coded that transcription.

The FGs were conducted at a large conference table in an informal meeting room, a space that we hoped would make participants feel comfortable and willing to engage in a critical discussion about their experiences with philosophy. Moreover, we sought to find a relatively “neutral” space, and therefore carried out these discussions outside of the building which houses the philosophy department. One facilitator acted as note taker and one facilitator asked the questions and kept time. The note-taker was to take informal notes about the conversation dynamics, especially noting the body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues of participants. The FGs were audio recorded. Each FG began with an acknowledgement of the recording device and assurance of confidentiality. Afterwards, we set the ground rules for conversation and explained that in certain cases, we might be forced to break confidentiality. The FGs were semi-structured (Longhurst 2003, 103); though we had specific questions to address, casual conversation around these questions was encouraged. Each FG lasted between 45 and 90 minutes.

The FGs began with an introductory activity in which we asked participants to first write down or draw what came to mind when they thought about philosophy, philosophy as a discipline, and philosophers. We asked them to share this information with the group in a short discussion. Next, we engaged them in a “Think-Pair-Share” activity, where participants first respond individually on paper to a set of questions before discussing their responses with another participant. The pair then shares their combined insights with the entire group. This encouraged more reserved participants to speak up and allowed for a sense of safety because it became less clear which of the partners had expressed a given opinion (“Think-Pair-Share” method originally developed in Lyman 1981).
Following the “Think-Pair-Share” activity, we facilitated a large group discussion. Some examples of questions we asked include: What are your perceptions of the philosophy department/majors on campus? How do you think one succeeds in philosophy? How did you see gender dynamics play out in your classroom? We first asked questions we thought could be best answered collaboratively; we then transitioned to questions geared towards students’ individual experiences. While we tried to maintain consistency across groups for comparative purposes, we tailored some questions to specific groups.

Students were aware that we were examining questions of gender and philosophy since we informed participants about the general topic of our research during recruitment. Nevertheless, to minimize the effects of priming, we held off any questions explicitly related to gender until the very end of the FG conversation (for a discussion about how gender priming effects survey results, see Steele and Ambady 2005). Following the large-group discussion, we asked participants to say or write down any final thoughts they had. Finally, they filled out an exit survey with some demographic information.

Data Analysis

To ensure consistency and confidentiality, one facilitator transcribed the audio recordings while the other redacted the transcripts, taking out identifying information about participants. Further, any identifying information about the professors or peers, or were redacted from the transcripts. Additionally, information about specific and identifiable classes was redacted as well (e.g., because we only have one faculty member who teaches the Ancient Philosophy class, any mention of Ancient would be traceable back to that faculty member). To increase the likelihood of confidentiality, the third student researcher on our team (who had not participated in the FGs) was consulted before sharing the redacted transcripts with the entire research team. In order to analyze the data, we used a methodology that is similar to the modified grounded theory approach (as detailed in Charmaz 2014): we used an emergent coding scheme, compared across our three coders for consistency, and developed an interpretive framework for analysis.

We began our coding process by developing analysis questions (which are distinct from the questions we asked during the actual FGs; see the results section for our analysis questions). We then turned to the transcripts, searching for comments made by participants that related to our questions. To make sense of all the comments, we used in vivo coding, a qualitative data analysis technique that allows researchers to use participants’ own voices to develop codes (short descriptions of ideas present in a single data set; in our case, a single FG transcript). Codes capture the way data relates to analysis questions (for a more detailed explanation of coding, see Saldaña 2009). For instance, suppose a student made comment X during the FG. Their comment X would be tagged with code Y, which relates it to analysis question Z. From these codes, we developed categories and themes through an iterative process involving constant comparison of data and discussion with research team members (Glaser 2002). Categories consist of codes that appear within two data sets (two different FG transcripts, in our case) themes consist of codes that appear within all data sets (all three FG transcripts, in our case). These unifying threads enable the researchers to interpret the data.

Two undergraduate members of our research team coded for each question in each FG transcript using the in vivo approach. The researchers independently coded the transcripts using the mixed media analysis software, Dedoose. Key phrases were tagged as codes in Dedoose and the researchers met several times to ensure consistency in their coding. When two coders did not agree on a code or category, they discussed it until they reached agreement.

Works Cited

Cahill, Ann J., Nim Batchelor, Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Claire A. Lockard, Helen Meskhidze, Sean Wilson. In Preparation. “Why So Few Female-Identified Students in Undergraduate Philosophy Courses?: Identifying (and Eliminating) Some Possible Factors,” in preparation.
Charmaz, Kathy. 2014. Constructing Grounded Theory. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Gibbs, Anita. 1997. “Focus Groups.” Social Research Update (19). http://www. 19.html.
Glaser, Barney G. 2002. “Conceptualization: On Theory and Theorizing Using Grounded Theory” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 1 (2): 1-31.
Longhurst, Robyn. 2010. “Semi-Structure Interviews and Focus Groups” in Key Methods in Geography, edited by Nicholas Clifford, Shaun French, and Gill Valentine. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. 103-115.
Lyman, F. T. (1981). “The Responsive Classroom Discussion: The Inclusion of all Students.” In Mainstreaming Digest: A Collection of Faculty and Student Papers, edited by Audrey Anderson, 109-113. College Park: University of Maryland Press. 109-113.
Saldaña, Johnny. 2009. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Steele, Jennifer R and Nalini Ambady. 2006. “‘Math is Hard!’ The Effect of Gender Priming on Women’s Attitudes.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42 (4): 428–436.

Where we are and what comes next

Though we have more data to analyze and some more data to gather, the picture that is emerging is quite different than the one was were expecting. The philosophical literature, in particular, led us to be concerned about how women are being treated in philosophy classes and by philosophy faculty. We have found scant evidence, overall, that this is a problem. This is not to say that every student who has taken a philosophy class has loved it: but we have found no reason to think that, overall, students don’t feel treated well in their philosophy classes, and the same goes for women.

Instead, we are finding more and more evidence that it is pre-existing schema that has the largest impact on who takes philosophy classes and how likely students are to continue in philosophy. Thus, we are finding that the work of Dougherty et al. speaks most deeply to our own situation. In their work, Dougherty et al. have identified attitudes students bring with them to undergraduate philosophy to be the single most important factor in whether they will continue in philosophy. In a blog post in the Daily Nous, Eddy Nahmias mentions that a study will be coming out that shows that, of over 2 million high school seniors who will be entering college, a mere 0.33% expect to major in philosophy and that of that 0.33%, 1/3 are women. Which, at the national level, gives credence to the concern that the problem is not what is happening within our classes, or with us, but pre-dates students having any exposure to us or our classes. Which is a mixed-blessing: it is great to know we are not the problem, but it is really hard to solve a problem that appears to be culture-wide and that students bring with them to Elon.

Our specific plans are to:

  1. Present our initial findings at the conference of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee for the Status of Women (coming up at the end of May at Villanova),
  2. Finish analyzing the data we already have,
  3. Collect supplemental data (the short survey) from students who enroll in philosophy classes in the Fall and analyze that,
  4. Write a formal report to the department, summarizing our findings and setting out a general recommendation for address our gender gap,
  5. Work with the department to set forth a practical plan to meet our goals, and
  6. Devise an assessment plan so that we have a plan for collecting and analyzing data to determine the success of our plans. This will take us through the 2015-2016 year and beyond.