In this quarter’s Philosophy Magazine, there is an article asking Where Are All the Women? Whilst there are roughly even numbers of men and women studying philosophy at undergraduate level, that number begins to have a male bias at MA level, and more so at PhD level, leading to only 18% of women to men ratio on academic staff, including full and part-time lecturing. The article posits a few theories of why this might be, and in the process of discussion the point was raised that philosophy at a more advanced level is much more aggressive, with the audience actively prepared to shred a lecturer’s hypotheses and disprove the argument.
This combative approach suddenly brought to mind a hen weekend I went on about 8 years ago. A group of about 16 women, ranging in age from late teens to me, the eldest at 39, turned up at a historic house and stayed in several of their beautiful cottages for the weekend. One of our various activities was Paintball. I know more about paintball now because my son, now 20, is an avid paintballer, playing in several leagues at quite an advanced level, and it’s really a strategy game as well as physical and ‘hard’.
When we turned up at the paintball site, we were met by two strapping lads in their early twenties who confessed to us that they’d never had an all-female paintball party before. They’d dealt with mixed groups of school children, executives on team-building exercises, and lots of all-male groups, but never all women. What transpired was really interesting from a philosophical and psychological viewpoint.
We were split up into our teams and told the objective. We had our little team talks and worked out our tactics, then went out to begin the game. I already knew that when paintballs hit you they hurt, so I was prepared to be bruised, and the lads told us that they would sting and you’d know you’d been hit. The first game commenced.
I’m not an aggressive or confrontational person and attack is not something that comes naturally to me, so I elected to guard our flag and defend it against all comers, and I was quite good at that, staying in hiding, and positioning myself to get a great overall view so that I could fire at anyone coming close to our flag. Another woman, whose day-job was a city trader, was the natural leader – she was assertive, quick to assess situations and deploy her troops, but the rest of the foot-soldiers – the cannon fodder, if you like – were not so keen to put themselves in the line of fire. The game must have been going for all of five minutes, and you could see most people trying to keep out of firing range and working their way round to behind enemy lines on both sides. Then one of the women decided this was pussy-footing around and she charged. I can’t remember now which side she was on, and it really didn’t matter, because she got well and truly hammered, fired upon by several people, and she yelped and fell over. That’s when the difference between the sexes was most apparent.
She was obviously hurt, and lay clutching her leg and her arm. There was a few seconds total silence, then everyone came out of hiding, rushing up to her and asking if she was alright, where had she been hit, did she need help, etc… Looking back, it was amazing. Regardless of competition, the overriding reaction was one of empathy, of wanting to help, of wanting to co-operate to solve a situation.
The paintball guys were incredulous, and somewhat dismayed, I think. They had to rethink their whole strategy of how to set the games because the underlying primal competition element and ‘do or die’ mindset that features in the male and mixed games was totally inappropriate for our all-female group. Obviously, if we had been trained as a team, with a specific objective and strong enough incentive, this wouldn’t have happened, but I was proud to be part of a bunch of women whose first thoughts were to help each other, regardless of which side anyone was on.
So, in reading about the aggressive approach of some branches of philosophy that seems to put many women off progressing further, I am not surprised. If the profession of philosophy adopts co-operation strategies rather than combative strategies, then they might see a different result, and be the richer (philosophically speaking) for it.