PhDs by Academic Discipline

A lot of the blogs I've been reading the last few weeks have been talking about female participation in the disciplines (and the associated blogging) of theology, biblical studies, religious studies and philosophy. Searching around I found this graphic (H/T Crooked Timber) of % PhDs awarded to women by academic discipline (in 2009):

As you can see, philosophy and religious studies do rank near the bottom. Psychology, along with disciplines like literature, anthropology, and linguistics, is at the top.

That's interesting to me as I tend to think of philosophy and biblical/religious studies--content-wise--as akin to literature studies, the humanities or the social sciences. Again, content-wise.

So the gender divide would, I guess, seem to be cultural in nature. As to what those cultural issues might be I couldn't say.

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23 thoughts on “PhDs by Academic Discipline”

  1. Interesting.  I'd bet that it has something to do with "dead" languages.  Greek/Latin/Hebrew with Aramaic/Syriac following tend to be taught as analytical exercises in grammar with a side of code breaking.  Now, as a former engineer, I loved that.  Also, if you go to a denominational institution, the focus on doctrine is an analytical exercise.  They are taught with scientific rigor.   (There is a reason seminary and academic places are famous for loss of faith.  The neglect of devotional or ministerial interaction with the Word.)  That to me puts them closer to engineering, physics and math than say classics which could be a comparable, but you are not trying to illuminate capital T truth at the same intensity.  Classics always carried a "truth is found at the bottom of a wine bottle" feel to it, where theology could end with never speaking to someone again.

  2. Except that psychology, at the PhD level, is very much a scientific, analytical discipline. Undergrads in psychology have up to three classes in quantitative methods. Masters students six more and a quantitative thesis. And doctoral students even more quantitative classes--with whole courses devoted to, say, regression analysis, factor analysis or structural equation modeling--along with a quantitative doctoral dissertation. Those "scientific" and "analytical" skills are on par with if not surpassing any analysis I've ever seen in doctrinal studies.

  3. I must confess to a guilty pleasure of watching how the fairly gendered arts/humanities divide works out in the frequently rather bitter conversations between science-oriented new atheists and humanities-oriented feminist atheists.

    I think that there are various reasons for the dominance of men in theological and religious studies. Far and away the most obvious one is employment opportunities. The employment opportunities for a woman with a PhD in Theology are significantly fewer than those for a male with an equivalent degree in many contexts. However, even when that is acknowledged, male and female areas of interest within the field tend to vary, in my experience at least (you find the same in other fields: in history, for instance, men dominate military history, while women tend to do more of many types of social history). More than most of the humanities, Theology can involve a lot of system-building, a greater focus on objective and public truth, on political and institutional structures, with all of the conflict and dispute that those involve, and the frequent hostility to more personal interpretation. While you are doing the same sort of interpretation as in the humanities, interpretation is less of an end in itself, but serving the quest for public truth: much of the discipline is shaped by the fact that there is a lot at stake in which interpretation is right, and little quarter can be given to private belief or idiosyncratic interpretation.

    It is akin to philosophy in some of these regards, which is why it doesn't surprise me that they are in similar positions on the chart. It is also a subject that, like philosophy, probably has a particular relationship with disputation and a particular sort of combative orality and rhetoric that may favour more typically male forms of engagement and may be off-putting to many women.

  4. I would imagine that the continued privileging of men over women in religious communities has a lot to do with the theology/religious studies proportion, probably the philosophical one as well (even though philosophy tends to be more atheist-dominated, the loudest and most well-known atheists are by and large obnoxiously sexist men).

  5. Richard, I'm not sure what Mark's point is, but I at least do not think that women's frequency in specializing in dead languages, or in study of computer science and physics, has anything to do with skills.

    I do wonder if it is possible that women are statistically quite likely to do quite well in dead languages, or in math--but then to move on to a field that they think is more interesting. Psychology is not less scientific or analytic than studying ancient languages; but it may be more interesting. And the same seems true of literature, anthropology, linguistics as now taught, sociology, and what I call the "trendy" biological sciences (genes, evolution, neuroscience, etc.).

    I'm not sure this makes any sense, since different people find different things interesting--but I can't help feeling that these studies are not generally seen as yawn-inducing, compared to, for example, nonbiological sciences, economics, math, or even philosophy.

    Of course, even if I could really get a precise model to show that men study at a statistically higher level, in areas that the general population finds statistically less interesting, I'm not sure what that would mean. It might mean that in the academic arena, men have less power than women do to make choices, and that given the choice most of us would be studying psychology and literature rather than slogging through economics and dead languages. Or it might mean something else.

  6. Out of my depth here.  You actually teach students.  Just a reflection on my experience  I remember having separate core classes for Engineering and Math students.  And those undergrad classes start the funnel.  There were exceptions, but the theology classes tended to have the feeling of the engineering classes, by which I mean brutal drill and kill, versus something that real people might find interesting all by itself.  That tone I would think would have some serious self-sorting properties early in the chain.  At Ph.D. the expertise has to be there, but the funnel starts way back in those early classes. 

  7. So, does the fact that men get doctorates in psychology and literature at roughly the rate women get doctorates in philosophy say something about the continued privileging of women over men in psychological and literary discourse?

    Just asking.

  8. A daughter/sister/niece/granddaughter of preachers/missionaries and holding a degrees in psychology/sociology, I feel qualified to say that psychology is secular spirituality.  Women aren't allowed to be priests/gatekeepers of the soul's access to the Divine through religion, so we gravitate to where we are allowed and we excel.  Fancy, that!

  9. Theology as it currently exists isn't really much about 'spirituality': it is generally about religion, doctrine, politics, and philosophy, about the public, objective, ideological, political, and institutional dimensions of Christian belief and has the disputational and combative character of discourse typical to such areas. It is an incredibly important field, with immense resources for Christian thought and life, but anyone coming to it primarily in quest of 'spirituality' risks leaving disappointed. While Theology may employ many of the methods of the humanities and soft sciences, its posture towards and the locus of its truth generally differs sharply.

    This is not to deny that spirituality and Theology can and do powerfully and constantly inform each other, but just to point out that they are rather different sorts of things. I suspect that this, in addition to the rather more significant fact that there are significantly fewer employment opportunities for female Theology PhDs than for male Theology PhDs, goes a long way towards helping to explain the gender difference within the field.

  10. Hi Alastair, bit off topic here. I saw an earlier comment of yours on this thread and I now can't see it. No worries if you pulled it. Just wanted you to know that, if you didn't, I didn't do anything on my end. Disqus can be squirrelly and people, from time to time, lose comments in the system. Why, I have no idea.

  11. I didn't delete it. I presumed that it was Disqus: I have had odd experiences with it before. It was hastily written and not worded as carefully as I wanted, so I wasn't too sorry to lose it.

  12. In my experience in religious studies, it probably has more to do with the fact that female professors tend to be paid less than male professors in the department, receive fewer opportunities (if they are even hired in the first place), and have less of a chance getting into graduate programs they need or surviving graduate school because it is so male-dominated. The majority of the people in my undergraduate religion courses were women, whereas I was often the only women in my graduate courses. Many women I knew were repeatedly rejected from graduate programs despite being just as qualified (or in some cases more qualified) than the men who applied. I had professors who routinely played favorites and ignored the academic progress of their female students.

  13. In my experience--liberal Canadian academia--men do not by any stretch of the imagination have less power than women do to make choices. Not even a little a bit. And if that's not the case in my section of academia, I have trouble imagining it would be the case in the United States.

  14. I'd like to observe that English literature departments are usually strongly feminist. Even if psychology departments aren't so strongly politically positioned (I wouldn't know), they are well placed to know that women are just as good at men at thinking. The same could be said of anthropology and sociology. That is, the disciplines right at the top have historically been the ones from which assorted feminisms have emerged. I can't guess the order of causality, though: is it that lit, psych, soc, and anthro departments have been on the cutting edge of human rights, thus they know that gender imbalance must be addressed, thus they reward women better, thus women tend to turn to these departments when they feel unwelcome elsewhere? Or is it that women are more interested in these subjects (but why would that be?), thus they enter these areas more often, and thus they make these places the ones from which feminisms arise? Or is it a combination of each?

    And, if my hypothesis is correct, why are history and philosophy so woefully behind? Maybe they are not so good at combating sexism as they think they are (history studies the past, after all)? You'd think philosophy would be progressive, but not necessarily. They still rely heavily on Aristotle and friends, who aren't really well known for being feminist-friendly. And apparently have entrenched sexism in their department structures. Read this blog post on it (not my own):

    Caveat: I am a Canadian academic, formerly in English lit. I can only talk about public Canadian universities with any accuracy. This may not apply to Christian universities in Canada, or to American universities of any stripe.

  15. I'm sorry to hear that. I wonder if we are focusing on different sorts of power. Many male academics of my generation simply take it for granted that we will only get into a strong academic program (for graduate study, postdocs, or jobs) after the qualified female candidates have already found positions that are as good or better.

    Let me be clear: We are not complaining; we want to continue to favor any traditionally oppressed demographic, including women. Also, we are not saying women just got the job because they were women; they earned it. But the program always seemed particularly happy that it was a woman, not a man, who earned it. We shared in that joy.

    Once in the program, it may be that lingering male bias is stronger than I realize and therefore women feel they have less power, not more. Or maybe not all programs are so happy to encourage female applicants, at all levels.

  16. This makes me very sad. I'm curious if this is recent experience. In my recent experience (see below), talking to real people on selection committees, there was a real sense of eagerness whenever well-qualified female candidates were discussed--and a real sense of regret whenever a slot was filled by "another white male," no matter how good they felt about the male candidate.

  17. I read that many of the earlier behaviorists were ex-seminarians; I had a psychology professor who thought psychology was the new "religion."

  18. I'm sure that with a highly complex issue involving gender differences, a lot of different factors play a role and no singular reason explains it all.  I can speculate that having fewer traditional career options among hierarchical denominations pushes some women away from PhD programs.  I'm not as familiar with entrance requirements, but would the time required for an MDiv, plus the time for a PhD lower the number of applicants into PhD programs?  With the humanities, one can enter a PhD program after college and apply for a faculty position upon graduation (late 20s??).  With many other disciplines, particularly the hard sciences, this isn't the case.

    While more than half of molecular biology and neuroscience PhDs (my academic area) are awarded to women, it doesn't translate into faculty positions.  Despite long and successful efforts to increase the number of women PhDs, the field has not been able to get those women to remain in the applicant pool for faculty positions.  The 5-6 year postdoc (after 5-6 years for a PhD) required for most jobs usually coincides with the time when women reach their mid-30s and are deciding between a 60-hr workweek and raising kids. 

    As an aside, I would be curious what the numbers would be if psychology was split into the various sub-disciplines.  Lumping counseling, M&F therapy, cognitive pscyh, labor psych, and cellular psych under one category is like putting genetics, molecular biology, neuroscience, biochemistry, and structural biology all under one heading of "life sciences."  Are there noticeable gender differences among different branches of psychology?

  19. The thing that seems to me to be missing from this, and I haven't noticed anyone commenting on it in skimming through the comments either, is how many women actually are there in each percentage figure?  If there are a 1000 in physics, then there's 1500 or so in religious studies. (I'm just throwing in these figures off the top of my head; I have no idea how many there would be.)   More intriguing is the large percentage shown in two of the sciences, areas where women supposedly aren't well represented.  Percentage figures don't mean much until we know what number they're a percentage of.   According to one site that I randomly picked up on Google, there were 49,562 doctorates awarded in the United States in all science and engineering fields, in 2009.  Ok, so that's nearly 50,000 in those fields alone.  I think that probably helps to show that the numbers here aren't insubstantial.  How many theologians and philosophers do we actually need?   LOL

  20. "So the gender divide would, I guess, seem to be cultural in nature. As to what those cultural issues might be I couldn't say".

    Well, as a woman with a Ph.D. in Sociology, it is really quite simple, Dr. Beck, you should have been born a "girl". And if you truthfully cannot formulate one hypothesis as to why, "culturally", fewer women have earned Ph.D.'s in the "natural" or "physical" sciences, I can only conclude that you support and perpetuate the "gender divide" through the "content" of your writing.

  21. I was speaking to the cultural issues in philosophy and religious/biblical studies departments, the disciplines that are the focus of the post. See the first sentence of the post.

    Given that I've never been in a graduate philosophy or religious department I can't speak to what is going on in those contexts that make it more difficult for women (relative to other disciplines). My job, then, isn't to speak for those women or contexts but to listen to women as they share about their experiences within those disciplines (and my own).

  22. There's been a lot of research done on the importance of race- and
    gender- matched role models to student success
    ( I think that probably explains a lot of the gender disparity you see here - .philosophy, classics and religious studies aren't well-known for their female role models. Moreover, they have a reputation (deserved or not, depending on the college) for being old-fashioned at best and reactionary at worst. Why wouldn't a young woman prefer to join a psychology or literature program where she feels encouraged and appreciated instead?

    I myself am a PhD student in linguistics at a public university, while my older brother is applying for an MDiv program at a private seminary. My program is pretty diverse in terms of gender, race, sexuality, etc, while the program he's interested in doesn't even accept woman applicants (!). So, uh, there's that. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the statistics above include private religious institutions, which might try to funnel women out of some disciplines and into others.

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