The Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP) has hosted its second Summer School on Mathematical Philosophy for Female Students in July of 2015 and we can say that – once again - it was a great success! In creating a space for only female students to learn about a variety of areas in mathematical philosophy, this event is the first of its kind. Although female-only events have been frequently viewed with a critical eye, this summer school has exceeded our expectations from the first time that we organized it in 2014. In both years, we received many more excellent applications than we were able to accept, lending evidential support to something that we already expected, namely, that there are a lot of very interested and extremely promising female students out there who wish to engage with philosophy and approach it with mathematical methods. Furthermore, both events show that students very much enjoy and also benefit from such a female-only event in mathematical philosophy. During the two summer schools, we got to know the students’ aspirations and concerns when it came to pursuing their philosophical interests and saw how much they appreciated the event, given their interests and concerns. We also received highly positive and encouraging feedback, making us believe that this kind of event is worth continuing. It is to this end that the MCMP has made a commitment to host the third Summer School on Mathematical Philosophy for Female Students in July 2016, this time with a focus on formal methods applied in philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of psychology.
In recent years there have been important discussions about the gender gap in philosophy. Despite an equal initial interest in the discipline at the undergraduate level, there are comparatively fewer women who finish their bachelors, continue with a masters or PhD degree, or enter advanced positions in philosophy departments. This gender gap appears to be particularly prevalent in subfields of philosophy that use formal, mathematical and quantitative-empirical methods to study philosophical questions. In addition, there have been a number of studies identifying barriers that female academics face when entering philosophy - such as implicit biases and stereotype threats. Taking those discussions and their implications seriously, the MCMP summer school tries to take a small but concrete step towards overcoming some of those barriers and thereby fostering change. Our major aim is to support junior female students in following their interest in mathematical philosophy and in their attempt to prepare the ground for an academic career. And we think that bringing together female undergraduate and early-stage graduate students from philosophy or related areas at the MCMP, an institution that is representative for the field of mathematical philosophy, is one step towards this aim.
Besides the factors that prevent young female students from pursuing an academic career in philosophy, several factors that motivate and support female students to stay in academic have come to be seen as significant. For example, something that is often absent in (mathematical) philosophy are role models who have actually “made it.” Having mostly been taught by male teachers, the summer school students were able to see whether being exposed to successful female academics made a difference to how they themselves perceive the subjects, how they felt in the classroom, and how they engaged in philosophical debates. Such exposure questions the image of a typical philosopher as being male, an image that we still (and even if only unconsciously) hold all too often. Questioning this image in turn can motivate female students to picture themselves as potential future professors. By provoking the feeling that they themselves “can make it” as well, an event such as the summer school can aid students to overcome doubts and uncertainties attached to an academic career and as such motivate young female philosophers to pursue an academic career.
As we have learned from questionnaires and interviews conducted at both summer schools, another important factor that often describes the academic reality of young female mathematical philosophers is that they are lone fighters regarding their gender. Female students frequently find themselves to be the only women in classes on advanced logic or probability theory. While this does not seem to demotivate the students from following their interests, it nevertheless leaves them with the feeling that they are “alone in this,” fighting the doubts of acceptance into a field. It can furthermore reinforce the “typical philosopher is male” stereotype. By meeting fellow students with similar interests, this summer school has given participants the opportunity to see that there are others; that they are not “the only one.” Furthermore, informal networking opportunities with fellow students and faculty have frequently been considered crucial for an early career scholar. The setup of the summer school is designed to address these and other issues. By trying out new things each year, we can see what works and what does not in those regards.
From the feedback we have received, it is noticeable that our participants were not primarily interested in debating issues that are of concern only to female philosophers. While students discussed such matters informally, they first and foremost valued the relaxed and productive atmosphere in which they can study new materials and methods that they are interested in. This year, lectures were given by Julia Staffel [Washington University in St Louis] on formal epistemology, Kevin Zollman [Carnegie Mellon University] on network analysis in philosophy, and Isidora Stojanovic [CNRS and Institute Jean Nicod, Paris] on topics in formal semantics. The students had the opportunity to closely engage with the lecturers during the week, either in tutorials or in plenty of coffee breaks and group activities that were organized. To give students a broad overview of mathematical philosophy as a field, we had several PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and early career staff from the MCMP and elsewhere to give introductions into their area of expertise. Creating an interactive environment with a lot of time devoted to discussion, students could informally discuss their technical questions and also see what is possible with the methodological toolkit offered at the summer school.
Apart from being taught a field of philosophy in which students were particularly interested in, there was space to introduce them to issues faced by minorities in the academy, with a particular focus on the problems of female underrepresentation in philosophy. This year our distinguished speaker was Carla Fehr [University of Waterloo] who spoke about ‘Prioritizing Epistemic Arguments for Justice in the Academy’ [see video of Carla’s lecture here: https://www.rforge.com/lmucast/virtualplaylist/search_lmucast_results.php?keyword=MqTgpIglTT&attr=LMUcastID]. Carla presented strong arguments for why female underrepresentation is an impediment to progress in philosophy and focused on particular examples of the experiences female philosophers face at different stages of their career progression. An open reception after Carla’s lecture gave students the chance to discuss those matters with Carla and fellow students. This way, we had the opportunity to see just how impactful Carla’s talk was and how much it resonated with the students’ own perspectives, worries, and experiences. Carla’s talk was a perfect complement to last year’s evening lecture given by Helen Beebee on the gender gap, its causes, and how we can change it in small but concrete steps [see video of Helen’s lecture here: https://www.rforge.com/lmucast/virtualplaylist/search_lmucast_results.php?keyword=WmUquSI11O&attr=LMUcastID].
Organizing such a summer school two years in a row does not yet allow us to draw conclusions about the impact this event has on the issue of female underrepresentation. However, we collected some data to address the more general question of how female students perceive philosophy as an academic discipline and themselves within that discipline. One striking result that seems to emerge from our data is that while female students do not necessarily see the immediate need and advantage of female-only events in advance, experiencing the event and being exposed to interaction and discussion with only female studies has a positive impact on them. While they initially consider the status quo as the ‘norm’ and acceptable, being exposed to a female-only event gives them a wholly new idea of how the experience of academia could be different. The experience allows them to compare such an environment to the status quo they encounter in their everyday university setting, which makes them see things differently. Female students who have experienced such a female-only environment can make their needs and worries explicit and voice concrete suggestions about how they think the academic environment should change to make it accommodating and comfortable for them.
Making this comparison possible by offering a summer school for female students is - we think - one important step towards change.