Closing the Gender Gap: Creating Community for Lady Scientists, Philosophers

Ann Chen ’13, Quitterie Gounot ’13 and Alex Werth ’14 promoted their newest additions to Swarthmore’s club culture in the age-old forum for effective news dissemination: the bathroom stall.

No, not only bathroom stalls — the activity fair, after all, is a fertile recruiting ground for old and new groups alike —  and not all bathroom stalls. As the founders of the Lady Philosophers and Women in the Sciences (WITS) groups on campus, the women frequented only the ladies’ rooms, an activity which must have produced a thankful sigh or two over the nature of the groups’ gender exclusivity.

While at first glance, the groups may seem unrelated beyond their closed status, a peek behind the doors of their first interest meetings last week reveals cross-disciplinary parallels. Both interest meetings attracted over 20 women, with additional inquiries arriving via email; both are revivals of older groups on campus whose membership fizzled out with the graduation of key movers and shakers over the years; and both seek to forge a community of like-minded students who are minorities in their areas of study.

The gender gap in the physical sciences and engineering should not be novel news. The push to increase female enrollment in mathematics and the sciences is being powered by forces on all levels, from the local (Swarthmore’s CATALYST program brings middle school girls interested in the sciences to campus for hands-on learning experiences) to the national. However, just because the gender divide is “old news” doesn’t dull its significance or make its numbers any better. According to a survey of earned doctorates conducted in 2010 by the Department of Education Studies, only 30% of students attaining Ph.Ds in the physical sciences were women. Female engineers find themselves in even smaller company, with only 23% representation among the male majority.

The trend doesn’t improve for female philosophers. In the same set of surveys, only 30% of Ph.D.-holding philosophers in 2009 were female — the same percentage as women majoring in the physical sciences. The odds of coming across a full-time female philosophy professor were reported to be even lower: women comprise only 16.6% of the 30,000 professors nationwide. The percentage places philosophy well below every other field in the humanities.

The figures attest to the importance of both the Lady Philosophers and WITS in facilitating communities for women. Physics Professor Amy Graves, who was the first female in Swarthmore’s department when she began working for the college over 20 years ago, recalls the effectiveness of similar community-building groups in educational institutions she’s observed. When potlucks and social events spring up for women in the sciences, it creates “a better environment for women,” she shared.

Graves sees current gender schemas, or internalized stereotypes of what a person of a certain gender looks like, playing a large role in the professional careers of women in the sciences and other underrepresented areas. Noting that careers are built on small series of advantages, she emphasizes the consequential significance of not making the right impression at a dinner party, or of being passed over in a lecture series for a colleague who may better fit the public’s perception of a scientist. Oftentimes, the public didn’t conceptualize “scientist” as a woman, although women’s increasing visibility in professions like pediatrics are helping to break down that stereotype.

In a time when gender discrimination is less prominent than in the days of her professors, Werth, a physics and engineering double major, hopes that WITS will continue to learn from the experiences of the school’s faculty, many of whom have profoundly felt their minority status in their own educational and professional development. She also believes one of the greatest advantages WITS can offer female scientists is the social connections. “A lot of people do meet their friends in the classroom — it’s a way to meet people with common interests,” she said. “It’s hard to do when there are only two girls in your classes, and it’s a way to encourage cross-departmental collaboration.”

“Also, anyone who’s part of a minority in a larger setting will feel uncomfortable at some point,” she added. “I have, and I know many others have as well.” By closing the group to men, she hopes to eliminate some of those feelings of not belonging.

Discomfort in male-dominated settings is a sensation Swarthmore philosophy students can relate to. One attendee at the group’s first meeting spoke of feeling overpowered by the male majority in her introduction to philosophy course, noting that when the guys piped up, the girls tended to quiet down.

Classics and Philosophy Professor Grace Ledbetter, a scholar of Plato and supporter of the Lady Philosophers group, cites the argumentative and assertive nature of the discipline as a difficult hurdle to overcome, but notes that it’s probably easier for men to step up to bat when they’re surrounded by peers in a classroom setting. In her opinion, a female professor can play a critical role in creating a comfortable environment for female students surrounded by a male majority.

Ledbetter’s colleague Krista Thomason, whose introductory philosophy course drove many to the Ladies’ first meeting, spoke to interested members about seeing her first female philosophy professor — almost halfway through graduate school.

“Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much I needed to see someone who looked like me up in front of the classroom,” Thomason said.

Beyond increasing the number of women role models in the classroom, Ledbetter notes that philosophy syllabi can go a long way in helping female students situate themselves in the discipline. Oftentimes consisting of only male thinkers, reading lists have yet to recognize the works of leading female philosophers — an unfortunate truth exemplified by Chen and Gounot.

“We were going to make signs [advertising the first meeting of the Lady Philosophers] that said, ‘Can you name five female philosophers?’ but when we tried, we realized we couldn’t do it,” shared Chen, an honors philosophy major.

Despite this lack of classroom exposure to female scholarship, the founders don’t plan on restricting discussion to gender or limiting readings to women philosophers. Combating the hierarchal nature of philosophy, which is commonly thought of resting on canonical, male-authored texts, as well as challenging the dominant gender of a typical philosophy classroom, are higher up on Chen and Gounot’s collective to-do list.

“We really just want to encourage everyone to explore their interests and be able to share their ideas,” explained Chen. By holding informal weekly discussions, the founders hope to keep their group accessible to first-time philosophers and honors majors alike.

Chen, Gounot and Werth are excited about their own projects — and each other’s. “When we met, we talked about having a big Lady Philosophers v. WITS debate,” Werth shared.

The enthusiasm for both groups may stem in part from a more local source, in addition to its larger situation within the narrative of gender gaps in education: that of a need for more female friendships and community feel on Swarthmore’s campus. When asked whether she saw a relationship between the new female groups on campus and the proposed sorority, Werth answered that she “definitely sees a connection.”

“I’ve spoken to so many girls throughout the year and this summer that are looking for a female community on campus,” she said. “I think all these groups — WITS, Lady Philosophers and the sorority — are direct responses to that, and they all have a lot of support… and that strong support shows that we need spaces for women to meet. I’m so happy it’s all happening, and I’m definitely supportive of the other groups — they’re doing a great job.”

The second meeting of the Lady Philosophers will take place today at 6:30 — stop by the WRC for snacks and invigorating discussion. WITS have not yet selected a meeting place — email Alex Werth at to be added to the mailing list.






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