July 18, 2008

Reconceptualizing underrepresentation

I've spent the past week reading Iris Marion Young's Justice and the politics of difference, and the last day or two thinking about this thread on the underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. (I should say `some STEM fields' or just give the list -- physics, engineering, computer science, pure mathematics, economics, and philosophy -- but I'm just going to use the easier-to-type version and let you know right here that I'm not talking about biology and chemistry, at least with respect to women.) Putting these two thinkings together, I feel the need to reconsider the basics of underrepresentation: the problem is not what we think it is.

We usually think of underrepresentation as a problem of numbers: STEM fields are `disproportionately' male, or white, or straight, or able-bodied, etc. As evidence, we cite facts about the percentage of tenured faculty who are female or people of colour or queer or disabled, etc. (To cut down on the number of lists like these, I'm going to primarily use the generic `group X'. Substitute in your favourite oppressed social group for the X.)

But such facts are insufficient to establish a claim that group X is underrepresented in STEM. In order to establish this claim, we need the normative claim that the percentage of tenured faculty who are members of group X in a STEM field should be approximately such-and-such, or in the range from here to there. And that should causes problems, because (at least in part) no-one seems to have given much systematic through to how we're going to determine what comes after it, or even whether it's the right sort of claim. Nor is it at all clear what's backing up that normative claim: why should the percentage of group X-tenured faculty in a STEM field should be between a and b?

So, instead, I'd like to suggest another (or a novel) way of understanding underrepresentation. On this approach, underrepresentation is a matter of epistemic injustice (I'm drawing on Miranda Fricker here, too). More formally, underrepresentation is about the way certain groups are deprived of access to certain communities of epistemic and political power and prestige. (Namely, STEM communities.) As I see it, there are two aspects to this deprivation:
  1. whether members of group X have the same access to membership in the prestigious community as members of other groups, and
  2. whether the members of group X are oppressed within the prestigious community.

To put these in terms of the underrepresentation of women within STEM, the first aspect concerns whether women can get into the laboratory -- as a group, do they have opportunities to become scientists, engineers, and mathematicians? The second concerns their status within the laboratory -- does the STEM community treat women justly?

With just this much, we can make some preliminary observations. First, the feminist underrepresentation claim is that women are oppressed within certain STEM disciplines. The corresponding opposition claim is that women are not oppressed within STEM. Second, numbers tell us something, but not everything. This parallels injustice in the broader society: looking at the race and gender of poverty can tell us something, but it doesn't give us a complete understanding of economic, racial, or gender injustice. Third, examining the satisfaction of (Humean) preferences (as John Tierney did in the NYT article that inspired the FPh post) is only relevant to the extent that the satisfaction of (Humean) preferences is significant in the theory of justice we are using to analyse underrepresentation as epistemic injustice. Unless you're a utilitarian, this will be at best only somewhat significant -- again, it won't give us a complete picture.

I mentioned Young's book up in the first paragraph. Young has two major goals in this book: to challenge what she calls the `distributive paradigm' in mainstream political philosophy and theory, and to articulate in its place an alternative paradigm of injustice as oppression. The last paragraph parallels the first task: my observations indicate that a statistical examination of the distribution of resources and positions of power gives an incomplete picture of underrepresentation. This distribution is certainly relevant to issues of epistemic justice, but not the whole story.

Young lays out her alternative approach to justice as a taxonomy of forms of oppression. Borrowing this taxonomy as our background theory of justice, we can re-articulate the feminist claim of underrepresentation as epistemic injustice: women are exploited, marginalized, powerless, and sometimes subject to cultural imperialism and violence within STEM.

1. Women are exploited as research assistants, technicians, instructors, test subjects, secretaries, janitors, and other assistants and support staff to primary investigators and tenured faculty. Their work, both creative and menial, is appropriated by and benefit PIs and tenured faculty. I say `women are exploited as research assistants', for example, and not `research assistants are exploited' because these lower status positions are disproportionately held by women or held by women who are less likely to receive eventual returns on their sacrifices than their male colleagues (the leaky pipeline effect).

2. Women are marginalized and powerless is similar ways. (Young is not, to my mind, entirely clear on the difference between these two.) Assistants and support staff to PIs and tenured faculty have little or no power to make decisions about the research they will participate in or how they will participate in it. They might be able to choose whether or not to participate at all, or suggest new directions, experiments, research strategies, etc., but have no real power to shape the course of research. Similarly, instructors and teaching assistants have little or no discretion over their courses -- they are assigned by their superiors to teach this class or that, on a term-by-term basis, and usually based on the department's need to cover teaching duties perceived as menial or boring by tenured faculty (Physics 101, the early calculus sequence, remedial classes, etc.). The content of these courses is usually dictated by official standards and texts or all the sections of a course being linked to a standardized midterm and final.

3. Cultural imperialism and violence, Young's last two categories of oppression, are less common than the first two (treating marginalization and powerlessness as one category for the moment), but still issues of injustice within STEM than need attention. Cultural imperialism refers to the widespread acceptance of stereotypes and biassed perceptions of marginalized groups. In the context of STEM, this would mean the acceptance of scientific theories with, say, sexist content and implications. Uncontroversial historical examples abound -- Stephen Jay Gould's The mismeasure of man has some jaw-dropping ones. More controversial are contemporary theories of, for example, gender- and race-linked differences in the distribution of IQ and problem-solving abilities and still-prevalent `active male/passive female' models of fertilization. (In this post, I'm going to remain neutral on the question of whether any of these theories was epistemically acceptable in its heyday, or is epistemically acceptable today. Perhaps there are genuine dilemmas of epistemic justice.)

4. Violence is exactly what you would expect. I suspect -- though I could be wrong -- that violence is a pervasive or systematic problem only in medical and pharmacological treatment and research, and not other STEM fields. (Although perhaps medicine and pharmacology should not be classified as STEM fields at all.) Violence in medicine is closely linked with race and class, and with powerlessness: women of colour and living in poverty have been subject to forced sterilization as recently as the 1970s, they are less likely to receive proper medical care and due respect for their autonomy as patients, and so on.

Similar observations apply to racial groups, and of course disability. (I suspect there's a whole thesis to be written on the ways disabled people are the victims of violence within medicine.)

I have one final observation. One especially persistent feminist criticism of STEM fields with underrepresentation problems (I've heard this about philosophy, physics, mathematics, computer science, and economics) is the prevalence of a macho, aggressive, or `duelist' culture (the phrase is Janice Moulton's) that is supposed to drive many women away from these fields. In such a culture, one is supposed to be a vigorous and aggressive defender of one's views in a such argumentative context; the thought is that this creates a great deal of competition, effectively weeding out the weakest (and, presumably, therefore untrue) ideas. Traditional feminine attributes of pleasantness and self-abasement create a catch-22: either women cannot adopt these aggressive norms (they conflict too much with the way they have been taught to behave), or they are punished and disparaged by their male colleagues for being too aggressive.

This is, I think, an extremely important criticism. But I'm not sure where to place it in Young's taxonomy of oppression. Perhaps one side of the dilemma is marginalization -- women who do not adopt the aggressive stance are denied standing within the community -- and the other is cultural imperialism -- the successful imposition of masculine norms of behaviour on women.


Noumena said...

It would be interesting to think about how to use this framework to critique merit/desert-based attacks on programmes and policies that aim to, eg, increase the ratio of women to men in disciplines where underrepresentation is especially egregious (`affirmative action'). Very briefly, such attacks claim that affirmative action violates norms of justice as neutrality, and instead positions of privilege within STEM communities should be distributed based on something like the ability to produce valuable work within the community. The critique would point out that these attacks assume (a) that this ability is well-defined and real, (b) ranks individuals linearly, (c) is innate, and (d) the current distribution of positions of power reflects this innate distribution, as well as the distributive paradigm. The attack also lacks an account of what these positions of power are -- and hence cannot explain why they should be "distributed" according to merit.

Evelyn Brister said...

Great analysis, Noumena! I like your strategy of using feminist justice theories to reflect on the practices of our discipline. And I ADORE your move of including philosophy with STEM fields. Although the NSF doesn't see it that way, I do think that the cultural ideologies that masculinize philosophy are similar to the ones that masculinize math and physics.

Attacking the problem on the basis of justice is right on. But I'm not convinced that it is primarily a case of epistemic injustice.

Fricker outlines two types of epistemic injustice. One of them, hermeneutical injustice, probably doesn't apply here (a knowledge claim is unintelligible because an epistemic framework in which it can be expressed is undeveloped).

The other, testimonial injustice, may capture some of the ways that women experience discrimination. It is a rather common experience to be a woman student in a philosophy class whose comment or point is ignored, only for an identical point to be lauded by a teacher once expressed by a male. Is that specifically epistemic injustice? Or is it just plain injustice?

A case more like the examples that Fricker gives is when women claim that certain interactions constitute discrimination while other people (men) explain each interaction away on the basis of chance, preferences, social norms, or whatever. The women in this case are making a knowledge claim (that their experiences are evidence for discrimination) which is not treated seriously.

In general, though, I doubt whether we need a special analysis of injustice in order to justify our attention to this problem (rather, the general account of injustice that you give in the bulk of your post is sufficient). Here's why:
1. The other STEM disciplines have found existing analyses sufficient grounds to commit large amounts of resources to correcting gender inequality. Are there systemic differences between philosophy and, say, chemistry or medicine?
2. A principle form of injustice is the apparent inequality in educational opportunities at the undergraduate level, where the difference from what we would expect in terms of M/F graduation rates is the greatest.

Khadimir said...

What is the point of the term "epistemic injustice" other than a strange re-wrapping of particular forms of discrimination? I fail to see why a whole discourse is given to this term (do I need to be filled in on the mentioned book?). I'm not seeing the gain from this line of thought.

Noumena said...

Evelyn -

Thanks for your supportive comments. I think the nod to Fricker was premature; I've only read one or two of her articles, and her account of epistemic injustice wasn't the focus of either. I should definitely read her book before I expand this post into a paper. The testimonial injustice examples you give sound to me like instances of marginalization (in Young's taxonomy), so I wonder if the framework I'm sketching here would be more general? Or they might be orthogonal: Fricker's interested in how knowledge claims can and do circulate through the epistemic community, while here I'm looking at the power structure within the epistemic community and its relations to the broader social context.

Your final two comments are well-taken, especially the last. As you might recall, I argued in a comment on your blog a yearish ago that the numbers suggested underrepresentation, at least with respect to women, appears to start at the undergraduate (pre-Bachelor's) level. Yet the framework I lay out here doesn't seem to touch that point, at least not directly. Definitely worth thinking about further.

Khadimir -

There are several reasons why I like Fricker's talk of `epistemic injustice', even if it turns out that we mean different things by it. The most important, at least for me, is that concepts closely related to justice seem to appear again and again in the underrepresentation discussion: discrimination (that's one you use yourself), marginalization, powerlessness, exclusion, merit or desert. The arguments that use these concepts are implicitly appealing to conceptions of justice. For example, when opponents of affirmative action complain that AA is unjustly discriminatory, and positions of power and prestige should be filled by the best and the brightest, they're appealing to a conception of justice as desert or merit. But there are problems with this conception of justice. So I think we should turn to a better conception of justice, namely Young's, to analyze the situation, and there's no reason why we shouldn't make this turn explicit. Doing so requires an explicit use of the language of justice and injustice, and since we're talking about injustice with respect to an epistemic community, voila, epistemic injustice.

Khadimir said...


I think I begin to see the confusion on my part. I am hung up on the term "epistemic," for I have little idea what is meant by it in this context. (All of the following is meant in the spirit of strengthening subsequent thought.)

Hence, when you use "epistemic" as an adjective or compound noun throughout this essay and comments, it is not clear what you mean. I have been supposing that you mean to imply a psycho-sociological analysis concerning the theorizing and implementation of certain concepts. Again, I suppose this to be an analysis of how different conceptions of justice lead to various "conceptual configurations" within the community of knowers/epistemic community, which lead to a multitude of practices. Some of the configurations give rise to discriminatory practices, and you are targeting some of these.

Perhaps it is not so much a misunderstanding as a disagreement. I understand "injustice" in a community, and I believe that I understand "epistemic." However, I do not see how the concepts of the "epistemic" and "injustice" can be combined, for their referents, etc. are entirely different.

It appears to be rhetorical, and if that is what it is, then I think that there might be more effective avenues. But then, maybe I am showing the difference of our approaches; I would focus upon the inquirers and communal inquiry first rather than on their idealized thoughts. However, if a psycho-social-cultural analysis will not fly with your audience ... then I hope this terminology works with them.

To sum up, it seems to be an attempt to "target the problem ideas of a problematic epistemic community" rather than the community itself, which leads to an "epistemic" analysis rather than an psycho-social-cultural one. Am I getting this? It seems that a lot of background decisions have been made, and I am running into them as an outsider.

Noumena said...

Okay, I think I see the confusion, too. Let me try to explain it this way:

Philosophers (at least, in my neck of the woods) use `epistemic' whenever the noun it gets attached to has something to do with knowledge. This can be a bit loose, or it can be much more rigorous. Fricker's use is very rigorous, because the injustice she's talking about (at least, as far as I know) has to do with knowledge fairly directly -- women are denied standing as epistemic agents, ie, producers of knowledge. My use is looser, since by `epistemic injustice' I mean `injustice suffered in a community that specializes in producing knowledge'. The way I'm using the term, epistemic injustice need have little or nothing to do with knowledge at all. So you're entirely right when you complain that the referents of `epistemic' and `injustice' are entirely different.

I do want to focus more on the power relations within a certain community (or really, communities) than its beliefs, ideas, or concepts. If `epistemic injustice' made you think that I wanted to focus on the latter, then I probably should come up with a different term.

Does that help?

Khadimir said...


If you "want to focus more of the power relations with a certain community ... communities," then I suggest EB's mentioned and discard notion of "hermeneutical injustice." EB wrote:

"Fricker outlines two types of epistemic injustice. One of them, hermeneutical injustice, probably doesn't apply here (a knowledge claim is unintelligible because an epistemic framework in which it can be expressed is undeveloped)."

I propose that overt discrimination currently has significant effects in the configuration of epistemic frameworks in contemporary epistemic communities. Just as EB qua Fricker wrote, the intelligibility of a knowledge claim is managed by the framework in which it is raised, which implicates communities and institutions. For instance, I recall the example on the "Knowledge and Experience" blog, where feminism was implicitly associated with shamanism by some conference administrators.

So, I propose that discrimination has "gone underground" as they say of racist discrimination, because few would be caught dead being openly racist/sexist/etc--particularly professionally. However, this does not mean that it does not exist, but rather that the discrimination has submerged, e.g. see the discussion of Tierney and "free choices" on the afore-mentioned blog. One aspect of this submergence is that what is intelligible as "good work" is constituted in part by the latent "power relations" that persist from more (consciously) discriminatory times.

A certain hermeneutic has emerged, and hence turning to "hermeneutic injustice" as a line of critique might be effective. This may combine with "epistemic injustice" by describing precisely what the injustice is, i.e. the hermeneutics of knowledge production in the community of inquirers, which unjustly limits what counts as knowledge or casts knowledge in certain ways. Feminism and shamanism clearly go together, do they not? Don't feminists burn bras and hate men too? Why, just the other day I made a comment about how strong a throwing arm a female colleague has--and was chastised for raising the stereotype that lesbians are good softball players. (I have never heard that stereotype in my life, and it was assumed that I was operating by it when I was not, but the point is that the stereotype manifested at all--for good or ill it was guiding action.)

As an afterthought to what I have written, feminists seem to have come out with strategies to overcome "hermeneutic injustice," but I wonder how effective those have been and whether they help the cause. Both myself and a colleague/faculty member here work in socio-psychology, and both of us have resolved to ignore the oft expressed misunderstanding that what we do is "self-help," and I am teased that I work with the "effete" (but very male) philosophers. Including the existential, emotive, and personal in one's work appears to be a gendered (female) move in my experience.