Written by: Laura Watson, Project Officer, University of Winchester

In honour of International Women’s Day, this blog post discusses the importance of having female role-models in academia to eliminate biases. Unfortunately, women still face many unnecessary challenges around employment and academia. Virginia Valian points out that gender norms cause us to overrate men at the same time as ‘underrating women in professional settings, only in small, barely visible ways: those small disparities accumulate over time to provide men with more advantages than women’ (Valian, 2005:198). This is problematic because it takes place unknowingly despite good intentions that may be in place within an institution or workplace.  According to Valian, ‘we all have nonconscious hypotheses about males and females and we all use those hypotheses in perceiving and evaluating others’ (Valian, 2005:202). 

This can lead to serious disadvantages for women as is evident from the study that was carried out by Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka (2003:195) when they analysed letters of recommendation for successful applicants for faculty positions in a large medical school. Shockingly, but somewhat not surprisingly, the letters of recommendation were shorter for women than they were for men and the language used in the letters was completely different (Trix and Psenka, 2003). 34 percent of women’s letters contained “grindstone” adjectives such as ‘hardworking, conscientious, diligent’ (Trix and Psenka, 2003:207). This is compared to 23 percent of men’s letters. Trix and Psenka insist that ‘there is an insidious gender schema that associates effort with women, and ability with men in professional areas’ (Trix and Psenka, 2003:207). Combine this with a culture that sees effort as of a lower esteem than ability and this creates an array of barriers for women in achieving careers in higher positions. This is supported by the fact that men’s letters contained more “stand out adjectives” such as “superb” or “excellent” (Trix and Psenka, 2003:208). It was interesting to find that the letters for women did not address their research abilities as much as the letters for men did, which is a key attribute that employers would look for (Trix and Psenka, 2003:209). This is extremely worrying because unintentional biases can have subtle impacts on our behaviours that we do not know are occurring. These differences in language can have detrimental effects on women and their opportunities for employment.

I am currently studying an MA in Philosophy of Education. Women are noticeably less represented in this field compared to men. The reading lists for philosophy courses are filled with the thought of male thinkers. Furthermore, when I started my undergraduate degree, I realised during the more philosophical modules that I had heard of many of the male philosophers before. Sadly, I had only been introduced to the ideas of female philosophers such as, Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum and Mary Wollstonecraft when I started university. I wondered how I hadn’t heard of these women and their ideas before. Emily Herbert points out that there is a vast amount of female-written philosophy that is deserving of a space on the reading lists of philosophy degrees. She insists that ‘rather than being token stunts, this literature represents a body of work which should have, and would have, always been included in our study, were it not for the legacy of sexism’ (Herbert, 2018:[online]). It is clear that the female voice needs more of a place in philosophy, and not just in a tokenistic way.  In my experience, some modules I have taken have been constructed predominantly with the thought of male thinkers, but I am grateful when female thinkers are included in the reading list. Representation is key. It shows that women are philosophers just as much as men and has inspired me to pursue my interest in philosophy. The ideas of many female philosophers have transformed the way that I see the world too and without them being included in the reading lists, I would potentially still not have been exposed to their ideas.

Representation is key. It shows that women are philosophers just as much as men and has inspired me to pursue my interest in philosophy. The ideas of many female philosophers have transformed the way that I see the world too and without them being included in the reading lists, I would potentially still not have been exposed to their ideas.

Not only should women be included in the reading lists, but it is also essential to have female role models. It is helpful to have contact with women who, despite the challenges they have faced, are successful. Penelope Lockwood found that female role-models had an impact on female students. She states that ‘because women may expect to face gender-related obstacles in their careers, it may be especially important for them to know that another woman has been successful’ (Lockwood, 2006:44). She found that 27 percent of women who took part in a study about the impact of gender on preference for career role-models ‘explicitly stated that it was important for them to have a role model who had overturned gender stereotypes or achieved success in a traditionally male-dominated field’ (Lockwood, 2006:44). I have been a part of a Research Centre that looks into the history of women’s education since my second year of my undergraduate degree and throughout my involvement we have had conversations about the challenges that women face in their careers. This is a research centre that welcomes men and women, but most frequently it is women who attend the seminars. I have found my role models in successful women, including two professors as a result of my involvement with the Research Centre. Having role models disrupts the social norms that lead us to have implicit theories of intelligence or personality about stigmatized groups of people.

It is great to be able to look up to someone and see that it is possible to reach the goals that you want. But what is even better is when you have contact with your role models. Some role models are celebrities, some are people you may have never met. But for me, stumbling upon my “real-life” role models has been crucial. I have two close friends in the Research Centre who graduated from the same undergraduate degree as I did, undertook Masters Degrees the year before I did and they are now doing PhDs.

At the Stakeholder conference back in June, Karen Blackett insisted that it was essential to have people cheering you on as you embark on your journey to breaking bias barriers and reaching success. In an interview she advises female students to ‘find your cheerleaders so when you have those moments of self-doubt, those people that you can talk to objectively, they can talk to you and help you to keep going’ (The Union, 2017). My role models were also the people cheering me on. They believed in me at times when I didn’t believe in myself and I think that’s an extremely valuable thing to have.

There are still many unnecessary challenges for women in academia and in philosophy due to both implicit and more obvious, external biases. It is important to include female thinkers in philosophy reading lists because there are some extremely valuable ideas that need to be heard which can add to the foundational thinking that we already read about. People absorb social signals and implicitly absorb gendered ideas about the capabilities of women and men through the underrepresentation of the female voice. This presents a huge loss because women’s aspirations can be shaped through these habitual biases which means we lose a huge amount of knowledge in the field. In addition, more female role models in academia can help the deconstruction of biases and to help female students to see what is possible.


Herbert, E. (2018) Philosophy at Oxford: Too Many Men. The Oxford Student. Available at: https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2018/03/27/philosophy-at-oxford-too-many-men/ [Accessed 28th February 2019].

Lockwood, P. (2006) “Someone Like Me Can Be Successful”: Do College Students Need Same-Gender Role Models? Psychology of Women Quaterly. 30 (1), 36-46. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00260.x [Accessed 01 March 2019].

The Union (2017) Karen Blackett: Mediacom Chairwoman, Mum and Human Rights Activist. Available at: https://www.upsu.net/articles/news/2017-11-08-karen-blackett-mediacom-chairwoman-mum-and-human-rights-activist [Accessed 25th February 2019].

Trix, F. and Psenka, C. (2003) Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse and Society, 14 (2), 191-220. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0957926503014002277  [Accessed 01 March 2019].

Valian, V. (2005) Beyond Gender Schemas: Improving the Advancement of Women in Academia. Hypatia, 20, (3), 198-213. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2005.tb00495.x [Accessed 14th February 2019].