As far as I'm aware, nobody has suggested that part of the reason why philosophy has a sexism problem is because of the nature of philosophy itself. Most people would probably say that any field would be just as likely to have this problem. But I think philosophy is special, in that the amorphous nature of the field provides very convenient cover for sexist behavior.
What is philosophy, anyway?
If you want to get a bunch of philosophers into an especially heated argument, ask them to describe what philosophy is. There are several standard answers to the question, "what is philosophy?". They include at least these:
- The study of fundamental questions about the nature of reality, which are not addressed in the sciences.
- The study of forms of reasoning and valid inference that are implicitly used in other fields, but which are not explicitly discussed within those fields.
- An examination of the nature of knowledge, whether it's possible for humans to acquire knowledge, and if so, how.
- The study of meaning and values, and how values can exist within a scientific worldview.
Subfields of philosophy are varied and numerous. Philosophers study questions that are as diverse as the interpretation of models from quantum mechanics; the nature of right and wrong; human action and intention; how economic models impact reasoning about social issues; what makes something a scientific law; texts of historical figures from thousands of years ago; formal logic and the foundations of mathematics; the nature of art and aesthetics; why the world exists rather than nothing; arguments for the existence of God; the nature of justice; whether laws describe reality or are merely conventions; and on and on. Any professional philosopher could probably rattle off at least a hundred specializations and subfields that are well-represented within academic philosophy.
Furthermore, all of these subfields and specializations have their own sub-branches. Philosophical topics are like a gigantic tree in which each question splits into several others repeatedly. For example, consider a field like epistemology, which is broadly defined as the study of knowledge. The number of branches of epistemology is truly staggering. But what's most interesting is that someone who specializes on one branch will likely believe that the people on other branches are fundamentally doing something misguided. For example, some philosophers believe that the study of knowledge is really a study of what we mean when we say that we "know" something. They are interested in understanding the language that we use to describe knowledge. Others believe that language is not really relevant here. They think that in order to understand knowledge, you should study the forms of reasoning that are most successful -- in other words, that you should study how science adds to our store of knowledge. Yet others believe that the very term "knowledge" is misleading. They think that epistemology is really about learning how to judge when to be confident of something, and understanding how you should update your beliefs when you acquire new evidence. Some believe that it's impossible to ever acquire knowledge in the first place, so the question is somewhat moot.
What's interesting here is that these various branches of epistemology are not just asking different questions -- they're actually in conflict with each other. If you believe that knowledge is impossible, then you're likely to think that your colleague who is studying scientific reasoning is really on the wrong track. If you think that understanding "knowledge" is really about language, then you'll probably think that your colleague who is busily constructing mathematical models of evidence-based reasoning is is also on the wrong track. In fact, one soon comes to the view that even within academic philosophy, and even within epistemology, we've batched together a set of projects that, at best, have nothing to do with each other. It's just a historical accident that we've given them the same general label, "epistemology".
Every field of philosophy is like this. Philosophy has a subfield called "philosophy of science", which studies philosophical questions arising from science. It is at least as diverse as the sciences themselves, and philosophers disagree vehemently with each other about what constitutes work that's relevant to the philosophy of science. It's common to hear someone derisively say, "He's not really doing philosophy of science; he's really more of a historian", just as it's easy to find someone who will say, "He's not a real epistemologist; he's a decision theorist."
And what do the major branches of philosophy have to do with each other, anyway? What does someone who is studying the interpretation of quantum mechanics have in common with someone who studies ancient Greek texts? Or what does someone who studies aesthetics have in common with someone who studies concepts of justice?
When I was an academic philosopher, I took the position that these subfields have nothing whatsoever of any significance in common with each other. I thought, and I still do, that it's just an accident that we happen to put these people in the same academic department. This really angered a lot of people. In fact, some of the most heated discussions (which weren't really discussions) I ever had were about the (boring) question of what should count as "philosophy". My former colleagues would invariably trot out some generalization that supposedly grouped together all these different areas of philosophy, but I always thought they did nothing but demonstrate my colleagues' appalling ignorance of what was happening outside their own cloistered department. Every single time they provided something that was supposed to differentiate philosophy from other fields, it was trivial to name another department (which was certainly not "philosophy"), in which that differentiating factor was on full display.
Academic philosophy is simply a loose agglomeration of different questions, methodologies, and topics. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. If the questions are good ones, and the methodologies are sound, then by all means, pursue those problems. But the fact that your offices are in the same building doesn't make it the case that you're doing the same thing.
Academic philosophy and sexism
"Academic philosophy", because it has no unifying subject-matter, is like a blank canvas on which people paint their biases.
I'll illustrate this with a hypothetical example, but one which I've seen play out on numerous occasions, especially in my former department. The department has a vacancy for a new professor, and there is a huge number of highly-qualified applicants. It is more than reasonable for the department to think strategically about who they should interview, and who they should ultimately hire. Departments have their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is frequently the case that a department develops a perceived strength in one area of philosophy, such as ethics or the philosophy of science. A standard strategy for deciding who to interview or hire for a job is to try to find someone who will add to the department's strengths, while also mitigating the department's weaknesses. For example, if a department is perceived to be strong in the philosophy of science, a case can be made for hiring someone whose primary research interest is in that area, but who also has competence in another area for which the department is lacking. For example, if the department is weak in ethics, then it might make sense for the department to hire someone whose primary interest is in a subfield of philosophy of science, but who also conducts research or has a lot of teaching experience in ethics. Or the department might reverse those priorities, deciding to emphasize finding someone who is strong in ethics in order to shore up that weakness.
The word you always hear is "fit". Some compromise between the department's strengths and weaknesses is settled-upon, and an applicant who matches that compromise is a "fit" for the department.
The trouble is that, paradoxically, we're talking about whether someone "fits" into a structure that has no specific boundaries, and in which there is no agreement about those boundaries. This provides some very convenient cover for someone who just isn't very comfortable with treating a woman as his equal.
If you want to make an argument against hiring someone, the best way is often to show that they're not a good "fit". There are two ways to be a bad "fit" -- you can overlap too much, or not enough. So the trick is to find a plausible way to redraw your disciplinary boundaries so that the person falls too far inside or too far outside these imaginary boundaries. For example, suppose a department has two epistemologists, and there is a candidate who is also an epistemologist. Is the candidate a good "fit"? Let's say that the two epistemologists the department already has, as well as the job applicant, are similar in some ways but not in others (which will always be the case, of course). It's possible, with equal plausibility, to argue that the job candidate is too much like the current members of the department (thus being too close to count as a "fit"), too far away (also not a good "fit"), or even that the job candidate isn't even doing epistemology in the first place, because that line is arbitrary to begin with. A candidate who doesn't even consider him- or herself to be an epistemologist may be seen by a department as an epistemologist; or the candidate may be viewed as being "not a philosopher" -- the ultimate insult! In fact, it's quite easy for almost any academic philosopher to find another equally qualified academic philosopher who will claim that she is not actually working in the area that she thought she was.
This is emphatically not a hypothetical scenario. It happens all the time. When faculty are plotting and scheming about how to get their preferred person hired, the plots and schemes are typically about how to paint the undesirable candidate as not "really" a philosopher, or not "really" an ethicist, or not "really" a philosopher of science. I've heard plenty of people described as "really" a historian, or "really" a mathematician. Or, conversely, the scheme is to paint an undesirable candidate as too close to an current faculty member. The phrase one hears is, "Do we really need another faculty member who does the same thing as Professor so-and-so?". I've certainly been painted as "not really a philosopher" because my work often contained math, and I had gone so far as to actually collaborate with computer scientists. But as someone who thinks that "philosophy" is not a field of study at all, it never seemed improper to leave the department for an afternoon to have coffee with someone from the other side of campus.
But what does this have to do with sexism? The answer is that it provides fabulous cover for sex discrimination. When you're not comfortable with someone because of their gender, you can oppose their being hired, being awarded tenure, and so on by redrawing a set of disciplinary boundaries that were never real to begin with. In my experience, there are many victims of this strategy, but a disproportionate number of them are women.
The genius of this strategy is that when you redraw your discipline's boundaries in order to exclude someone, you are being no more arbitrary than when you redraw those boundaries to include someone else. The victim of this fraud is unable to point to any specific aspect of the hiring (or promotion) process that was unfairly or arbitrarily applied to her, because the entire process is a sham to begin with, from the moment a job advertisement is formulated that lists desired areas of expertise (those areas of expertise are, after all, themselves totally arbitrary). You can't point to a lie that was applied to your case when exactly similar lies were uniformly applied to everyone.
And of course, the perpetrators of this strategy have excellent cover. There are, after all, legitimate debates about what counts as "good" or "real" philosophy. So when a particular set of disciplinary boundaries are strategically chosen, there is an actual argument to be made that is capable of justifying that choice. Thus, someone who is engaged in sex discrimination can easily make an argument that he's only being rational, and that his judgment about "fit" is reasonable and principled.