Newsletter < Women in Philosophy of Science

Women in Philosophy of Science

In our Three Minute Interview series, we ask prominent women in philosophy of science what's good, what's bad, and what can still improve for women and other under-represented groups in philosophy.

Profile: Alisa Bokulich

Alisa Bokulich is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Philosophy and History of Science, at Boston University. She is also an Associate Member in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. Professor Bokulich is the author of Re-examining the Quantum-Classical Relation: Beyond Reductionism and Pluralism (2008); and the co-editor of Philosophy of Quantum Information and Entanglement (2010); Scientific Structuralism (2010); and Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions—50 Years On (2015). Professor Bokulich has organized the series Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science since 2010 and she is one of the Co-Editors in Chief of the Boston Studies in Philosophy of Science. Her current projects are on scientific modelling in the earth sciences and on developing what she calls the “eikonic” view of scientific explanation. From January 2018 she is elected member of the Governing Body of the Philosophy of Science Association.

Three Minute Interview

Let us start with the bad news. What strikes me as surprising is that we are still in a generation of “firsts”. I was surprised to find out that I was the first woman to get promoted with tenure in the Philosophy Department at Boston University (despite the department's long history). And I was the first woman to become Director of a Centre for Philosophy and History of Science in North America. It is remarkable that in the 21st century we are still trying to break these barriers (but at least we are finally crossing those bridges now). When I first published my book as a junior woman in philosophy of science, even though the book was published at Cambridge University Press, I had a hard time finding journals that were willing to review it; there was just not an awareness of the importance of recognizing the work of junior female philosophers at the time. Indeed it was primarily physicists—not philosophers—who initially paid attention to the book. Similarly, even just five years ago, we would still see all male-conferences and all male-edited collections. This is still an issue that we as a field are struggling to address satisfactorily and to overcome.

The good sign is that we are making progress; women are making it into higher-profile positions; our work is getting out there and recognized, and our numbers are growing. That is all very encouraging.

One place where we still need to make far more progress is when it comes to minorities (especially racial minorities) who are still woefully under-represented in philosophy of science. There the numbers are abysmal. As we go forward, we need to be more proactive in making the field more inclusive for minorities.

Coming to the good news, when I became director of the Centre for Philosophy and History of Science, I had the opportunity to think about what areas of philosophy of science I wanted to promote. And I made a point of trying to have an event every year dedicated to "gender, race, sexuality and science" issues. Feminist philosophy of science (broadly construed) was an area that was marginalized for long time, and just in the seven years that I have been Director, I have seen the field bloom and flourish into one of the most exciting sub-fields; this is exciting progress.

Another place where we see great progress is in the Women's Caucus at the PSA and EPSA. A decade ago, there were maybe a dozen women who came to the PSA Caucus and now it is well over 100. If you look at the conference programmes and meetings, it is great to see so many young and up-and-coming philosophers of science. That is good news and fantastic progress. 

As far as addressing the underrepresentation of minorities, I am currently working with the Women's Caucus, and we have formed a sub-Committee called UPSS (Underrepresented Philosophy of Science Students) and we are hoping to develop UPSS mentoring programmes, where we pair junior scholars in underrepresented groups with senior philosophers of science in their subject areas to help them develop a rough draft of a paper or talk into one that can be presented at the PSA. We are just getting UPSS launched and we hope to have a dedicated session at future PSA meetings, if we can get the program approved. The sciences have been more proactive in their mentoring programmes and it is good to see philosophy of science finally catching up. 

I would give two pieces of advice. One, follow your heart in your research interests. Often you will find that you see the field in a different way from somebody else, or that there is an interesting question in an area that has been neglected; or you are approaching an old question in new ways. Often times women or minorities are more likely to second-guess themselves about these issues. I want to encourage women and minorities to get out there and talk about the issues that they think matter. Thinking of my book again, I had the audacity to publish a book in the philosophy of physics that did not talk about the measurement problem nor about interpretations of quantum mechanics. It was very hard to trust my instinct that there were other important issues than these two which have dominated the field for so long, and that it was ok not to talk about the measurement problem like everyone else seemed to be doing. I want to encourage other women and minorities to do the same. Underrepresented groups have a lot of great perspectives and ideas to bring, and they should trust their instincts and follow their hearts with the topics. 

Second piece of advice: do not be afraid to reach out, build communities, and ask for help. Women and minorities often feel isolated if there are not large numbers. There might not be good female mentors in their department for them to reach out to; or they are too shy to ask a senior colleague at another university for feedback on their paper. I want to encourage them to get their work out there. We are all in a process of learning; we are all trying to advance these challenging questions in the field; we all have opportunities to learn from each other. Do not be afraid. Just get even your rough ideas out there, no matter how unpolished it might be (women and minorities may tend to submit fewer papers to journals because they hold themselves to higher standards). Reach out to other students and faculty in the philosophy of science around the world. Reach out to scientists. Submit more conference and journal papers, and get the feedback that you need to improve the quality of your research. 

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