Did women in academia cause wokeness?

As I’ve argued before, the two key events giving rise to the Great Awokening (the sudden increase in woke sentiment beginning in around 2012) were the launch of social media and the Occupy Wall Street protests. These two events led to the formation of a bootlegger-baptist coalition, with social-media activists as the self-righteous baptists, and woke corporations as the self-serving bootleggers. This woke coalition then proceeded to engineer the most rapid cultural shift in recent history.

However, those two events didn’t occur in a vacuum. While they may explain the timing of the Great Awokening – why it got going in around 2012 – they aren’t sufficient to explain its origins. Indeed, there are several contextual factors without which the Great Awokening might never have happened. One is the legal regime instigated by the Civil Rights Act – something Richard Hanania has written about in detail. And another is the massive leftward shift of academia: the increase in the proportion of academics with left-wing views, and the corresponding rise of Grievance Studies.

The best illustration of academia’s leftward shift is this chart, which shows the proportion of US academics identifying as “Far left/liberal” and “Far right/conservative” from 1989–90 to 2013–14. All the data come from the same long-running survey, so there can be little doubt that the shift is real, as opposed to being due to changes in methodology. As the chart’s creator, Sam Abrams, notes, “The data is comparable and responsibly collected over a long period of time.” (Though I’m not aware of any more recent data, it’s plausible that the dark blue line is now even higher.)

I suspect that most of academia’s leftward shift was due to self-reinforcing processes: social homophily (conservatives not wanting to enter a profession where there aren’t many conservatives); political typing (conservatives feeling that an academic career “isn’t for them” in the same way that some women feel that a construction career “isn’t for them”); and discrimination (conservatives being discriminated against in hiring, research and funding).

However, one other possible cause of academia’s leftward shift, and of the rise of woke activism in particular, is the influx of women into that institution. Note: this factor is at least partly exogenous to the phenomenon we’re trying to explain. Although more women may have entered the academy in part because it became more left-wing (people with left-wing views tend to be more concerned about gender equality), the influx was also caused by the general rise in opportunities for women in society.

Incidentally, I’m focusing almost entirely on the US because that’s where the Great Awokening started, and that’s where most of the relevant data come from. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of “faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions” who are women increased from 33% in 1987 to 50% in 2018. Note: the figure of ‘50%’ includes part-time as well as full-time faculty, and masks considerable differences by level of seniority. For example, there are still twice as many male professors as female professors. Nonetheless, it’s clear that there are many more women in academia than there used to be.

So, why would the influx of women into academia have contributed to its leftward shift, and to the rise of woke activism in particular? As the psychologist Cory Clark notes, women are consistently less supportive of free speech than men, and consistently more supportive of censorship. Compared to men, they’re more likely to say: that hate speech is violence; that it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker; that controversial scientific findings should be censored; that people need to be more careful about the language they use; and that it should be illegal to say offensive things about minorities.

Clark argues, convincingly in my view, that this stems from women’s greater aversion to harm and conflict. They interpret various forms of speech as harmful to vulnerable groups, and wish to censor them for that reason. Whether these gender differences are cross-cultural universals remains a matter of debate. Women being more averse to harm and conflict would certainly make sense from an evolutionary point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the differences are hard-wired. As with most traits that vary, I suspect there’s both a genetic and an environmental component. And whatever the precise mix, women’s greater aversion to harm and conflict does show up in many WEIRD countries, not least the United States.

Clark isn’t the only scholar to have noticed that women’s aversion to harm and conflict has profound implications for academia. Drawing on the work of psychologist Joyce Benenson, Arnold Kling notes: “Women have a social strategy that works well for protecting their individual health and the health of their children: emphasize safety, covertly undermine the status of unrelated females, and exclude rivals rather than reconcile with them.” This leads him to speculate that adding a lot of women to formerly male domains has made the culture of those domains more consistent with female tendencies. “The older culture valued open debate,” Kling notes. “The newer culture seeks to curtail speech it regards as dangerous.”

We know that, on average, women are less favourable to free speech and more favourable to censorship. Is there any more specific evidence that this has changed the culture of academia? Yes, as I will explain in the remainder of this article.

First, women are disproportionately represented in Grievance Studies (i.e., disciplines like Gender Studies and Critical Race Theory), which are often little more than a vehicle for left-wing activism. The chart below shows the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women for different humanities disciplines. Notice the light green line at the top: almost 80% of bachelor’s degrees in “Ethnic, Gender, and Cultural Studies” are awarded to women.

The next chart shows the same information for doctoral degrees. Once again, notice the light green line at the top: about 65% of doctoral degrees in “Cultural, Ethnic, & Gender Studies” are awarded to women – a higher percentage than in any other subject shown. (Note: women are also disproportionately represented in biomedical science, which is obviously more rigorous than Grievance Studies; though it’s becoming increasingly woke.)

As I mentioned above, academia has a substantial left-wing skew. Interestingly, this skew appears to be greater among female academics than among male ones. In a 2016 paper, Mitchell Langbert and colleagues analysed voter registration data on approximately 4,000 US academics. As the table below indicates, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was “only” 9:1 among men, but it was almost 25:1 among women. An alternative way to summarise these data is to say that while 10% of male academics are Republicans, less than 4% of female academics are.

Thanks to Mark Horowitz and colleagues, we also have detailed surveys from two of the most left-leaning disciplines: sociology and anthropology. The table below shows the proportion of male versus female sociologists (from a sample of 479) who agreed and disagreed with various items. Compared to men, women were more likely to say that “Sociology should be both a scientific and moral enterprise”, and that “Sociology should analyze and transcend oppression”. They were less likely to say that “More political conservatives would benefit discipline”, and that “Advocacy and research should be separate for objectivity”.

What about anthropology? The next table shows the proportion of male versus female anthropologists (from a sample of 301) who agreed and disagreed with various items. Compared to men, women were more likely to say that “Science is just one way of knowing”, and that “Postmodern theories have made important contribution”. They were less likely to say that “Field is undermined by antiscientific attitudes”, and that “Advocacy and fieldwork kept separate for objectivity”.

Finally, there is the evidence supplied by Eric Kaufmann in his mammoth report for the CSPI. Kaufmann compiled data from several different surveys of graduate students and academics. He found that women were more likely to support dismissal campaigns, more likely to discriminate against conservatives, and more likely to support diversity quotas for reading lists. Overall, they had significantly more left-wing views. To quote Kaufmann: “if the share of women rises, we should expect the balance of internal opinion to move in the direction of emotional safety over academic freedom.”

Compared to men, women are less pro-free speech and more pro-censorship. Within academia itself, they are more left-wing, more inclined toward activism, and less inclined toward dispassionate inquiry. And they’re disproportionately represented in disciplines like Race and Gender Studies. It’s important to note, of course, that this is Not All Women! I’m only talking about averages: some men are pro-censorship than most women; and some women are more pro-free speech than the vast majority of men. Nonetheless, the differences do exist (at least in the Anglosphere).

It’s therefore plausible that the influx of women into academia over the last thirty years contributed to academia’s leftward shift, and to the rise of woke activism in particular. (It was by no means the only contributor; most of academia’s leftward shift was probably caused by social homphiliy, political typing, discrimination and other self-reinforcing processes.) To the extent that women’s entry into academia did contribute to its leftward shift, the phenomenon can be considered one of several factors that led to the Great Awokening.

Image: Benjamin Couprie, 1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics, 1927


The Daily Sceptic

I’ve written five more posts since last time. The first summarises a study suggesting that long Covid is mostly psychosomatic. The second argues that vaccine effectiveness against death may have been overestimated. The third notes that Sweden has had negative excess mortality since January of 2020. The fourth summarises a study finding that, conditional on infection, the vaccines don’t protect against death in over 60s. The fifth summarises a study finding that the use of woke jargon like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in scientific research proposals has increased massively.


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