- Chilly/masculine climates
- Sexual harrassment
- Implicit associations of philosophy with masculinity
- The content of philosophy itself
- The rampant idea in philosophy that M&E are "real philosophy" whereas areas more attractive to women and other historically underrepresented minorities (e.g. feminist philosophy, critical race theory, etc.) are "not real philosophy"
I think there's probably some truth to all of these explanations -- yet none of them entirely jibe with my (admittedly anecdotal) experience with female students. As several people point out in comments over at the Smoker, it's well-known that females tend to leave philosophy very early on as undergraduates -- basically, somewhere between intro classes and medium-level undergraduate courses. This is, obviously, very peculiar -- and I'd like to speculate on the basis of my experience why it occurs.
My feeling is that female students tend to find common philosophical methods to be alienating. What, after all, are our methods? Let's go all the way back to Socrates in The Republic. Socrates goes through an entire project of developing a hypothetical just city. He talks about workers, guardians, etc. It's all abstraction -- and, as we all know, this does seem to be a problematic feature of his account. He's talking about workers and guardians almost entirely in the abstract, largely ignoring what real people are like, and what sorts of concerns they might have as people. There's just no heart to any of it.
Now turn to something that one might expect female students to tend to find attractive (but in my experience they don't): Judith Thompson's article on abortion, with the whole violinist case. In my experience, female undergraduates -- as much as they like the idea of freedom of choice -- often find the argument itself very alienating, even rather horrifying. There's just so little heart in it. It's mostly about whether one has a right to let a poor violinist die. As compelling as the argument is, it also seems rather...heartless.
Third, consider "core" areas of analytic philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology. My experience here is that female students tend to find the debates in these areas as overly "academic" -- as silly games that their male peers tend to find totally oddly fascinating. Indeed, it is always very striking to me that the moment I begin doing anything M&E in my intro courses, the male students largely seem to come alive whereas the females tend to have this look of "my goodness, do people really waste their time on this!?"
Now, I don't mean to affirm anything like the naive -- and rather offensive -- view that men are "thinkers" and women "feelers." My claim is different. It seems to me that my female students are -- for whatever reason -- put off by their perception that philosophy has no feeling in it. This isn't to say, in any way, that men are "thinkers" and women "feelers." If anything, it is to suggest that female students (perhaps because of their better upbringing?) tend to better balance analytical thinking and feeling than male undergraduate students -- and this too coheres with my experience. It shocks me when my male students defend (as they too often do) what strike me as overly abstract and rather heartless positions, particularly in ethics and political philosophy (where, again, male students in my experience tend to focus on emotionally cold assertions about rights, and indeed, it seems more and more male students find attractive the very extreme libertarian position that no one ever has a right to expect anything from anyone).
Anyway, these are just some speculations based on my experience. My experience -- and again, it is only anecdotal -- is that female students tend to be alienated by the very way that philosophers go about answering questions. It's not just about content or perceived masculinity. It is about sapping philosophy of almost all feeling whatsoever. Finally, quite aside from the issue of whether this is what drives women away, this seems to me an important issue in its own right. Why, when feelings are so much a part of what makes us human -- and what separates us from psychopaths -- does so much philosophy (particularly moral and political philosophy) proceed in such an obviously "cold" way: with abstract models like the state of nature or Rawls' original position, as opposed to the much more embodied perspectives of feminist epistemology, etc.?