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PPE: Where are all the women?

Bee Boileau reflects on the experiences of women studying PPE in Oxford and the impact of the lack of female representation in the subject.

Fewer women than men named Greg are speaking at Oxford PPE Society events this term.

Their termcard, released a couple of weeks ago, included thirteen men and only one woman. To add insult to injury, the single woman’s name was spelt wrong, as “Bonnie Honnig” rather than “Honig”.

Image via PPE Society Facebook

The lack of female representation seems less surprising when the composition of PPE Soc’s committee is considered. Its committee page reveals that all executive office-holders were male in Trinity 2020: the president, president-elect, secretary, treasurer, head of events, head of sponsorship, and head of marketing. Its description page mentions the notable speakers it has previously invited: all four are male, however it is true that in Trinity 11 of 25 speakers were women.

The PPE Society is not alone. All nine speakers invited by Oxford Economics Society this term were male. It had another all-male term-card in Hilary Term last year, with eight men and no women. While the society has a female president, all other members of its executive committee are male. Oxford’s Philosophy Society is only slightly better. It invited a single woman this term (alongside five men).


PPE has a problem when it comes to gender: speaker lists like this both exemplify the problem and go some way to further it.

Only 37.3% of UK students admitted to the degree between 2017 and 2019 were female, according to Oxford admissions statistics. Once in, women are less likely to get firsts in finals.

Tutors and reading lists are overwhelmingly male, too. Last year, People for Womxn in Philosophy (PWIP) highlighted the fact that only 2 of 42 first-year General Philosophy readings were by women, and released an alternative reading list. An optional feminist philosophy course was only introduced in 2018. In Finals core lectures this term (Michaelmas 2020), 15 men are giving philosophy lectures, compared to only two women (one of whom is teaching the feminist philosophy course).

This was one reason Musiab Bhat, President of the Oxford PPE Society, offered for the lack of women on term-cards: “Many of the academics we invite,” he wrote in an email to Cherwell, “are from our reading lists, which tend to be weighted towards men.”

“I’ve only been taught by one woman throughout my whole degree,” Nino Tsouloukidse, a third-year PPE-ist, told Cherwell. “And the reason I was taught by a woman was because I do the feminism and philosophy special subject; I’m pretty sure some of us won’t have been taught by any women at all.”

There is a dearth of female mentors in the field: Millie Prince-Hodges, another PPE-ist, said: “Until I had a female tutor, academia seemed like it could never be for me. I’d never been able to picture myself as an academic, because there are so few role models presented to us.”

And female tutors can be more than role models – they can make other aspects of the course more inclusive. “I had one female tutor,” said Asisa Singh, a PPE-ist at Queen’s, “and you could really see the difference in the reading lists. We read lots of women, feminist critiques, non-white thinkers. I loved her classes.” Especially given the subjects within PPE, she said, women writers were important: “When you’re talking about justice, how can you ignore the most marginalised figures?”

Smaranda Moroșanu, at Oriel, had had one female tutor, who “fostered a very different environment in her tutorials. The usual tendency is for male students to be more verbose, which isn’t usually correlated to the quality of their arguments. The only tutor who flagged that was my female one.”


The absence of women – as speakers, tutors, and classmates – contributes to a male-dominated atmosphere. “I felt my self-esteem drop when I came here,” Prince-Hodges said.

Image by Beatrice Boileau

“In this environment – where you have no female role models, no female classmates, you don’t see women in the readings – your confidence in the work you produce is undermined.”

“Often I’ve said things and my [male] tutorial partners rephrased them, more loudly, and been praised,” she told Cherwell. All of the PPE-ists I talked to could recall specific tutorials where male tutorial partners had monopolised the tutorial without their (usually male) tutor intervening.

Tsouloukidse described a first-year politics tutorial, where she was criticised for not being assertive enough, and told that this was because she was a woman. “I know it was well-intended,” she said, but being told to write more like a man “just reinforced the idea that to do well in a male-dominated world you have to act like one.”

“In my opinion the degree does foster an environment where typically male characteristics are encouraged, like being assertive, loud, having political discussions for the sake of it rather than about content,” Tsouloukidse said.  


Some colleges are trying to improve matters. Balliol’s intake of PPE-ists in 2019 had more women than men, and the college has begun hosting women-only days for prospective state-school applicants. Christ Church, too, holds ‘women in PPE’ events each year to encourage female applicants. Somerville’s third-year cohort has equal numbers of men and women, and the college has female tutors in politics and philosophy.

And some women are taking matters into their own hands: Moroșanu told me about a group of female PPE-ists at Oriel, the ‘PPEttes’. “I’d recommend that all women in PPE do something similar,” she said, describing how helpful she’d found it to share experiences and strategies.

“We recognise that there is a broad problem of female representation in Economics,” said the Economics Society when approached for comment; the PPE Society said similar, acknowledging that there was “still much work to be done.” Both societies stated that they had tried to invite more female speakers; the PPE Society pointed out that, although in Trinity they had had no women in their executive committee, they had “a number of women” (two) this term. 


Despite these attempts, the societies’ termcards and committees remained immensely male-dominated. It’s particularly worrying that Oxford student societies are furthering the underrepresentation of women. As Singh tells me, “We put on events and societies because we don’t think we’re getting these things from our degree.”. But if there are so few women tutors, lecturers, authors, classmates, “where are people supposed to get [a woman’s perspective] from?”

Both the Economics and PPE Societies told Cherwell that it had been difficult to get female speakers; the PPE Society had “invited over 50 women,” while Economics Society had “invite[d] a number of female speakers but were unable to confirm any due to busy speaker schedules.” And both pointed out the lack of female representation within politics, philosophy, and economics, as a factor complicating the invitation of women. 

But many PPE-ists I spoke to were sceptical of this excuse. “It’s not the case that you just can’t get women,” Singh said. “I’ve managed events, and that just doesn’t hold up. It’s not true that there are no women politicians or economists. Occasionally it might be harder, but the fact that [it isn’t a primary concern] says so much about the priorities of people running these societies.”

Moroșanu agreed: “It’s these societies’ responsibility to make more of an effort,” she said: “I was part of the Oxford Women in Business society for two years. We had no problems finding very qualified women in these areas to speak. If you’re committed, it can easily be done.”

Seeing successful female academics is good in terms of encouraging female students, as Prince-Hodges pointed out: including woman speakers also just adds interest. As Singh said, “it would make their termcard better. It’s about having different perspectives.”

“It matters – of course it matters,” said Prince-Hodges about the lack of women on termcards: “Gender does affect how you view the world.”

The PPE Society – aiming to ‘host the world’s leading figures’ – is symptomatic of a broader issue with the degree. When only men are deemed ‘leading figures’, invited to talk at prestigious societies, included on the core PPE readings, and teaching undergraduates, is it surprising that women are less likely to apply, to be accepted, and to excel?

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