Why Are All The Public Intellectuals Men?

Nov 7, 2023

Nov 7, 2023

First, what is a "public intellectual?"

Here's a solid dictionary definition — "an intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs." It's arguably vague, but they have a big impact on public discourse.

Ok, so who is the modern day public intellectual?

The most identifiable people in this arena aren’t "traditional" scholars. They’re usually not researchers, scientists, or writers by education or trade. Instead, they seem to have just put themselves forth as vessels — to study the world, share their observations, and sprinkle in their own thinking along the way.

The other thing they have in common: they’re men.

At least the most "top-of-mind" ones seem to be. What’s the basis of this? Well, a lot of observations and studying the world. And asking who comes to mind when people hear the phrase “public intellectual.” One friend rattled off names of several prominent men, then paused for a minute and named one woman, admitting she needed to think longer to diversify the list.

So, what kinds of men do we recall as public intellectuals?

I call the first kind the “new media men.”

The work-life generalists like Tim Ferris. Social scientists like Sam Harris. Long-form interviewers like Lex Friedman. Modern shaman like Andrew Huberman. Social psychologists like Jordan Peterson. Sociopolitical pundits like Ben Shapiro. Modernized network hosts like Jon Stewart. Why do we all know of them? They preach on widely applicable topics and have adopted new media to go direct, to reach us online and in our ears.

A second kind are more "traditional" thought leaders.

Many of them still write as their primary medium. Essayists like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Non-fiction authors like Malcolm Gladwell. Journalistic elites like Ronan Farrow. Medical writers like Atul Gawande. Silicon Valley leaders-turned-philosophers like Naval Ravikant and Paul Graham. Many of these men exist most notably inside their fields, but transcend when their ideas can generalize.

And a third kind are the ultimate business magnates.

Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg. Sam Altman as the latest ascendant (and sometimes other wunderkinds). Elon Musk and the hosts of The All-In Podcast (a crossover with new media men). They’re rich, powerful, and backed up by their success. They are often the subject. And their words just carry weight.

Ok, so I listed about 20 men. Surely there are women too?

I tried to think of female names of my own accord — ones that surface with the same ease and awareness. The first few I came up with: Sheryl Sandberg, Brené Brown, Esther Perel, Arianna Huffington, Oprah.

They’ve all earned expert status in an intellectual craft. Many times, the crafts seem to be of a different type — more emotionally resonant. These women engage with the media too but often more traditionally. And they're mature, whereas the men seem to have a wider age range. There's a lot more I could analyze, but the main point is that the recall of such women itself is limited.

I’ve also attempted to find public lists on the topic. Turns out these also heavily feature men, especially at the top. And I've heard of most of the men listed, but very few of the women. Even the more casual lists on social media, “10 brilliant thinkers you should follow” and the like, tend to skew heavily male.

So, why are all the "public intellectuals" men?

There are a number of possibilities in my mind. Maybe it's bias? Maybe there are gatekeepers? Maybe there's something men do better? Maybe it's just a consequence of representation? Maybe it has something to do with "public intellectual" becoming more about "public" than "intellectual?"

I don't have the final answer. Though I suspect it’s probably some inscrutable combination of these hypotheses and others. And I’m certain it’s a phenomenon that permeates a lot of fields beyond just the public arenas that I observe.

Many in our modern society will view this as a problem to solve, and others will not. It's at least an observation that I can’t seem to unsee — a bit like when you buy a red car and then all you notice are red cars.

If I’ve noticed it, surely some of you have too?

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