Although I have been a long time reader of your blog, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am, however, in a related field, and find myself interacting fairly regularly with philosophers both at academic philosophy conferences and over the internet. I would like to share with you the substance of an outrageous exchange I have borne witness to via a listserv I am subscribed to.
For those readers that don’t use them, a listserv is an email list where messages are sent to a large number of subscribers. Often, people have conversations with each other over the listserv via “reply-all” email messages (which means that everyone on the listserv ends up as a silent party to these).
Usually, my listserv has been generally apolitical and professional. However, recently a series of exchanges occurred that were very ugly indeed. The context of this exchange was that the candidates for prestigious graduate postdoctoral and graduate fellowships had been announced. Three of the fourteen positions had gone to female applicants. A female professor suggested that—given the large number of applications—female applicants were badly underrepresented in the small sample of successful applicants. Her concerns were rudely dismissed. But the manner of this dismissal is what shocked me. It revealed the side of professional philosophy that accepts casual misogyny and is dismissive of taking action against it.
In order to provide evidence of this, I’ll reproduce the important parts of this conversation here verbatim. I have removed any reference to any individual, the specific fellowship, or the specific subfield of philosophy. Remarks that I did not find offensive are not reproduced here.
“Has there been a year when the majority [of the successful applicants] were women? In the case of a confidential selection process, has there been a year in which the committee doing the selecting contained a majority of women? Apparently, whenever you start and whenever you stop counting, the count looks very similar from year to year, which is in itself interesting information. Why, when women are more than half the population and quite a bit more than half the students, would anyone claim to see any bias here? What sort of point is that to make?”
Male Professor #1:
“Dear [Female Professor #1], would you please consider to accept it as a matter of fact that in the field of [philosophy subfield] there are less active women than men?! If you want a quota reflecting this fact, three out of ten speakers should be women at the most. If you don’t like the fact of there being less women than men in the field, try to encourage girls and women to occupy themselves with it. No reason to annoy everyone with your foolish bleating all the time.”
Male Professor #2:
“Perhaps, [Male Professor #1], it’s condescending remarks (and worse) like yours that suggest the climate is not very welcoming?”
Male Professor #1:
“My remark was not very polite because it’s not polite at all to constantly accuse others of working against women in [subfield] while organizing conferences etc., which is very tiring.”
Male Professor #3:
“Facts concerning distribution of gender across a population should have no bearing on facts concerning distribution of abilities in [philosophy subfield] (and thus determination of meritorious holders of academic positions in [philosophy subfield]).”
The outcry that followed basically amounted to “stop talking about this – we can discuss academic politics at our yearly meeting.” Although other posters took the idea that women face systemic discrimination, the idea of questioning the selection process for the fellowships was not discussed.
As I said before, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am not concerned about the fellowships—I obviously have no stake in who gets them. But I know that these comments reveal a “blunt sexism” that I find unacceptably narrow-minded and dismissive. It angers me on behalf of the female philosophers I know—any of whom might find that similar sexist attitudes might cost them a chance at a fellowship someday—and I felt that I could, at least, share this outrageous episode with this blog. Academia, and particularly philosophy, should be capable of dealing with this problem than to tell a respected female academic (publically!) to “stop bleating”.
As I look back at what just happened, I’m confused. I don’t know what the “answer” is, if there is one, and I do not mean to shame anyone personally (although in this case I am tempted to think that this might be well deserved). I was just disgusted and after mulling it over, I thought I should submit it to you.
To some degree, I feel ashamed and foolish for not speaking out more than I did; I should have given a strong, all-caps retort defending the right of female philosophers to question arcane (and clearly sexist) selection policies. It all happened quickly, and I didn’t really grasp what was happening until the “bleating” comment came out (just like everyone else, I tune out boring email–like discussing selection policies–and just like everyone else I probably shouldn’t). That is a reason but not an excuse.
I hope that I can spread awareness about the unfair selection procedures for fellowships with this submission to your blog. Young academics need to be able to see what is happening behind the curtain, and in this case it reveals that sexism is surprisingly overt.
I’m a MA student in an area of philosophy where there’re less women. I have a somewhat aggressive personality so I don’t find it too bothersome when I find myself in what might have been sexist situations. However, I sometimes observe other girls who are less aggressive than I am and it makes me sad watching them struggle to get their voice out over all the male students.
I was taking a UG/MA combined seminar course where the gender ratio is just slightly above 1:10. The professor is a male who is very conscious of gender issues and tries his best to be sensitive and fair. There are a few male students in the classroom who are fairly aggressive in general – they constantly cut each other off and always speak very loudly. I have interacted with them outside of class and, from what I can gather, they are not really sexists: they do hear my points and get into meaningful discussions with me. It’s probably just their personalities to be loud and have short attention spans.
What is unfortunate is the fact that these guys can be quite intimidating (without actually trying to intimidate) – they are bigger physically, louder, and appear to be more confident (irrespective of how well they understand the course material). Aside from myself, there is only one other girl who comes to classes every week. She is a quiet Asian girl who speaks very softly. Sometimes she would be making a very good point but the guys just started talking and no body could hear her. The prof is too polite to silence them and, even if he does manage to shush them, the girl would either be too intimidated to resume or thought she was making a stupid point – which she totally wasn’t. After a couple of times she just stopped speaking. Even if the prof asks her opinion (I suspect because he has noticed this) she would just say very little. I don’t think it’s fair to put all the blame on those guys, because it was supposed to be a free discussion, and people did cut each other off rather frequently. I’ve always wondered how anyone could’ve done anything to change the situation. It just feels to me that nobody is really at fault here (except maybe the guys can be a bit more respectful, but let’s face it, philosophical discussions can get quite intense).
I’m a postgraduate student at a UK university. A friend and I went to attend the first meeting of a newly convened Women In Philosophy society, and although no one had seemed to notice the irony that the first talk to be given was from a male lecturer, we were hopeful about the possibility for information and discussion. Before the talk began, there was a round table discussion between the undergrads, postgrads and faculty about why such a society might be needed. The topic of sexism in philosophy, and this blog specifically was raised. The male lecturer rolled his eyes, and claimed that any man in this university (or the philosophical field today) would be laughed out of the room for suggesting that women could not do philosophy as well as men could. Immediately four or five hands shot up around the room, and women shared stories of being asked why on earth they would want to study philosophy at university interviews, being told that they didn’t understand Hegel because they were female (?!), querying why feminism had been dropped from a module (the woman who taught it had gone on maternity leave), and noting the scarcity of female philosophers studied on available courses.
The male lecturer shook his head, and said that he had never witnessed any incidents of sexism at the university, and so he did not believe that it was occurring there. The discussion moved on to the idea of staff/teaching quotas, and was dominated by a male student who believed they were a terrible idea.
I went to the society again the next week, but there were fewer girls in the room. The week after, I stopped attending.
During the early part of the year, I attended a philosophy talk at a well known west-coast university. This talk was given by a famous philosopher, and was thoroughly enjoyable. During the talk, the philosopher made a claim along the lines of the following: that social structures are organised around sex. One well known male philosopher from this university who was in the audience then blurted out “I arrange my life around sex too!”
While some people laughed, I am quite sure that many did out of being uncomfortable with the comment. I did not laugh, and noticed that a number of the women who were in attendance looked at each other with a “WTF” face. I am appalled by the behaviour of this philosopher, and really didn’t know what to do or think given the circumstance. Ironically, the famous philosopher’s talk was on social structures, and how group dynamics are really important sites where injustice is prevalent.
As someone who self-identifies as male, I just don’t understand why commentary like this is acceptable. Given my place in the hierarchy in academia, I unfortunately feel like I would be retaliated against for speaking up. What is someone in my position (whether it be a graduate student, staff member, or faculty member) supposed to do in a situation like this? The comment given by the faculty member in the audience completely caught me off guard, and as I reflect upon this episode, I feel like I should have done something, even though I felt completely frozen when this comment was uttered. Seriously, something needs to be done about this – I just wish (A) I knew what to do then and (B) that I would avoid retaliatory action for doing the right thing.
If you have ideas about what to do, go over to FP and leave them in comments!
In an earlier post (“Avoid the Elites”) another person expressed their experience doing philosophy at a college that was not elite. While her experience is truly a breath of fresh air from the hundreds of experiences listed on this site, unfortunately it’s not guaranteed by attending a non-elite college. My own experience as a graduate student in a non-elite college was drastically different from hers and more in line with the other accounts on this site. (I wonder if this treatment differs based on education level- it’s easier for teaching schools to focus on developing female undergraduate students than it is for them to teach and encourage female graduate students. My own experience as an undergraduate student in philosophy at a different public university was certainly less hostile towards women.)
When I was a graduate student I found myself in two very disturbing situations. The first one occurred early in my graduate career. Our department hosted a conference and after the conference several graduate students decided to go out for dinner and drinks (this was a common occurrence). I joined them that evening because I wanted to get to know the other students in the department and there were other female graduate students who went out as well. After dinner and a drink I went outside to call a cab to bring me back to my apartment on the other side of town. A male graduate student in the department followed me and waited until I finished my call. Then he proceeded to grab me and forced a kiss confessing he wanted me. I pushed him away and told him off then waited inside the restaurant with the remaining graduate students for my cab to come. The male student pursued me and continued to badger me, reaching out and groping me whenever he passed by (and he made sure to pass by several times). The remaining graduate students were men and they didn’t say anything to him despite the fact they all observed the harasser wasn’t listening to my protests. Over the next several weeks the male student who harassed began sending sexual propositions via email and made several sexual remarks about me in the classroom before the professor arrived. I spoke to another female graduate student about the situation (as she had a problem with a male student before) in an attempt to get some advice on how to proceed. Our conversation was overheard by a friend of the male who harassed me and he reported parts of what was said to the dean of graduate affairs. He insisted that I was making the harasser’s time in the department difficult by creating rumors about him. A few days later I was approached by the faculty-student liaison and reprimanded for spreading rumors and making the department a hostile environment. This scolding occurred right near a group of philosophy graduate students. I tried to explain to the liaison the actual events which occurred that night but he said that wasn’t what he was told. He finally agreed to look into the matter and speak with the male harasser. I found out he never spoke with the male harasser.
My second experience occurred when I was working on my dissertation. I was assigned a junior faculty member as my dissertation advisor and mentor (because my topic was one he had recently wrote several articles on). In the early stages of writing my dissertation this male faculty member would meet with me once every month. About four months in, he stopped answering my emails and cancelled our previously scheduled meetings (usually on the day we were supposed to meet a few hours before the meeting). I wasn’t too worried at first because this male faculty member recently had some major changes in his personal life. It was only when I discovered that he become the advisor for three new male graduate students who were also starting their dissertation that I was concerned. Four months had already passed and I was nowhere near ready to write my prospectus. I continued to email my advisor and would occasionally get replies but they were vague and unhelpful. I looked at his responses (or lack thereof) charitably – obviously a result of his changing personal life. A month later, one of the male students he took on after me completed his dissertation prospectus and was well on his way towards writing his dissertation. In the month after that, another male student he was advising also completed their prospectus. I spoke with the second male student about how he found working with our advisor. He said nothing but praise and he even stated that our advisor would reply to his emails late in the evening and always wrote back to email within 24 hours. I continued to find strained communications with my advisor. I really didn’t understand how he could have time to work with two new students and get them to the point of completing their prospectus but he couldn’t even answer an email from me. I was at the top of my class and I had finished all of my degree requirements minus the dissertation. The other students still were completing the language requirement. I told my advisor in the beginning I wanted to finish my dissertation as quickly as possible considering my ABD status. Frustrated, I ended up changing my dissertation topic entirely so that I would have a renowned female philosopher at my university as my advisor. During my last year as a graduate student I discovered that the male junior faculty advisor I was initially assigned to had treated other female graduate students the same way he treated me. He ignored female graduate students when they participated in his class and he would not respond quickly (if he responded at all) to emails sent by female graduate students. He didn’t act this way with male students. I was very grateful and honored to have the senior female faculty member as my dissertation advisor despite the fact I had to drastically change my area of interest – so maybe it really was a blessing disguised as a curse.
As an UG, I attended a university that is moderate to mediocre in reputation. I say this as someone from a city that is highly concentrated with Ivy-leagues and their close seconds, so I went into the school feeling like I was already as a bit of a disadvantage if I wanted an academic career.
I chose to major in philosophy and a science, and pursue a B.S. over a B.A. I was maybe one of a handful of women in both departments when I started school, something that really changed (to my excitement) by the time I graduated. While in both of these departments, I was consistently approached by professors to participate in various out-of-classroom academic events, asked to mentor or speak with younger students (sometimes females, but most of the time just youngins) and even given a scholarship award based on merit in the philosophy department (ironically, the day I was awarded was the day I told them I had decided to minor in philosophy but fulfill the entire curriculum- I didn’t want to take the liberal arts requirements to get a B.A. as opposed to the B.S.). Suffice to say, I, as a very young-looking, outspoken, and conventionally good-looking enough female, was treated as one of the most favored students in the entire department (I not only felt/ appreciated this, but was told this by many other students in the department). As a consequence, other students (male and female) came to me with respectful, even playful discourses (I remember running away laughing from a male philosophy student as he shouted through our dorm room, “Examples don’t constitute arguments!”) and some even came to me for advice on papers when we were in the same classes. I had an excellent experience, graduated with my degree in science, and never looked back at it with anything but fond memories.
It wasn’t until reading this site, hearing from other female Philosophy students, and looking further into the matter that I realized that my situation wasn’t the norm. It had never even occurred to me that I should or could have been grateful for being treated the way all the other students were treated- that this was such a persistent and pervasive problem in other schools, and that I was lucky to escape something I didn’t know still existed.
I think the main difference here, honestly, is that because my school had a reputation as being less than elite, the professors were what I’d call “teaching professors” (think “teaching hospital” but in philosophy). They weren’t at the tops of their fields, nor were they churning out pieces for reputable journals like clockwork. This gave them the freedom to, well, mentor their students instead of competing with them. It made it such that students who were sincerely interested or invested in philosophy -male or female and even un-identified in one case- were treated with complete and utter respect and appreciation. The number of times I awkwardly approached a male professor to chat about some idea that came into my head at 3 AM the morning before and was met with nothing but an open mind…I feel blessed now to have gone to the school I went to.
The point of my story? I think there seems to be a heavy theme of “at X impressive university” and “Y elite school” within a lot of these posts. Perhaps the problem is cultural, but not the culture of philosophy in general…philosophy in the context of privilege and elitism. My advice to aspiring young philosophers? Go to the shitty schools. Make them better with your presence. Squeeze everything you can out of anyone who is willing to give you the opportunity, and take what you learn with you wherever you go. There is hope! The elites are only elites because they are coveted. Take that away from them…who knows what the future of philosophy could look like.
At the beginning of my undergraduate degree I had a routine meeting with the undergraduate advisor for the department. When I entered his office he looked me over quite thoroughly then asked me if I really wanted to major in Philosophy or if perhaps I had made a mistake when choosing my major. My immediate thought was “he doesn’t think I belong here….is there something obvious that he can tell just by looking at me that indicates that I don’t belong here studying philosophy?” I went on to do an MA in Philosophy but that experience epitomized the remainder of my philosophical education and is the main reason I am no longer in the field.