I am a graduate student at a top university. It has taken me over a year to decide to write this. These events have not only hurt me on a deep personal level,compromised my chances in the field, and most importantly have made me question my philosophical abilities. I will recount not a single incident, but an series of incidents.
Two years ago, as a visiting perspective student I met the leading expert in my area and the most famous philosopher in the department at a welcoming party. As I approached with another male prospective student, he launched into a rant about how female philosophy students just tend to be weaker students and that he had a mind to start a tutoring team for female students in this department. When I suggested that the team should be available for anyone seeking help, either male or female, he emphatically replied that it is the female population that needs help not dropping out. When I met him in his office the next day, he continued on his point. Weeks later I was about to take another offer when the department secretary emailed me letting me know that an additional sum has been added to my package. I took this as a sign that that professor felt apologetic and really did want me to join the department and accepted their offer.
A couple of months into the semester, at a conference after party he leaned towards me and half asked, half suggested that my main adviser and letter writer at my undergraduate department (a famous philosopher) gets “chummy” with his female students. I firmly replied that has never been the case (and after 5 years at that department and many friendships with grad students, I know that that professor is a decent and good human being). He went on to insist that he is in the know and then put his arm around me. I just slid away and later told myself that the whole night was probably just a fluke and that he had too much to drink and probably doesn’t even remember it.
An uneventful year later, I was doing an independent study with him when he expressed enthusiasm about my idea and even said that it was publishable. Later, he placed himself very close to me and then touched my hand as I was handing him an article. I pretended that it didn’t happen and finished the meeting as usual. Later that day, I brought my fiance to the department party and introduced him around. He glared at me but didn’t make contact. After that evening, everything started to change. He started ignoring my hand during seminar, screaming at me in public, calling me incomprehensible to other grad students at bars and so forth. In the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day he emailed me saying that I have no future in philosophy and that “others agree” with him and so forth. I asked the chair whether there was an ongoing consensus on my philosophical potential amongst the faculty and he denied it to be the case. He then told me in reply to my complaint that he “cannot make a professor like a student” and that was that.(Incidentally, the chair was good friends with that professor and was also the one who put his hand on my lower stomach at a party and told me “don’t get knocked up” when I entered in on a conversation about preschools between him and another male grad student). Grad students started treating me differently. I remained in that seminar to stand my ground and show that I cannot be bullied. He was co-teaching this seminar with another elderly, well respected philosopher. One day this elderly gentleman asked this professor to give him a case of ‘X wants some Y’. That professor looked at me and said “He wants some young mail-order bride [from country Z]” and laughed (everyone knew, including him, that I was [from country Z]). Everyone started to laugh with him, including the elderly professor. I raised my hand and said “isn’t this example sort of inappropriate?” and the elderly professor replied through his laughing tears “oh excuse me” and continued laughing.
Archive for the ‘assumptions about women’ Category
I am a MA student in a competitive humanities graduate program at a prestigious university. Upon first discovering this blog I was absolutely shocked by the sheer scale of misogyny that is operating within undergraduate and graduate programs on both a national, and international level. Now, after spending the past seven months working within a graduate-level academic environment I can safely say that I am considerably less shocked.
On the first day of my program-mandated introductory philosophy seminar the professor asked that all class members choose a topic off of a compiled list that would serve as the basis for our final term presentation. Since no one else in my (all-male) class had chosen Marxist theory, I offered to structure my presentation around Marx’s conception of historical materialism. In response, my professor said that he thought that I would find Marxism, “too hard,” and that I should switch presentation days with a male member of my class so that I could present on an “easier topic.” This switch may have been justified if I were struggling in the class, but this was the first time I had ever met this professor and he had no basis upon which to evaluate my intellectual abilities.
A second incident occurred a few months into the program. During the Fall semester all MA’s and PhD’s within my program are required to apply to a variety of grants in the hopes that an external funding agency will back our proposed research projects. In order to meet the grant requirements, all students are required to submit two academic letters of reference. Since I was new in the department I decided to ask one of my seminar instructors if it would be possible for him to provide me with such a reference. He said that he would have no problem with writing me a letter, but he said that he would like to have a beer with me later on during the week to discuss my research interests further (which would presumably help him to write a better letter of support). The night after meeting with this faculty member I received an email from him saying that he found my research interests “sexy” and would enjoy hearing more about my work at a later date.
Finally, at the end of the Fall semester my supervisor suggested that I meet with a faculty member working within another department, as he was working on a similar topic and would be able to provide me with some in-depth feedback on a paper that I had recently written. The meeting started out really well, with the faculty member providing me with a useful critique of my latest work. He ended the meeting on a different note however, saying that since he had done something for me, “would I be willing to do something for him in return?” After shifting uncomfortably in my seat for a few minutes he ended the conversation by saying “nevermind” and looking away. I left our meeting shortly after, saying that I was running late and had to catch a train.
Although my experiences are not as extreme as those mentioned by other female contributors, I do feel as though they are examples of sexist acts, and that members of academic communities should be taking action against chauvinism in all of its forms.
Several years ago I visited the Department X as a prospective graduate student in philosophy. A group of prospective and current grad students gathered that evening for drinks at a local bar, and discussion turned to the faculty, and eventually the lone female faculty member at the time: Y. One of the other prospective students commented, “Can you believe she drives a minivan?!?” My interest was piqued. This was heartening news. “Y drives a minivan?” I thought. “Maybe I can do this after all. Maybe I can be a woman and a mother and a philosophy professor all at once.” I was childless at the time, but I was hungry for signs that a person like me – a woman with an interest in family life – could find a place in the world of philosophy. These signs are few and far between. The previous one came when my undergraduate advisor told me that she had gone to a Tupperware party. I suspect she still has no idea how important that one comment was to my decision to try graduate school in philosophy.
It wasn’t until later that night that it dawned on me that the speaker did not mean the comment the way I took it. He meant it derisively. He meant that it was preposterous to think that someone could be a philosopher and a mommy. I felt so stupid. In my eagerness for a role model I had completely overlooked his tone. I also felt very, very angry – both because he had sneered at one of my heroes and because he had shit all over one of my cherished and rare points of identification with professional philosophy. “Fuck him,” I thought. “Y is the amazingly accomplished professor, and he’s just a prospective grad student. What does he know?”
I ended up attending a different graduate program in philosophy, and now, several years into the program, I am married and pregnant with twins. Faced with the challenge of squeezing two infant car seats and a labrador retriever into the back seat of a sedan, we bought a minivan. This prompted some reflection on “the minivan comment” that I remember so clearly.
The truth is that I find it harder and harder to muster that “fuck you” spirit every time I feel like an outsider. I have never felt so alienated from the profession of philosophy as I do now that I am pregnant – and I didn’t exactly feel like “one of the gang” prior to being pregnant, either. I have formed close friendships with other grad students in my program, but almost all of them are men whose attitudes toward family life range from indifferent to downright hostile. Most are not in committed long term relationships, and none have children or have even expressed an interest in having children. From what I have seen of the faculty in my program, these demographics do not change very much at the professor level, either. I guess some of the indifferent male grad students go on to find partners and have children as faculty, but they certainly aren’t driving the minivan themselves.
I am angry at myself for being in this position, for being isolated and without woman friends or friends of any gender who are having children. Lately I think that graduate school was a huge mistake: as much as I enjoy studying philosophy, I wasn’t thinking clearly about whether a career in philosophy would fit in with my other plans and interests. If I had been thinking clearly, I probably would have sought a career in which I would be employed by now at a job with maternity leave benefits, so that I would have something to come back to after the first few weeks or months of my children’s lives. Instead I am standing at that juncture between graduate school and a post-doc or employment, unsure that I even want to mount the exhausting and demoralizing campaign one needs to mount to get a job in this profession. I love philosophy, but I suspect I could also love (or at least like!) another profession that is not so inhospitable to mothers.
I don’t know whether I will stay or go – or even if I will have the option to stay, given that I don’t have a job. But there is one thing that I want to say to all of the women philosophers out there who are reading this: let your students know about the activities you do that go against the philosopher stereotype. Mention your gardening, taking your kid to swim lessons, painting your fingernails, redecorating your kitchen, your recommendation for the best laundry stain remover. Yes, these comments might seem off-topic when the student is there to talk to you about Hume or incompatibilism or whatever. But find ways to drop in little clues and hints now and then. I can only speak for myself, but tiny comments like these have played a huge role in getting me to me to stay in the professional philosophy pipeline as long as I have. The impact can be enormous.
There’s probably a technical term for this kind of signaling that I don’t know, but it’s the opposite of the “whistling Vivaldi” type maneuver that a minority person uses to signal to members of the dominant class around him that he fits in. It’s a signal of hope to other outsiders – and women who are interested in having an active family life are definitely outsiders in philosophy.
I can’t believe this just happened. Really? Yes, this did just happen. I keep on going over it over and over it as if I can’t believe what just happened! I was sitting in at an Aristotle seminar when the conversation went from Aristotle’s categories to the discussion of sex and gender. First, I should say that my professor didn’t know the difference between sex and gender and then when he asked me to explain cause he had no idea about what I was talking about HE belittled me by saying that my explanation was morally perverted and unacceptable! Then as the conversation went on he made a comment like “intersex is a malformation” he went on to say that it was “unnatural” and that he couldn’t conceive that there was anything besides a female and a male. When I pointed out that his language or choice of words was problematic, he proceeded to say that I had no argument and that I was confused because of the array of classes that they offer at the university I attend. I proceeded to cite scientific studies that showed other wise and also told him why I thought his argument was wrong but this didn’t seem to matter. But this is not it! To make matters worse, the conversation took a turn to the abortion topic! I am not going to make this story long but I will say that the conversation ended 30 minutes after class time (outside) and he said that women in a way did not have a right over their bodies when they had another “human being” in their womb! And then to make matters worse (if you can imagine that) HE the PROFESOR took his hand and patted my head (the student) and said “look at your eyes you are giving me a bad look, just think about what I said and I will think about what you said, like seriously” I am not sure how I should be feeling at this moment other than: REALLY? Did my professor just say and do that? Did this just happen?
In my first week of grad school at a non-Leiter top 20, my graduate adviser asked if I was married. When I told him I was, he asked if my husband knows I’m in grad school, and then he asked if my husband knows I won’t be home to cook dinner every night.
When I responded that I’ve been working and going to school for many years and that he’s quite bright and can cook for himself, he seemed to dismiss me on the spot. In fact, that was the last meeting I managed to have with him in the 5 or so years he was the graduate adviser. I figured out right away I was on my own.
In the end, he retired due to a medical condition and I finished my Ph.D. It seems to me that I won.
All the following events happened to me, a woman in philosophy, with different people (some women), at different stages of my career as an undergraduate and graduate student.
I once found myself hugged by one of the professors I worked with, in his office. He wanted to be empathized with for the troubles he was having in his personal life: he said he needed “some love”. I was paralyzed by the surprise and embarrassment. Fortunately another student knocked on the (closed) door and he let me go.
Another professor frequently looked at my body when talking to me during office hours. I never knew how to deal with it, and it made me extremely uncomfortable, mostly because I suspected he was not paying attention to what I was saying.
I was at a conference with my partner, also a philosophy student. My advisor made sure to introduce my partner, who is not one of his advisees, to all the members of the admissions committee of a very good department to which my partner was applying. At the same conference there was a famous philosopher, with whom my advisor was on friendly terms. I was writing my undergraduate thesis on the work of this famous philosopher. I thought my advisor would introduce me, given how he behaved with my partner who wasn’t even his advisee, but I waited in vain. I therefore introduced myself to the famous philosopher and talked to him about my work (the famous philosopher—also, guess what, a man—did not really engage in the conversation, but answered politely to my questions with, more or less, yes or no). When I told to my advisor that I had introduced myself, he merely said “good job!” My partner was a man.
A different advisor often remarked on my outfits (in the presence of other students) and declared he was in love with me in an email. He was married and he sort of made clear it was a form of Platonic love. He did always engage me philosophically, but I refrained from seeing him as much as I would have wanted because I feared he would take it as a sign of romantic interest.
At a conference once I wore a summer dress that left my shoulders and part of my back bare. I later found out that some women graduate students and a woman faculty member berated me because of my “skimpy clothes”, through which I “debased the entire category of women”. They wondered how women could be taken seriously if they dressed like that. Admittedly, these quotes are second-hand. The faculty member works on feminist philosophy.
A male colleague once told me laughingly that a bunch of male graduate students were exchanging emails about my dissertation topic, which was so “feminine”. He did not seem to think for a moment that there was anything wrong with that behavior, or with expecting me to share his amusement.
Another male colleague, who had been hitting on me constantly and who had talked about my “boobs” in front of other male students, once asked me—again in front of other colleagues—why I presented myself like a “whore”. In the past, I had always acquiesced and tried to go along with the jokes (because they are only jokes, right, and you don’t want to come out as one of those party poopers without sense of humor). This time I coldly replied: “I don’t present myself as a whore at all, why do you see me that way?”. To my surprise, he shut up!
When I was at another department as a visiting student, one of the students there, with whom I had a fling, boasted to prospective students that among the benefits of the program there was being able to sleep with visiting students. I was right there.
I was once at a dinner with faculty members and graduate students, and during what I thought was a philosophical conversation, I made the mistake of mentioning, as a philosophical example, a detail of my personal life that routinely gives the impression to men that a woman is “easy”. After that, a faculty member started to mildly flirt with me, to my surprise and dismay. He stopped after I stopped saying hi to him in the halls, or acknowledging him in any way. For all that time, I felt guilty, as if I was the one who did something wrong.
Later on, in a seminar discussion, I made sure to make a similar point without using my personal life, but by using a sociological generalization. Still, what the men present in the seminar took home was that I was “easy”, and another faculty, during an evening out, made a joke about me that gave the impression that I had relaxed sexual morals. Other male students felt entitled to make similar jokes. I wrote an email to the professor, explaining why his joke was inappropriate. He apologized profusely. So that one went well! (It goes without saying that whether or not I am actually “easy” is irrelevant here.)
Once I was visiting my partner who was in a different PhD program. Prospective students were also visiting that department at the time and I joined them for a night out. I kept asking people about their research interests. Nobody ever asked me about mine. I was just his girlfriend, after all.
There have been many more events similar to this last one, which, more than sexual harassment in its various forms, arguably constitute the most damaging way of undermining women’s academic self-esteem: instances of subtle, widespread, and often unconscious forms of sexism. I personally experienced what so many women reported experiencing on this blog: a woman makes a point, sees it fall flat, and then hears the same point being repeated by a man and acknowledged; a woman is paralyzed by stereotype threat; a woman is rarely, if ever, asked to read or discuss a male colleague’s work; and so forth.
A final meta-reflection: it took me a long time—in fact, more than a year—to finish writing this submission. It was not because I had a hard time putting together anecdotes. (In fact, I left some out.) It was because I spent a long time worrying about being identified, and subsequently worked on making the submission as anonymous as possible.
My preoccupation with anonymity was not only due to the fear of backlashes in the professional sphere, but mainly due to the fear of disrupting some friendships that I still hold with some people mentioned in the post. After all, some of the offenders are still my friends, and this is absolutely unsurprising. Human beings are weak-willed, opaque to themselves, inconsistent, and prone to error. All human beings, men and women (and people who refuse to identify with one gender) alike! Many men who say something offensive and who slip into sexist behavior don’t mean it, don’t realize it, or can’t help it. They may regret it afterwards, but are unable to apologize. They may apologize, but then do it again.
My aim in submitting this post is, like everybody else on this blog, to share my experience as a woman in philosophy, and to highlight sins but not to point my finger against the sinners. Some sinners deserve to be pointed at, of course. Unfortunately, the worst offenders, in virtue of the gravity of their crimes, often go unreported and hence unpunished. But in my case, my main aim is to contribute to make my male and female colleagues aware of things that happen to women in philosophy, hoping that this will bring about awareness and change.
Blogs like this one should not be seen by men as a self-righteous “J’accuse” to specific (mostly male) individuals, but as an appeal to all people of good faith who want to improve the profession. As a post on the Feminist Philosophers blog recently reminded us, the status of women in the profession (and of all minorities, if I may add) is everyone’s business.
I attended a small, all women’s liberal arts college where I was blessed to be in a philosophy department that loved our thoughts and encouraged discussion. However, one I graduated and faced “the real world”, as it were, I discovered nothing but blatant disregarded for female intelligence. Truly, just early today I was near tears after having heard another person make a dismissive comment regarding my study; finding your blog was a breath of fresh air.
I was fortunate enough in this year’s job market to get an offer for a position at a university located in a town in a part of the US that I hadn’t lived in. To help me decide whehter to accept the position, I asked the head of department what it was like to live in that town, to get a feel of whether it would be somewhere that I would want to move to. He replied saying that it is a great place to live, and for reference, sent me a link to a page reporting how the area was one of the best in the country to raise children.
I do not have any children, nor has it ever come up that I was planning to have any in the near future. I’m certain that he meant well, but the presumption that because I was a woman of childbearing age meant that I would be interested in the location for its child-raising properties took me a little aback.