I’m a graduate student in philosophy. I’ve given quite a lot of thought in the past about how my experiences as a woman in philosophy may ultimately impact my career, my work, my ability to learn—but the effects are more far-reaching than that. Recently, I went to a sporting event at my university because the visiting team is from my home state, and it’s one I grew up watching. Being at the game was an extremely odd experience. It made salient to me something that has been latent for a while: I want to love my university. I want to feel like I am part of this community. I want to be proud of where I go to school. I want to feel the urge to cheer my school on.
On the whole I’m quite proud of my undergraduate institution. Not because it’s perfect (it’s certainly not), and not because it’s an Ivy League sort of school (again, it’s not)—but because in my experience when problems arose, the university community banded together to solve them. People disagreed, sometimes sharply and painfully, but they engaged together in civil discourse. Differing ideas were taken seriously. A very strong sense of the importance of service to the community (both the university community and the surrounding city) was always present. There was a wide-spread perception that discrimination was not to be tolerated.
Every institution has its problems to be sure, but the good and the bad come in different degrees, and the balance in my experiences here is such that we are very quickly approaching the point at which it will never be possible for me to feel proud of having been a member of my current university community. It’s an odd, unpleasant, and surprisingly painful feeling.
Archive for the ‘Bad news’ Category
I am a bearded white male with a PhD in philosophy who stopped working in philosophy departments per se some years ago. I left in part because of what I saw as the discipline’s shoddy treatment of feminist philosophy in general and my female colleagues in particular. Since then I have become a research scientist respected in another field.
Ironically, the fact that I did graduate work in feminist epistemology as well as in analytic epistemology has proved an asset in doing science. I oftentimes acknowledge my philosophical background in my professional talks, crediting it for my theoretical range and ability to write clearly.
Recently I had a female undergraduate student come up to me after a talk I gave. She asked me for advice as to whether to go to graduate school in philosophy or in my adopted field, and told me that she had been accepted to top programs in each. However, and when I enquired as to which schools she was considering, the philosophy departments she mentioned were programs known to me as programs intolerant of pluralism.
I looked her in the eye and told her that while I believed the situation in philosophy graduate programs had gotten better over the years, I said that based on my experience she would be likely to encounter a systemic tradition of sexism within the discipline and might well even experience sexual harassment in those programs.
I could see how crushing my snap reaction was for her to hear, and it made me instantly second guess whether I had in fact told her right thing. I felt this even more acutely when, on reflection, I realized I probably would not have offered the same snap advice to a male student.
She and I did manage to have a little more hurried conversation about the relative advantages and disadvantages of a philosophic education versus a scientific one, but in the end I am afraid I may have discouraged a bright young woman from entering–and perhaps helping to change–my old profession.
I hope she has the guts to enter it anyway; frankly, all sorts of people discouraged me from entering graduate work in philosophy on practical grounds as well–though never on grounds that had to do with my being male.
I was referred to your interesting website recently and it revived unpleasant memories from my time as a graduate student in philosophy several years ago. I was in my second year of studies at a top philosophy department in the US. I took a course in X that was offered by a very prominent male philosopher who also happened to be quite active and outspoken in attempts to improve the position of women in philosophy. Once after class I mentioned to him that I was considering the possibility of writing a dissertation under his supervision, and he seemed supportive as I was among the best students in his course. One evening toward the end of the term we discussed possible topics for my thesis in his office. At one point during that conversation he stood up, looked at me in a strange way and said that he had an irresistible desire to touch my breasts. As he approached me I recoiled in disgust and rushed outside. When I later told some of my friends what happened they wondered why I was so shocked about the incident because they said this professor hitting on female students was common knowledge in the department. This was too much for me. It obviously meant that this behavior was tolerated and that none of my other teachers in that department felt any obligation to do anything about it. I left the program after a few weeks for good and never returned to philosophy studies again. I am telling you this story mainly because I would like your readers to know that sexual harassment is sometimes practiced even by those who nominally subscribe to feminism and who pose as advocates of women’s rights and equality.
Here’s the picture they paint of what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy: I’m sexually harassed by my professor in grad school. I somehow manage to get a job anyhow (probably as a “token” woman). I do twice as much service as my male colleagues. My students hold me to higher standards than my male colleagues. Somehow I manage to publish in good journals anyhow. But I am not invited to conferences (though some organizers might lie and say they invited me). My work is not cited, never anthologized, and not included on any syllabi.
It’s a wonder there are any of us left.
Here is a story. I have sat on this for years. It makes me reflect on how important it is to be careful about what feminism involves. Many years ago I travelled a long way to take up a new job in a philosophy department. I had taught feminist philosophy in my home country for many years. But the head of department in my new job said I could do this no longer. There was someone appointed at the same time as me to teach feminist philosophy from a European perspective and we thought it would be a great course if I added my analytic philosophy perspective. But, said our boss, it would ‘look bad for him on the faculty if it looked like he had two feminists in his department.’ My near-decade of experience drawing up a course from scratch was confined to my bookshelves. A year later, another young woman joined, in her first post, her PhD not even yet submitted, and for reasons I never discovered, she was allowed to teach more or less the exact same course I would have taught. I suspect one thing, that despite being female, she represented that alluring, mythical creature that philosophers the world over should be lashing themselves to the mast to avoid: the Bright Young Thing.
So there were three women in the department, and each overtly feminist. But there was a difference. A decade older than the others, I was subject to a principle of exclusion. Only one colleague put this explicitly. As far as she was concerned, feminism was about promoting the interests of YOUNG women, who’d been discriminated against. Being in my thirties, I was no longer young, on this measure, and didn’t count. I never could work out how come two newly qualified young women who had sat in classes and been taught feminism could claim to be discriminated against relative to one who had pushed and shoved to create a course in feminism, with much support but also with some brutish opposition, and certainly with few resources. But there you go. The brand of feminism did not seem to be about justification so much as simple power politics – putting young women forward, regardless. My feminist philosophy course material continued to languish unused.
I found out exactly how committed my colleagues were to promoting young women in philosophy. The next year I went on maternity leave. While I was away, two significant things happened. One, I came back to find that my two colleagues had organised an invitation-only conference to promote women philosophers. This was in the days before internet, and I had no idea it was on. Anyone could attend, but only invited women could speak. I was not invited. The conference took place a few days after my return from maternity leave. Yes, that’s right, you heard it, this was arranged while I was on maternity leave. You know, I was busy doing that thing that women do that some feminists think has been an obstacle to female progress.
And, what’s more, for some inexplicable reason, the conference was on the topic of my doctorate. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would have been the best qualified woman in the whole geographical area to talk at that conference. I attended one day but could not bring myself to attend the second. I was humiliated and confused.
Secondly, I found that during my leave, a permanent job had been advertised. One of the women was on a permanent job, but I and one of the others were on fixed term contracts. The areas of speciality in the advertised post exactly coincided with the areas of speciality of this other woman, but nonetheless were sufficiently close to mine that I considered applying. That is, until the head of department sidled up to me and warned me not to, because ‘the department’ was hoping that the other woman would get it. (Uh? I was a member of ‘the department’ and I certainly wasn’t hoping she’d get it. I was hoping I’d get it.) I spoke to several people who all said they’d been told the same. I wanted to complain to equal ops, but no one would support me. When the woman duly got the job, several people who’d previously been friendly stopped speaking to me – being the only one who’d voiced open disagreement with the biased appointment process. But if feminism is about promoting women regardless – if it’s just a power struggle – who is to say that these actions were not perfectly feminist? I for one was so demoralised after all this, together with other problems with the department, that I resigned. I could not bear to go into work again. Years later I still have not get my career back on track. A single parent, my children have felt this too having spent several years of their childhoods living below the poverty line. I mention this point only to bring home the realities of this. We are not just talking about the chance to do some high-brow intellectual activity. We are talking about tangible discrimination, tangible loss of opportunity, real unhappiness at work. There are those who of course have pointed out that feminism should take account of differences between women. But a feminism that then grabs the high ground to promote one woman over another – is it worthy of the name?
Since it has been a while since there has been an update, I just wanted to say that there are so many more stories than the ones that get posted here. I hear horror stories from friends of mine. They are not my stories to share, so I won’t repeat details. It is just sickening that the misogyny in our profession is so pervasive, and so many of the stories are things you’d never know about unless you were personally involved, or unless someone who was involved told you directly.
A few years ago, my department experienced severe issues with our climate. Some of the women students’ complaints were typical indications of a climate that ranged from chilly to openly hostile. These complaints should have generated immediate examination of departmental practices and culture. They did not. Some of the complaints were more dramatic and should have immediately triggered formal procedures for investigating actionable harassment. They did not. At the time I was a junior faculty member and, I now realize, woefully naïve. I was appalled at how little we did and that we did not treat the complaints as urgent. My mistake was in acting appalled. Complaining made me an “agitator;” I was told to “stop provoking people.” Eventually, at my instigation, the university became involved and others were also appalled: the ombudsperson said my department “needed a massive lawsuit to change;” legal counsel assessed our legal peril as “monumental;” and the police invoked the Virginia Tech shootings, citing the awful risks of indifference and delay in dealing with the sorts of complaints we had received.
A couple of years have now passed. We have changed some, instituting some formal mechanisms for addressing climate, guarding evaluations from bias, and so forth. However, despite this and the passage of time, I am seemingly indelibly branded as a troublemaker. For while I was right that we needed to act, I violated the department’s unstated norms – I complained, I got angry, I argued, I sought help external to the department. For that, I continue to pay a heavy price. Let me just describe the price I paid this week.
Our chair recently distributed our committee assignments for the year. My service obligations are incredibly light and I have no role in the governance of the department. In this, I am distinguished from all of my colleagues. So I went to my chair and volunteered to serve on two committees: our Graduate Studies Committee and the newish committee formed to address diversity issues. I was not seeking to supplant anyone, but merely to be added; I did not ask to be relieved of other responsibilities, but to increase my service load. Nonetheless, he declined. Our conversation captures what it’s like be the resident trouble-maker.
My chair declined my requests “because the department is in transition” and our present priority is “maintaining the status quo without dramatic changes.” To place me on one of these committees would jeopardize this aim. I then offered to serve under the status quo preserving terms he described. He replied that anything I might say about my intentions in serving would not be predictive of how I’d actually behave. Consequently, he would follow his own “judgment” that I could not be trusted not to “shake things up.”
In some despair, I asked whether, in future, I could serve on either of these committees. He could not say with certainty, but said it unlikely I would serve on the Graduate Studies Committee, for this committee “already has two women.” When I asked why this would matter, he said that “3 women is not necessarily a problem, but we do still need male representation on that committee.” The committee has 5 members, has always been majority male, and, I gather, is meant to stay so.
With respect to the diversity committee, I “might be considered” in future, but my impression is that I must somehow prove I will not “provoke people” to be considered. For the present, I cannot serve. And the present is truly odd. Because the other women faculty are currently unavailable for it, our diversity committee is now all male. I thus asked directly if my department would really rather have an all male diversity committee than allow me to join it. He said that yes, that’s true, and condescendingly added, “you know, diversity is not just about women.”
My chair’s one concession to my requests was to offer that I could be on the one committee I have, since my initial hire, asked not to serve. Before our problems, he always said that no one need serve on a committee where her preference was against it and she would take an alternative. Now, however, my long-standing and heretofore respected preference is taken as intransigence. My sense of the offer was that it amounted to a strategy for making my lack of service my fault: He expected I’d decline and having me do so explicitly was the purpose of offering it.
The trap I occupy is perhaps obvious. After my department’s ordeal, I tried to escape the perception that I am a trouble-maker; I have not “made trouble” in over 2 years. But it is not enough to rehabilitate me from my “errors.” I am not only on the margins, but deliberately kept there. Indeed, my service assignments are all work I must perform alone. And the worst of it is that in even asking to serve alongside others, I again “make trouble,” for in doing so I challenge the desired status quo.
I write this now, after never having written here about the other, much worse events, because I conclude that I am condemned no matter what I do and thus I may as well seek modest relief in speaking.
Dear APA, thanks for the memories…
Thanks to those who set up this blog, who edit the stories, and who contribute their stories. Although some stories are horrifying, the positive ones are heartening.
As a graduate student in the last decade, I attended the Eastern APA meeting before I went on the job market. At one of the group meetings, I ran into a senior colleague from another university. He said, “why don’t we get lunch and talk about your work.” Over lunch he told me he was divorced with adult children. I immediately pointed out that all his children were older than I was, and stated that my boyfriend and I were in the process of moving in together. Steering the conversation back to philosophical topics, I made it absolutely clear that this was a strictly professional lunch and gave him no reason to think otherwise. On the way back to the APA, he said he was going to his hotel room to show me a book on women philosophers which he thought might interest me. I accompanied him to the room, where he proceeded to wrestle me onto the bed saying “don’t worry, it’s okay, this is okay.” Thanks to my martial arts training, I fought him off and fled the room.
I reported this attempted sexual assault to the organizer of the group of which this professor and I were both members. She said she could do nothing as the group had no authority over its members. I reported it to my advisor, who retorted, “Why didn’t you call the police? Now it’s too late to do anything.” The only person who was willing to take any action was Leslie Francis, the APA Ombudsman. She sent the professor a letter warning him that a complaint had been made to the APA. Unfortunately, this did not deter him from attending my talk at the APA the following year. Although I was dismayed to see him, I managed to give the talk and even answered his questions afterward. These are the kinds of hidden obstacles that some women face on the job market.
I want to publicly thank Leslie Francis for her work as APA Ombudsman. It meant a lot to me that she was willing to help.
This is not a story, just a comment. Reading through this collection of horrible experiences is beyond depressing. It saddens and angers me (a male philosophy PhD student) to the point of tears. I cannot help but ask myself who all these unnamed shits are, and whether there isn’t any way of identifying them. By this I don’t mean to suggest that it is just a matter of outlier individuals, rather than a systemic problem having to do with the inherited climate of a whole profession. Certainly these reports inspire me to be vigilant.
About six years ago (when I was only 20) I was admitted into a top tier American P.h.D. program in philosophy. I decided to specialize in Ancient Greek philosophy. Needless to say, the demands were great, and I was very young. Not only did I have far less experience than my peers (most of whom already had Master’s degrees), I, unlike them, had to learn Greek and Latin. The first two years were very difficult. On the verge of burnout I scheduled a meeting with my male advisor. Among other things I said, “I am having a difficult time making philosophy my whole life.” The male advisor became visibly agitated and, without a moment’s thought, responded, “My wife is just like that. She is good at doing many things at once but not good at focusing on any one thing. Perhaps this is the wrong field for you.” At the time it was a well known fact in the department that this man’s wife was a full time mom. Demoralized, I ended up taking six months off of graduate school. When I came back this professor refused to read my work. I am proud to say that, several years later, I have been invited to speak at conferences and have advanced to candidacy. One of my committee members, a well-known male classicist, lauded my dissertation proposal, saying that it was a cut above the rest. My new advisor (a man) has been similarly supportive.
In the spirit of Dan Savage’s recent video campaign to encourage gay youth, I’m writing as a recent tenure-track hire at a selective liberal arts college to say IT GETS BETTER.
Like many of you, I had a mixed-to-hard time in grad school: my confidence was undercut, I didn’t quite fit in, and there were some bad episodes I won’t recount here. Then I finished, and it got better.
I have a job now, with great colleagues: mostly men, all friendly, respectful and supportive. I have a salary now: no more dispiriting cash shortages. My confidence is on the mend. I wish I wasn’t coming from behind in that respect, but hey, what didn’t kill me….
It gets better. Those of us on the other side of grad school are cheering for you and can’t wait to be your departmental colleagues.
I’m a male, but as far as I can tell my graduate education has been rather free of sexism, and usually when it occurs it comes from people outside the department or the occasional graduate student. I am sadden to realize how much of an anomaly my program is. Though I figured it might because of my undergrad experience (which took place in the last decade).
First, my undergraduate department was composed of three male philosophy professors. In the four years I was there, I don’t once remember a work of a female ever being assigned in any class taught by these men. When I brought this up to the attention of the professors, one told me that because he mostly taught ancient and early modern philosophy he shouldn’t be expected to teach women. The other two professors explained they had taught women before I was there, and planned to do so in the future (I guess just not in the four years I was there).
However, these last two professors were single and occasionally hit on or slept with female students. I don’t think they realized how toxic this made the department for *everyone*, but particularly for women. More than one woman experience anxiety about seeing these professors alone in office hours or generally socializing with them. And while none of these women had been hit on by these professors (I’m not sure they ever gave unwanted attention to students), it still created a climate that made it hard for women to interact with them in the same way that men could. I cannot emphasize enough the damage done to the trusts of all students by sleeping with only a few students. I also know the administration was informed, and no obvious actions were taken.
It is quite depressing to read these stories. I’m nearing retirement age, and when I was a graduate student in philosophy (at a top-ranked university), most of the women had stories like the ones I’m reading now. Male professors and TAs often exchanged crude comments about female undergraduates. Male students could go out with professors for beers, and had the benefit of informal conversation. If we did that, we got hit on. When the women students bonded through a discussion group, the men were terribly threatened. I had hoped that things were better now. Don’t get me wrong. I have had a great career in a department that developed into one that is non-sexist and very supportive. But it is depressing to think that today’s female grad students are still going through what we went through in the late 60′s and early 70′s.