Archive for the ‘being afraid to speak’ Category

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!

A friend recently asked me which posts on this blog were mine. In looking for them, I came across this one, http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/the-biggest-obstacle-is-having-some-faith-that-i-belong-here/ which I had forgotten about.

The way I had written it at the time, one might think that whatever problems I was facing were entirely in my head. Looking back, I phrased it as I did because I was afraid to say more. I didn’t have faith that I belonged in graduate school, but not because I was imagining that I didn’t nor because I was unjustifiably anxious. It was because my first day on campus the professor who I had intended to work with told me that after seeing my application, he wouldn’t be surprised if I performed so poorly that I failed out and that I didn’t have the right ‘pedigree’ for students at a program of this caliber. Waiting in the hall outside my first seminar, I overheard a group of male students in my cohort discussing that the women in our cohort might have been admitted because of affirmative action rather than merit. And this was just what happened before classes actually began.

I was worried that if I told anyone (even anonymously) why, exactly, I felt so out of place, the people who had behaved inappropriately might recognize themselves in the stories and hold it against me for sharing them here. I am still afraid of that actually, but I’m also now of the view that if speaking the truth about my own experiences costs me relationships, those aren’t relationships worth protecting.

Recent events and the on-going dialogue about our discipline have been very difficult for me.

While in graduate school, a colleague attempted to rape me using physical force. He was an advanced, highly-regarded student in our department. He also (so I thought) happened to be, until that point, a close friend.

To this day, I have only told two people. At the time, I consulted my two closest feminist philosopher friends and asked for advice. We went through every conceivable option and all agreed that I shouldn’t take any action. Because I had “escaped”, I had no “evidence” other than my word against his. He had a wife with a baby on the way, and became very outgoing while consuming alcohol. Very few people would believe me and even the few potential advocates would not be able to act in any official capacity. (This is why I don’t think coming forward would protect other women.)

I’m now working in a TT position (which several male philosophers told me I got because I’m a woman.) I honestly think nothing would come of me breaking the silence other than my professional reputation undergoing a public bashing.

When in grad school, I was physically assaulted and raped by a philosopher, call him X. I have never told a single person in philosophy about this. I am confident even now that if I had, it would have ended the possibility of me having a career in philosophy. Not even because X was important or had a good reputation, but because he was a member of a tight-knit group of people in my department who at the time collectively essentially had complete power over what would happen with my career.

Many years later, he was accused of attempted sexual assault by another philosophy graduate student. Many of the faculty rallied around him, loudly claiming that his accuser was crazy, trying to dig up dirt about her past, threatening legal action against her, and so on.

All of those people immediately and without any hint of hesitation took X’s word about what happened the night in question, and immediately discounted his accuser’s story. But there is something else that is incredibly disturbing about the situation. And that was that X’s story, which I heard many times, was pretty damning. Even if his story was true and his accuser’s was false, any outsider could have seen that he had acted in a completely awful way. But I have never heard a single one of his defenders say this.

Nearly every day I kick myself for not speaking up at the time. I would have had a horrible few months, and then I nearly certainly would have ended up leaving philosophy. But, first, maybe, just maybe, X would have suffered some consequences for his actions (though I doubt it), and maybe, even if he didn’t, it would set a precedent such that he might have suffered some consequences in the later case (which he didn’t). And second, I no longer understand why I wanted to stay in philosophy so badly, when it has never gotten any better for me with respect to these kinds of issues. At the time I think I thought I was being strong and proving a point. In fact I think that I was just scared. If I could turn back the clock I would speak up. But not because I think there would have been some fairy tale ending. This is not a call for people to speak up when things happen to them like this. But I do want people to know that at least one person wishes that she had made the choice to stick up for herself even at the expense of the possibility of a future in philosophy.

I remember once, as a female graduate student in philosophy, trying to raise some serious complaints about a senior male philosopher who was making the climate for me and several other junior women in the philosophy department miserable. He was utterly disrespectful of the work of women, regularly making female students cry when alone with him in his office (an achievement of which, I was told by his friends, he was rather proud). He ignored my work and belittled my ideas, and he did the same to other women in front of me. He once lost his temper and yelled at me in front of a group of other philosophers, for pressing a philosophical objection to his view which he did not know how to address. My male philosopher friends said he seemed like “an OK guy” to them although some of them had heard he was “funny about” women.

In response to my complaint, all that happened was that another senior philosopher in the department (a friend and colleague of the person I’d complained about) held a meeting with the two of us. This was terrifying for me. At the meeting, the person I had complained about told me off, saying (and I can still picture his face as he said this) “Don’t just get upset and take it out on me”.

His friend and colleague, the only other person in the room, stood by and said nothing when this remark was made.

It was agreed that I wouldn’t work with him any more, and nothing else was done. The philosopher who arranged the meeting told me explicitly that if I were to try and take things any further it would not go well for my career.

I began suffering from an ongoing panic attack disorder at this time which has had a huge impact on my life ever since and is still not entirely resolved after ten years. I very nearly quit philosophy. (I’m glad I didn’t; I’m good at it, and as soon as I was away from that environment I was very successful in the profession.)

At a careers advice meeting for aspiring academics, the senior philosopher who had organised that meeting announced to the audience that, in professional philosophy, things are no different for women than they are for men.

The man I complained about was then promoted. He currently holds a top-rank position at an elite university.

I am Dean of Studies of English Majors [at a major European university]. Last December, 2 students (one woman and one man) came to inform me that they were having trouble with a colleague of mine. It soon turned out that all the 3rd-year students were actually being morally and sexually harassed by the said colleague, and that they had been for the last two years. Men were ignored, women were made to feel that they were objects of pressing desires from that individual and that their grades depended on their silence and willingness to be nice.

I assured them that they had my support and that of the University and informed them that they could act so as to put a stop to that abusive behaviour.

Well… the chair of the Department did not see the situation in the same way, all the more so as he did meet the colleague who complained that his reputation was “being sullied”.
The Dean of the Faculty, (a woman), refused to see the students.

However the harasser decided to put a stop (?) to his inappropriate behaviour.

I have sadly discovered that we were quite alone in that ugly situation. Some of my female colleagues did support us, as did some administrative staff. The authorities did not want to have “problems” and ducked their heads.

Some times, I am not proud or content to be working in higher education.

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.