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.
Archive for the ‘being afraid to speak’ Category
Just a reminder, there are philosophy departments out there that are a nightmare for women. No woman professors ever hired, professors (male of course) sleeping with graduate students, humiliating, sexist remarks made to women researchers on public occasions, and of course, last but not least: a war on the field of women’s studies and any and all related fields. (This means you, phenomenology.)
People crack alot of jokes about gender balance, and question whether people go too far with this kind of sensitivity. But there are alot of demoralized women out there. The women at the department I am talking about are probably too afraid to post on this blog.
I am the only female graduate student of color at my top Leiter-ranked university. Like so many other contributors to this site, I have a whole slew of stories that I could tell about my experience as a woman in philosophy. Here’s one that happened today:
We often have many visiting scholars come through the university to present at our seminar series. Most of the people present today at the seminar were male, white, and more senior than I. There were also other faculty members visiting from other universities; again, they were all white males.
Anyway, after the official session was over, several of the audience members (myself included) lingered around to chat with the speaker to ask follow-up questions that were not addressed in the seminar. As is usual practice, I stood behind the person who was asking the current question, as to form a queue to talk to the speaker. After patiently waiting for several minutes, my turn arrived. However, as I was about to ask my question, I was interrupted by visiting professor who proceeded to completely disregard the queue and ask his question, even though it was quite apparent to all parties concerned that I was next in line. And then it turned out that he was asking the same thing that I wanted to as well!
Neither the speaker nor the other people in the queue made any acknowledgement of what had just happened. I felt frustrated and disheartened; it’s hard enough already for me to speak up, but this incident made me feel as if the fact that I’m young and female must have meant that I surely didn’t have anything interesting to say, and so it would have been okay to talk over me. I am almost certain that this would never have happened if it had been anyone else in the room.
For what it matters, the speaker was also male and white, but junior faculty.
I’m a graduate student in philosophy. At one of the first seminars I went to, I was the only girl. I raise an objection. I’m told that I have misunderstood the point. I hadn’t – the professor in charge of the seminar pointed this out twenty minutes later once all the boys had finally got round to saying what I said initially. I try to speak again later. My point is completely ignored. Two minutes later, a male makes exactly the same point. The objection in his mouth is hailed as decisive. I worry that my being dismissed and ignored is not because of my gender but because I am foolish; I worry that I don’t love philosophy because almost every seminar I go to leaves me second guessing my own abilities. I’m jealous of the ease with which men speak, not having to worry that a single silly remark will mean they are never taken seriously again.
As I started to write this, I sighed…so of course, being a philosopher interested in relationships and emotions, I had to pause to think about what the sigh signified. I realized that it was a sigh of sadness and acceptance. Sadness that I, like so many others, have stories to report and acceptance because I think I may have finally put the frustration over my experience to rest.
I attended a top 20 (at least according to Leiter!) R1 university in California. Two experiences stick out in my mind both because of the blatant sexism and because of the awesome support of some of the male graduate students. The first was with a male junior professor who, when we met in a coffee house (his choice) for seminar, would play “pocket pool” while scoping out the undergrads. We were discussing a book by one of his advisers and when I made an accurate, though admittedly not brilliant, point the professor said I misunderstood the reading. As a first year grad student still unsure of her philosophical feet, I immediately stopped talking and made a note to myself to re-read the entire chapter. I thought little of it until the end of the seminar when a male student made the EXACT same point that I made. I was shocked when the professor not only agreed with the my point when made by a male student, but also praised him for noticing the inconsistency. Prior to my grad school experience, I was fairly good about standing up for myself and holding my ground. However, probably because of my philosophical insecurity and my shock, I did not say a word. Another male graduate student interrupted the love-fest pointedly noting that I had made the point at the beginning of the class. To which the professor responded, “oh really? I don’t remember.” When I was in a generous mood, I granted that he probably didn’t remember as he was very distracted by the female patrons of the coffee house. But somehow that didn’t make me feel better.
Same university, one year later. Senior female professor- well-known in her AOS. 1) Told me a story of her experiences with sexism when she started out and how she was discouraged from participating/speaking. Then (no more than five minutes later), told me I shouldn’t speak or ask questions after her presentation; 2) During a seminar, I responded to another graduate student who was criticizing the professor’s work and explained how her position not only did address his criticism but could be expanded to address another concern of his. The professor told me to “let X talk. We’ve already heard enough from you.” X came up to me later and thanked me for my response as he said he’d misunderstood the Professor’s position; 3) The professor routinely cut off female student’s comments but let males ramble on. In fact, during one class I actually timed female/male speaking time. Females spoke about 5% of the time when they made up 40% of the class. EVERY time a female spoke voluntarily the professor would cut her off. The male students in the class recognized this and would pointedly direct questions at me and other female students so that we could make our points and expand our positions. While the “subterfuge” was much appreciated, it was frustrating to have to rely upon it to be heard.
My takeaway? Hated my graduate philosophy experience but love both doing and teaching philosophy. I vow in my teaching to be aware of implicit gender bias and to do my best to not inflict my experience on anyone else: male, female, intersex, transgender, transsexual and/or any being occupying the in-between.
Does anyone else out there have the experience of feeling bad whenever you argue against or attempt to disprove the thesis of a female philosopher? I do. I want other female philosophers to be respected and respectable—which is what I want to be as well. It feels almost like betrayal.
Inspired in part by this blog, I decided to request a meeting with an Ombud at a university with a Leiter-top-10 program in philosophy. As a graduate student, I was sexually harassed by a faculty member in the philosophy department who repeatedly made unwelcome advances; when I reported the problem to the department chair, he refused to support my application to other programs. Neither of the two faculty members in question are still at the university. My intent in meeting with the Ombud was to discuss the situation off record with a person knowledgeable about the university policies, and to see whether there might be any chance of getting some sort of formal apology from the university for failing to provide the training for faculty that might have averted the problem. I suppose the meeting was also partially motivated by a naïve sort of curiosity. I decided not to report the problem outside the department when it occurred, but what if I had gone to the Ombudsman’s Office? How would my complaint have been handled?
The statute of limitations for reporting the problem has long since expired, so I didn’t really expect anything in the way of restitution, or any recommendation for lodging a formal complaint. What I didn’t expect, though, was to have a discussion with a seasoned university Ombud that actually resulted in further hurt.
Among the things the Ombud said to me in the meeting are: “it looks like [he] genuinely loved you” (this was in response to a message he sent after I left the university, asking for forgiveness). And: “you know, we see a lot of people in this office who are unable to express their feelings for others in appropriate ways.” (Men will be men – or people will be people – and there’s nothing we can do about it? Oh, please.) I don’t dispute that the actions might have been motivated by sincere emotions – but to suggest that the responsibility for the harassment can in any way be mitigated by this is to miss the point. The faculty member in question was some 20 or 30 years older than me, and, as my adviser and the only faculty member working in the field I wanted to study, clearly in a position of power. As I made clear to the Ombud, he used that power to effectively eliminate my options for graduate study at other universities. Why would whether his actions were motivated by genuine feelings of “love” matter in any way?
Do Ombuds receive any training in responding to reports of sexual harassment?
Prior to the meeting, I had thought that the best way to start to help others is to do what I should presumably be telling younger women to do: to report the problem. I certainly wasn’t encouraged by the experience. My conversation with the Ombud would have been occasion for a younger and less tough-skinned me to leave academia altogether. How can I help other women if I can’t help myself?
I did, by the way, write an email to the Ombud clearly expressing these and other thoughts. The email was sent a month ago. I have received no response.
This was three years ago I took a graduate seminar in which there were six students; I was the only woman. Whenever I would ask a question or make a comment, the professor would respond with an example that made reference to women or femaleness, often in a subtly threatening way. Once, when coming up with a scenario to make some point about counterfactuals, he said, “Imagine our graduate program only without any female graduate students.” Another time, when making a point about how definitions can change over time, he brought up the point that it used to be impossible for men to rape their wives, on account of the definition of rape. Always, always he would make comments like these to me; never, never would he make comments like these to my male peers.
I think I have the confidence now to ignore this kind of thing and just get on with the philosophy. But then I was scared and insecure. I stopped speaking in that class.
I am at a Leiter top-ten institution. I mention this only in hopes that readers from my university will consider the possibility that this happened in their department. There is a strong current of “That kind of thing doesn’t happen around here” -type thinking in my department.
I was a grad student in one of the departments that has already been described here (I recognized it) so I don’t want to retell that part of my story, but I want to say two things. First, what you are doing with this blog is so good and so important. The worst part of my ordeal was feeling like I was alone, feeling like what was happening was entirely my fault, and therefore, being too ashamed to speak up. This blog will make people pay attention to what’s going on around them and that has to help. Second, when I was in grad school it wasn’t at all uncommon for me to be the only woman in a seminar of 12-20 people. Sometimes there might be as many as two other women. A few years after I left philosophy I went to law school. The law school had made a conscious decision to maintain a 50-50 split between men and women among the students and to hire a nearly equal number of women professors. That made a huge difference in the atmosphere. Women weren’t a curiosity. There was safety in numbers.