I had had many years of experiences with extreme sexism before I got a Ph.D in philosophy in my forties, but that doesn’t make sexism in the refined circles of academia any less humiliating and undermining.
I took philosophy courses in a master’s program at a well-respected state university. One of my master’s thesis advisors harassed me into a affair using quid pro quo pressures; I was desperately afraid this advisor would not sign my thesis if I broke off the relationship, so I waited to end it until after it was signed. I knew I should report this behavior, but others informed me it was a well-known pattern of this professor and nothing would be done. Also, I was old enough to have known better, I thought.
Later, when I was a graduate student in an Ivy League Ph.D. program in philosophy, a male professor used the following example in class to distinguish between two persons: “Smith beats his wife, while Jones doesn’t.” This was intended to be a funny example, and had apparently gotten laughs from earlier generations of students when the university was all male, but no one laughed in the late 1980s with both men and women in the class. Finally the professor noticed the glares coming from many of the students and said, “Perhaps I should have chosen a more sensitive example.” Even old dogs can learn new tricks.
In my first year in that doctoral program, I helped to organize a student colloquium series and gave the first presentation, in which I presented as my own work what was in fact my own reconstruction of an argument from one of Plato’s dialogues. A fellow graduate student, male, asked me if I had done the argument reconstructions myself, despite its being clearly presented as my own work. This was an insulting question which I believe he probably would not have asked of a male graduate student.
Also in my first year of graduate school, after a visiting speaker finished his talk, a male professor invited him and some of us graduate students to his house for refreshments. I was the only female graduate student who attended, and the only female at the gathering except for the host’s wife. I was wondering how I would fit in, when someone started the conversation with the question of which university had the best combination of football team and philosophy department. The men present began to engage in an intense and exhaustive comparison of football teams and philosophy departments, with an eye to ranking them. Not following sports and not being interested in such a ranking, I felt conspicuously female, excluded, incapable of participating, and marginalized. So I decided to talk with my host’s wife, which was much more interesting. This incident is only statistically sexist and was probably entirely unintentional; if I had been a female football fan, I could have held my own.
Still, what proportion of football fans are female? How considerate was it to choose a question that a female graduate student would be less likely, given the average relative frequency of male to female football fans, to be able to relate to?
Later that year, at the annual department party, a senior male professor cornered me and tried at length to persuade me to marry another one of the senior male professors, who was lonely and needed a wife. This conversation made me feel reduced to my reproductive and nurturing function, and quite invisible as a beginning philosopher.
Later in my time there, a fellow graduate student, a male, asked to sit in on my pre-arranged independent study with my male dissertation advisor, and I agreed. However, the advisor spoke almost exclusively to him rather than me, and I felt I had to fight to get a word in edgewise all semester. From this I learned that the practice of philosophy, as many males see it, is not about cooperating to discover the truth, but rather about competing to get the approval of the – mostly male – authority figures.
The way to get this approval was to fight, conceptually, in an agonistic way. One of my professors encouraged me to get more “ammunition” against a philosopher I was writing about. This military analogy turned me off and set me back, as I wanted to see philosophy as a cooperative enterprise in search of truth.
Another fellow graduate student (a married male) was heard in the student lounge bragging about how many female undergraduates he planned to sleep with now that he was going to be a teaching assistant.
In seminars the same thing happened to me as has happened to many other female graduate students in philosophy – my point would be ignored, but when a male made the same point, it was recognized as valuable.
At my first job, in the mid-1990s, a one-year at a midwestern state university, one of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department had a pornographic picture on his office wall. I went into his office and told him that this constituted a hostile atmosphere for his female students and advisees, not to mention his colleagues. When he told me it had “sentimental value” (!) for him, I suggested he remove it and hang it up at home. He replied that his wife wouldn’t allow it in the house. Shouldn’t that have been a clue as to its inappropriateness? Another male colleague, when told of this exchange, explained that the first colleague had actually improved over time, as he no longer displayed his collection of Playboy and Penthouse magazines on the coffee table in his office! So things must be getting better, as many on this blog have argued.
While I had been a feminist activist for many years before pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, and I had taken many courses in feminist thought, I had not studied feminist philosophy as an AOS or AOC for my Ph.D. degree, so it did not appear on my CV. While I was searching for a tenure track job, the chair of a hiring department asked me to add “philosophy and feminism” to my CV. I found out later that the line had been given to the Philosophy Department on the condition they hire a woman who could teach in the Women’s Studies program. I reflected that I had the background and experience to teach in a Women’s Studies program, so I agreed to change my CV. That is how I was hired into my present position – the male philosophers apparently tried to hire a non-feminist female philosopher who could teach Women’s Studies from a non-feminist perspective. So they got a little surprise when I turned out to be a radical feminist!
Many of the entries on this blog refer to affirmative action, as if there is some stigma attached to being an affirmative action hire. I think women and minorities should worry about the so-called ‘unfair’ advantage given by affirmative action exactly when the white males start worrying about the unfair advantage given by white male privilege. Instead, look to your own achievements and do your best work. If the white males ever start apologizing to you about their white male privilege giving them an unfair advantage, then, and only then, should you even consider mentioning the countervailing “advantage” given to you by affirmative action. Affirmative action exists to help counteract the pervasive unconscious and conscious sexist biases which this blog documents, and we shouldn’t undermine that very important function.
Now that I have tenure and have served as chair of my department at my state university, I find I love my job as a philosophy professor. We have hired new colleagues who are feminist, or at least who try their best not to be sexist, and I have published quite a few articles, often in journals edited by women, and feel freer than ever to study and think and write about what I want to study and think and write about. I enjoy teaching and continually revamping my courses and pedagogy, only seldom receiving openly sexist treatment from students, though I can relate to many of the comments of others about expectations that, as a female, I should be more lenient and understanding. Leniency should be limited to justified circumstances, but instead of some women professors trying to be less understanding, I think some male professors should work to become more understanding! Students need and deserve understanding and respectful teachers.
Recently, I served as an outside evaluator for a nearby philosophy department which had just previously hired a fifth philosopher, their first woman, who was then serving as chair. The senior philosopher in her department would only refer to her as their “fifth man,” even though she is a woman! Some old dogs have trouble with the new tricks.
It is disheartening to think that philosophy as a discipline runs on status competition among males, but that is the picture that emerges from this blog and from a book called “The Sociology of Philosophy” by Randall Collins. Also, I recommend C.P. Snow’s old novel “Strangers and Brothers,” in which he tries to describe in detail the operations of what he calls “private power,” or power as it is used behind the scenes by men. This novel is particularly relevant as it features men jockeying for power in an academic setting.
Thanks for this blog. It has given me encouragement to once again propose that our university prohibit even consensual relations between faculty and students. Currently we prohibit sex between faculty and students during the semester when the student is in the faculty member’s class, the strongest policy we could get through the governance process. Some faculty are apparently very worried about the rights of the accused and the probabilities of false accusations. And I shall try with renewed energy to integrate my feminist values into my own work by more diligently calling sexist assumptions into question in my classes, by including more work by women and feminist philosophers, and by working to create a more egalitarian and supportive environment within the discipline of philosophy.
Archive for the ‘But surely you’re male’ Category
I recently received a set of fair and very helpful referees’ reports on a paper I had submitted to a philosophy journal. In many ways, their comments are exemplars of how to phrase a rejection of a paper. They are at pains to emphasise that the topic is interesting, that the author has interesting things to say about it, but that there are various specific issues with the argumentation and its presentation that mean that considerably more work is needed. I wish that all referees’ reports I have received had been as careful and supportive as these two.
Two things, however, stood out about one of the reports. First, in it, the referee addressed the author as ‘he’. I am a man, but since the paper was double-anonymously reviewed, the referee couldn’t have known that. Second, in discussing an example in the paper which is deliberately gender-neutral – it begins, “Imagine a person” – the referee refers to “the guy” in the example. As I say, in many ways the reports are exemplary. Not in this one though.
Rather than share a specific story, I just wanted to say *ditto* regarding many of the anecdotes that have already been posted. I am a female professor. Over the course of my graduate education and the years I have been employed as a faculty member, I have experienced the following at least once (though in most cases, quite more than once): students behaving especially confrontational in a way that they do not with my male colleagues; referees addressing me as “he/him” in their comments on my journal submissions; male faculty making salacious comments to me; being ignored/dismissed at conferences and in other professional contexts; general behavior/comments that suggest to me that I am not respected as my male colleagues are by administrators, philosophers, graduate students, secretaries, students; being on the short end of unequal distribution of department resources. I also sometimes get the sense that when I invite a male to discuss philosophy that either they or their partner assume that I am taking more than a professional or collegial interest. This can be an obstacle to networking. I have, on account of these experiences, considered leaving the field.
I go by my middle name, which is a common name for both men and women. Probably more common for women these days, actually. For the two years that I’ve been on the job market, I have consistently gotten letters (rejections, acknowledgements, etc.) addressed to “Mr.______.”
I have a PhD. They should be calling me “Dr.”, not Mr or Ms. Why make assumptions about sex, and get it wrong, when there is a perfectly good and appropriate gender-neutral title available? This, to me, shows a lack of care and respect on multiple levels, as well as the blanket assumption that philosophers are all male.
A little while ago I sent in a story about a review of my book by an author who had assumed (falsely) that I was male. I have just this week read another review in another journal, by another author, of an edited collection in which one of my papers appears. This author has also assumed that I am male.
There have been a number of stories recently regarding the use of male pronouns to refer to anonymous authors. This story is a little different.
I applied to PhD programs within the last five years. I knew what I wanted to write about for my dissertation, but the topic could have been controversial or frowned upon by some philosophers. So I wrote letters to faculty members at the top 20 or 30 institutions who work in the area and asked each whether I could successfully pursue the project in their departments. Fully 50 percent of those faculty members who responded to my letters assumed I was a man and addressed them to “Dear Mr. X.” I am a woman, and although I have an unusual first name, I have known other women with the name, but no other men. I find it alarming that when in doubt, the assumption is still that philosophy PhD candidates are male.
I (I’m male) studied philosophy as an undergraduate and graduate student at three top Canadian universities, and had nothing but positive experiences with female colleagues and professors. Feminism was an area I did much study in and I was fortunate to have (and to be able to seek out) good advisors, mentors and professors who were women. I wrote papers on non-sexist language and usage. My female teachers tended to be stricter with my work; I have a bit of a silver tongue and I found that didn’t go as far with female professors. It was a great experience that has stayed with me my whole life.
Eventually I left philosophy for law school where I was fortunate enough to land a position as a research assistant for a favorite professor (female). Well, in law we habitually refer to judges by their last name only. So naturally it was only ten weeks into law school when in the middle of a case comment, in her class, I referred to a female Court of Appeal judge throughout as “he” and “him”. Needless to say, I didn’t impress.
Seven years studying feminism and feminist philosophy, then let the guy out into the outside world for three months and he is doing dumb sexist male things. I don’t know if “we” can help it, but I sure should have known better.
After receiving an anonymous review of a paper submitted for publication, a female colleague was really excited. I asked her why she was so happy and she told me that the reviewer had referred to her as “he” throughout the review. She thought that being mistaken for a man was a sign of the quality of her work. I admire this colleague, and was disappointed by her apparent internalization of the idea that “real philosophy” (or perhaps “good philosophy”) is “men’s philosophy.”
More often than not, when I send in a paper for anonymous review, the comments from the reviewers refer to the author (i.e. me) using male pronouns. (Perhaps I am especially prone to this problem because I work on the more technical sides of philosophy). It’s not the end of the world, but it does worry me that so many reviewers just assume that my papers must have been written by a male rather than female philosopher.
I share a somewhat unusual surname with a male philosopher who is roughly my equal as far as prominence and publication record go. A couple of years ago, my co-author and I were invited to submit a paper to a fairly prestigious edited volume. The paper was directly in my area of expertise, and clearly related to other things I have published. It has nothing to do with the work of the homonymous male philosopher. When the press put out the advertisements for the book, they listed the paper as written by my co-author and the male philosopher with my last name. I presume that somehow they didn’t get my first name when they got the paper. Apparently, when they googled my last name and got hits for both me and to the male philosopher who wrote on completely different stuff, they assumed the male philosopher was the co-author and that this was so obvious as to be not even worth confirming.
In the most positive referee report I’ve received on a peer-reviewed article, the reviewer refers to me with “he” after a few “he/she”s.
I read a review of my book in a journal last month.
I publish under my surname and initials, but it’s very easy to find out that I’m female if one (e.g.) Googles me or visits personal or university web pages.
The reviewer assumes I am male.