On a day when the profession is all abuzz about the resignation of a senior philosopher due to allegations of sexual harassment, I find myself wondering about all the women who have been suffering in silence. Many commentators on this issue add remarks along the lines that they know of much worse cases where nothing has been done. So how are we supposed to feel safe in our professional community? I’m left with a sense of depression and dread at that the thought that there are serial sexual harassers in our midst, walking around us anonymously, ready to strike again at any time. “Oh, but everyone knows who they are,” it’s often said. Well, *I* don’t know who they are, and I’ve been around awhile and am fairly active in the profession. I don’t know whether I’ve unknowingly invited a serial sexual harasser to speak at a conference I’ve organized, or contribute to a book that I’ve edited, or … So how can the young women in our profession expect to know who these predators are?
Archive for the ‘failure to act’ Category
Quitting teaching philosophy in my department is on my mind:
Every time my male colleague laughs at me behind my back with our students.
Every time my male colleague ridicules me in front of our students.
Every time my male colleague asks our students to discuss my teaching style with him behind my back.
Every time my male colleague dismisses a point I make in a meeting without good reason, and expects that his mere dismissal of my point is sufficient for others, and myself, to accept his position.
Every time my male colleague treats me with utter contempt, then turns around and asks for my advice on student issues/publishing/the job market/life in general.
Every time my male colleagues pretend they are not on campus so they don’t have to meet with me to discuss departmental business, and sit laughing together about the fact that I am on my own in my office trying to run a meeting effectively through google chat instead of meeting with them in person.
Every time one male colleague, who claims to be a feminist, follows the lead of the other male colleague in demeaning or marginalizing me, presumably because it’s easier for him to fall in line than to challenge oppression.
Recent mention of ‘golden boys’ reminded me of an experience I had in grad school. One year, my department had an opportunity to nominate a single PhD student to contend for a substantial dissertation research grant from the University. Unbeknownst to me, my ‘golden boy’ status led to my nomination; in doing so, the department passed over another extremely well-qualified female student. But, one of the department’s few female faculty members took it upon herself to nominate the female student in addition to me.
As it turns out the selection committee got it right, and the better candidate won. When the winner was announced, a senior (male) faculty member took it upon himself to inform me of the situation. He told me that, I was the department’s “unanimous top choice”; that female faculty member X was “being insubordinate” by going “behind the department’s back”; and that the winner “wouldn’t have won had she not been a female”.
It would take far too long to list every aspect of implicit and explicit bias, subtle and blatant sexism in this brief conversation. I was simply shocked, particularly since I wouldn’t have known any different had this faculty member not pulled me aside. All I could manage to say was that I was happy my fellow student had won, and that I was convinced she really deserved it more than I did.
Looking back, I wish I had taken the opportunity to call out the sexism on this occasion (and in particular to stand up for the actions of the female faculty member). It still bothers me, and makes me question whether the other benefits I received in grad school were merited, or were merely the result of gender bias in my favor.
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.
While I (male) was a graduate student at a university ranked high in philosophy of physics, a female friend from the same department attended a talk on philosophy of physics with me. The talk was given by a male Post Doc in philosophy of physics at the very same university, who knew both my friend and me, and knew that she was specializing in philosophy of physics, while I was doing general philosophy of science.
After his talk, my friend and I went up to the speaker and she pointed out a technical problem with one his arguments in the talk. He brushed her off with two non-technical sentences, and then proceeded to talk to me, who had not said anything at that point, about a related technical issue. So I repeated my friends point, and he then replied to me, again in technical language. The rest of the quasi-dialogue went on like that, with my friend saying something, the speaker brushing her of in non-technical language, me repeating her point, and him replying to me.
At no time in the conversation did it occur to me that I should point out to the speaker that I was just repeating my friend’s arguments.
I was involved with a gender balance initiative in our department, which started on the “grass roots” level. The female chair was extremely uncomfortable with not only our initiative but with any discussion of gender issues, and resisted our suggestions every step of the way. The recommendations that came out of our committee ended up being so watered down, you could not even tell that the document was supposed to be about gender issues. The document had no effect on department policy whatsoever.
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.
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.