Archive for the ‘failure to take women seriously’ Category

I’m becoming increasingly aware (as I move into the second half of my 50s) of what appears to be sexism or ageism, or perhaps both combined, among philosophy students, both male and female.
Here is some of the story.

Our main research-preparation Masters programme involves the student selecting an area of study to work on in detail with a tutor, two modules with two different tutors per semester. Currently all the Faculty in my department, apart from myself, are male. These male colleagues are generally overloaded with requests from the students to supervise their studies for the Masters programme, while students rarely if ever ask to work with me; and there comes a point when a preferred male colleague is so hard pressed that he tells the graduate student officer not to send any more to him. In a recent case where this happened, the graduate officer asked me whether I would take the student on, since the student wanted to work in an area in which I have up to date expertise and some research reputation to the level required. I agreed to take the student, but when the Grad Officer proposed this arrangement to the student, the student declined to do that topic and opted for a different topic that would justify him being assigned to a young and relatively inexperienced male colleague. This was a male student, one who had come from elsewhere and had never met me. Rather to the discomfort of the graduate officer, this student had apparently changed topic to avoid being assigned to me (distinguished senior professor) and to facilitate being assigned to a junior, relatively unknown though very capable, male colleague. It is hard to know what the reason for this move was, other than that working with a middle aged woman was distasteful, or that he hoped to be more lucky with getting a male supervisor for the topic if he postponed it to do in the second semester.

I think these events are becoming noticeable because I am now in a position of being very senior and (at least in theory, though not in practice) highly regarded in my field, beyond my own university and in the academic world globally, so it looks odd when a student refuses opportunities to study with me.

You begin to look for a reason. And then you begin to see a pattern.

For it is not that I have a reputation for bad teaching: on the contrary, after teaching my own Masters taught module for one of our interdisciplinary programmes, all the students on that module wanted to have me to supervise their dissertation. Yet at the same time there is a female PhD student working in my field, whose review at the end of the probationary year I served on. She had been experiencing problems with her first (male) supervisor, and rightly saw after the review that she needed to change supervisors to solve the problem, and that the advice she had received from the review panel was helpful, yet she insisted on transferring to work not with me (who has published on her chosen themes) but with the other (male) member of her review panel. Unsurprisingly this has not helped much, and she has recently been coming to me to get advice and support because her current supervisor is overworked and finds it hard to give constructive advice to his PhD students, particularly if he thinks that they are not making good progress.

Now I am marking the undergraduate dissertation of a student who took some of my UG modules before choosing his dissertation topic. The dissertation topic is in my main field of expertise, the one on which my own publications are globally recognised. After enrolling for the dissertation module, the student approached a young male colleague who works in a different area of philosophy to approve his topic and agree to supervise it. Once or twice during the preparation of the dissertation, the student consulted me for advice on matters of scholarly practice in the field (how to reference the works, what edition to use, whether some view was regarded as loony); now the dissertation is on my desk and the old question surfaces in my mind again. Why? And why are all my own publications on this field missing from his bibliography? Why are only two of the authors in his bibliography female, and those two are not philosophers but references to other aspects of context (the translator of some poetry in translation, and a historian of religion)? This is happening despite the fact that the students are taught by a woman for almost all their work on this part of philosophy during their undergraduate training, and yet immediately they want to do their research on it with a man, and to read the work of men. And yet, they do not think my teaching is bad. The student feedback is good. They enjoy and value their tutorials with me. It inspires them to want to go on and do more. That’s why they are choosing a dissertation in this field. So what is going on?

Is it that a woman teaching you in your beginner years is like a primary school teacher, who prepares you to go on to work with the more demanding stuff that men do, when you are grown up? Or is it that a middle-aged woman doesn’t provide the erotic charge that makes one-to-one work thrilling? Or is it that you know that a reference from a woman will carry no weight for your graduate school application or your research fellowship application? Or what exactly?

A highly abridged list of incidents:

I got excellent teaching evaluations from my students. But the Chair discounted the report citing the my “good looks” and NOT my “teaching” as the explanation for the high marks.

I was repeatedly denied a raise and told among other reasons that I didn’t need one because I didn’t have “a family” or “children” and that I just thought that I was “better than everyone else.”

I was initially denied an office and told that I shouldn’t have expected one because I “failed to negotiate for it” and I shouldn’t complain because I was “lucky to have a job” despite turning down several other offers. Then they tried to put my office in Women’s Studies.

I was repeatedly the subject of discussions about the fit of my clothing and general appearance. I was told that I need to “dress” like “an adult” “behave like an adult,” but probably cannot/will not until I have “real responsibilities” (i.e. children).

I arrived on campus and met with several undergraduates who report sexual harassment and discrimination by a certain professor in my department. I report the incident to the Chair with substantiating documentation and it is ignored. The offender is then given emeritus status so he can retain his office on campus to meet with students.

I was required to meet with faculty assistance center social worker and eventually ADA officer for special permissions to have my dog on campus (which was agreed to prior to accepting the position) while no male faculty member with a dog (of which there are several on our floor) was required to do so.

I go up for tenure and I am told by the Chair that my friends cannot write letters for me. When I explain that my area is very small and that my colleagues in the area of expertise are all friends, the Chair says “you know what I mean….” intimating that my relationship with these colleagues was sexual.

I come from a country that is very poorly represented in the English-speaking academic world to the extent that I myself have never met another academic doing my subject from my country of origin. I completely understand when people seem surprised I do philosophy given my nationality. However, I continue to be surprised how much my nationality gets in the way of being integrated in the profession and how much it affects where the conversations go. Once after a philosophy talk a male professor asked where I was from. After I responded he started counting how many women from my country he had slept with. He also made comments on the appearance of women from my country, which I suppose I was meant to take as a compliment. On another occasion someone introduced me by stating my name and where I come from. Not that I was a philosopher, what I worked on or any work-relevant information. The worse experience was definitely when one of my colleagues used an insulting phrase, which represented all women from my country in the most derogatory sense imaginable. After I confronted him about it he said he was unaware I came from that country. I guess the argument there was that I have no right to be offended at this insult since I did not state prior to that where I came from. This happened over and over again, I would hear this insulting phrase from other people who were unaware of my nationality. When I was a student I was being referred to as ‘the foreign girl’, as my department did not have any other international students. I was often asked why I was studying abroad, why I do not just study where I was born. On many occasions people jokingly asked if I came to their country to find someone to marry. When I started my doctoral degree I was the only woman from that geographical area in my department. One of the professors once laughed at me when I proposed to read a paper by a female philosopher who comes from a country that is also not very well represented in English-speaking academia (although much better represented than my own country). That made me realise how much my name and nationality were going to influence people’s decisions to read my work and take me as an authority on my subject. From my experience at conferences and seminar talks I can see that many people have had an overly dismissive attitude towards me. I am not sure whether simply being a junior female academic is sufficient to allow men to feel free to talk over me and patronise me, or whether it is also the fact they have never seen another person from my country in philosophy. It is probably a mixture of both. While these experiences are incredibly demoralising and have often made me think I should quit, I have also had sufficient evidence to think I should say in the profession. The most wonderful experience for me in this career was the first time I received comments from referees on the very first paper I submitted to a journal (which was blindly refereed and was the most significant journal for me to publish my work in). Until I read the reports I was not used to people giving me constructive criticism without being patronising; I was not used to someone actually showing respect for my ideas and treating me as an authority. In the years since I became a professional philosopher, I can say that the majority of times that my work is treated with respect is when my work is evaluated blindly. I am thankful that the profession endorsed this kind of evaluation for publications otherwise people like me would hardly get the chance to publish their ideas. I only wish that soon the same kind of blind process will be adopted when departments select candidates for academic positions. It is on this front that I continue to struggle.

One of my classmates chose a particularly obnoxious faculty member to sit on her dissertation committee. I asked her what she was thinking. She told me that it was only my relationship with him that was strained. He failed her defense, and placed a Victoria’s Secret catalogue in her school mailbox with a note, “Maybe you should consider a change of career.”

She did reconfigure her committee, and pass her defense six months later…

I was accepted into a Masters program that did not accept many women. Several of the faculty thought that women had no place in the discipline. I happened to be in a class of almost all women, who were selected by a dissenting group of faculty in an attempt to balance the student population.

During my first year, I was told explicitly by one of my professors that I should not be in a philosophy graduate program since, “Philosophy requires reasoning, and women are irrational.”

The incoming class that followed my group consisted of about 15 students, all but one of whom were male.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this school did not accept my application into its doctoral program, even though two schools of higher ranking did (thank goodness!).

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’ve been going to philosophy conferences for 15 years now, but recently I had an odd experience at one. I slowly realised that my social status at this particular conference was basically mud. When I asked questions in a talk they were immediately laughed off as confused or ludicrous. When I made a point over lunch people ganged up to misinterpret it and contemptuously tell me how misinformed and mal-intentioned I was. It took 3 minutes of assertive clarification for people to grudgingly admit that I had a coherent question. It’s the way you might expect someone to be treated if they had committed some terrible social gaffe at the beginning of a conference – like aggressively criticising a graduate student, or saying something outright racist – but I couldn’t remember doing anything like that.

The experience of those 2-3 days really sticks out because of how unusual it was. As my career has developed I’ve found that people have gradually taken me more seriously, listened more carefully to things I have to say, and been slower to dismiss something that sounded odd or wrong without pushing me further for clarification. Not everywhere, of course – siblings, parents and taxi-drivers still treat me like I know nothing and most of what I say is insane – but in professional contexts, I’ve been benefiting from a gentle rise in social status.

Except at this one conference. And there were a few things I noticed as a result. One was that certain high status individuals – both men and women – noticed, at least at some level, what was going on with the group dynamics and intervened in either a neutral way, or in a way that was friendly towards me (“wow, people who do X sometimes get really upset when you ask them about Y, don’t they?”) and others sought me out for conversation where the subtext seemed to be “I don’t really know why all these others are acting like this, but I don’t want to be a part of that. Tell me about your work…” I was really grateful to these people, because they made me feel less like I was going insane. And it made me think: this is one of the reasons why allies are important. It made me want to be a better ally in the various situations when I’m one of the people with higher status. I want to be the one who sends the implicit message: “To hell with them. I’d like to talk to you. Tell me about your work…”

A second thing was that the memory of the experiences festered. In my hotel room at night I’d be going over them again and again in my mind trying to figure out why this was happening, and wondering whether it was just my imagination. I came up with many, many different theories. Maybe it was something to do with the way I was dressed? (I was pretty sure my skirt wasn’t see-through but perhaps when I was chairing the light was behind me?) Maybe it was that combined with generally being too confident and ‘uppity’? Maybe philosophers of X are just more conservative? Maybe it was because I forgot that person’s name when I was chairing. Maybe I accidentally offended someone on the first day? Maybe I accidentally offended someone putting together an edited volume last year? Maybe they all really, really hate something about my work. Was I being scapegoated for some criticism these people had suffered at the hands of another philosopher? Did they hate my advisor perhaps and I’m a proxy for him? Maybe one vindictive person had made up some kind of awful story about me and spread it to the others on the first day? Was I inadvertently doing something during talks that was really annoying to the people sitting behind me? and on and on. But I never figured it out, and one of the consequences of that is that I’m still interpreting and re-interpreting the events in my head, wondering whether I was just the victim of chance, or whether it was me, something about me, something I did, that caused all this. Should I be feeling ashamed? I just don’t know.

I left the Twilight Zone that was that conference and life went back to normal. I had a million other things to do, and a week later I went to a different conference, where nothing similar happened, I gave a good talk and the crack in my self-esteem was plastered over. But the whole experience – the intensifying of the being-excluded-from-the-in-group experience – really reminded me of some of the effects of having low social status, and of dealing with all those micro- (and not so micro-) aggressions. You are left with these terrible doubts: was it me? Did I bring this on myself somehow? And in the absence of a clear way to rule them out, this is exhausting and undermining. I’m fortunate; I got to walk away with nothing but a few unpleasant memories. (And a few good ones too, of the individuals who treated me with decency.) But low social-status isn’t always something society lets you leave behind.