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…
Archive for the ‘failure to take women seriously’ Category
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’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.
When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, some of my friends and I started a philosophy undergraduate group. Naturally, amount the ten or so of us, there were only two women, myself included.
Most of the time, this was not a problem for me – I was used to hanging out with the boys, and I could argue just as hardheadedly as the rest of them. My male professors were probably the most supportive mentors I could have ever hoped to find; they were encouraging and always very generous with their time. For the most part, the sexism I did encounter straight on was from my male peers toward my female professors. They would challenge them to unrelated logic questions, complain that their subject matters were less worthwhile and (quite wrongly – many of them were top in their field) accuse them of being worse professors than my male professors. I contested them hotly on each point after class, knowing how badly women professors tend to do on subject evaluations, and how this hurts their chances at tenure.
Nonetheless, fearing ostracism by my peers, I never took any courses in feminist philosophy, nor actively discussed feminist issues with my peers.
I did, however, on one occasion feel personally insulted by my peers. We would host public talks, debates, or movie screenings fortnightly. One week one of my closest male friends suggested discussing autonomy and alcohol consumption. He wanted us to debate whether or not a drunk or ‘impaired’ person should be found at fault for rape, given various scenarios (a drunk victim, or ambiguous consent, for instance). My heart still races and I still get hot in the face remembering this topic being brought up. I have to admit I went a little hysterical at the suggestion – I told them I would boycott the group if they chose to discuss that subject. Having been the subject of sexual assault, (although no alcohol was involved), it seemed ridiculous to me to even ask whether someone who had willingly gotten drunk could possibly be found innocent of sexual assault due to their ‘impaired’ state. My friends laughed at me and told me to calm down, that it was a serious philosophical question.
I left the meeting in a huff, slamming the door.
Now I am in grad school, and the friend who brought the topic up claims to be a serious feminist (although he himself is not an academic). I have trouble believing him since he still doesn’t understand what was wrong the many times he has brought up the above scenario since.
Another friend who was in the group has visited me recently, and he confided to me that our mutual friends used to think that I was not very good at philosophy, and that they were surprised I did so well on my graduate school applications, despite the fact that I was always one of the most active members of the philosophy group, and despite the fact that I graduated as one of the top students in the major. Now they say that I am very good, and that they misjudged me (only a couple of them ever went on to grad school themselves).
I am still pretty sure the only reason they ever thought that I wasn’t good because they were sexists, and confused my anger at their continued offenses for philosophical incompetence. And now I feel guilty that I constantly excused them anyway. Maybe we should never have been friends. I feel I have indirectly contributed to the bad climate for women by never bringing up any of the issues as feminist issues, and by avoiding feminist subjects as philosophically illegitimate. Nonetheless, if I had not remained friends with them and cut my teeth in debates with them, I would probably only be half as good a philosopher as I am.
A few years ago I [presented] my research at a conference. My talk was chaired by a semi-well known… male professor who is known to be condescending towards female academics. I had traveled a long way to attend this conference and present my research and was really looking forward to receiving questions on my paper. The chair not only cut my talk in half on the excuse that we were running late, giving me less than 15 min to present my paper, but did not allow me to answer any of the questions that the very few people were allowed to ask. Instead, every time I started answering the questions he interrupted me and insisted talking over me and claiming I did not understand the main view I was criticizing. I tried to explain to him why he had misunderstood my argument, but he spoke over me and did not allow me to address any of the criticisms, he just spoke over me until he told me my time was up. I was really disappointed to have lost the opportunity to discuss the questions, especially given that some established philosophers came to see my talk, so I approached them in the coffee break and attempted to discuss their questions. This did not last long; the chair came to join the discussion by standing between me and the professor who had asked the question. The chair turned his back at me and started talking to the professor referring to me as ‘she’ and saying how all I said was wrong. I was right there; able to hear him undermining me and absolutely excluded from the discussion. Having worked with the most established proponent of the view I discussed and published several papers on the topic, I did not feel threatened by the groundless accusations. I felt disappointed that he completely wasted my time and the resources of my institution that funded my trip by depriving me of the opportunity to discuss my research with academics who were actually interested in what I had to say.
1. I got engaged, and a senior male professor jokingly tells me not to “go getting pregnant now,” thinking he’s giving me good career advice. I’m pregnant the next year and have two kids before I finish my PhD, which I do in 6 years (earning two masters degrees along the way).
2. I’m at an international conference, out to drinks with some other students. One student goes on about how women can never be good at logic. I tell him he’s just plain wrong (telling him how I tutored two male students in my logic class because they couldn’t keep up as well as I could) and that ridiculous opinions like his do keep people from pursuing his specialty, to its detriment. As great as some of us ladies are, some of us would prefer never want to have to regularly socialize with asshats like him, even if it meant not pursuing logic as a specialty.
3. Same international conference, a senior person in my field casually tells me that I must be sleeping with my advisor. When I get angry and say hell-no, he tells me I protest too much, and that it must be true. I do not tell anyone about this for 3+ years, not even my spouse, because I am so upset that anyone would have the nerve to say something like this and, worse yet, that, if this douchebag has the nerve to say it, then others must think it is also true and believe that my only worth to my advisor is in my pants and not in my work or intellectual worth.
Thanks for the vent.
In order to solve the two-body problem, my partner and I once worked in a Scandinavian philosophy department, in a fairly small town. The day-today ‘low’ level sexism was quite appalling. In the year 2004, when I was appointed to a tenured role, I was only the second woman in the whole country to ever have held a tenured philosophy position, although no one but myself and my partner seemed to think this was a problem. Indeed, senior men in the profession used to write articles in the press about women’s biological incapacity for philosophical reasoning (too hard). Fortunately, we were lucky enough to solve the two-body problem once more with an escape to another country.
For various complicated reasons (some family-related) my partner and I chose to come back to this country for our latest sabbatical, although this time to the capital, which has a much better philosophy department (although still no women!). Although I was told I was very welcome, there was some concern expressed about the space limitations. To sweeten the deal I offered to give a guest lecture or two, and an agreement was reached, or so I thought.
When we turned up, my office space turned out to be shared with three others, located in the student activity area (ie, not with the other academics). But that is a relatively trivial matter, and not the reason for writing this story. I received an email from a young man who has recently completed his PhD who told me that he was looking forward to running a particular undergraduate course with me. ‘Running a course’? I assumed that because English was not his first language, he just had an odd way of putting things. After giving him referencing details for the two lectures I planned to give, the emailing started to get tense. When I wanted to make some slight adjustment to the scheduling of my two lectures, he responded by saying that as the course coordinator, I should be willing to be maximally flexible with my dates so as to ensure the prestigious guest lecturers that he had lined up for the course could have their preferences met.
Now, I’m no international super-star, but I am an accomplished philosopher with some kind of reputation and a respectable list of high quality publications in high quality journals. That’s really *quite* a lot more than can be said about most of the ‘prestigious guest lecturers’ (all local Scandinavians). And anyway, I thought I *was* one of the guest lecturers (even if not prestigious)!? After confronting him, it turns out that this guy had indeed been told that I was to coordinate the whole course with him, which would involve me doing a substantial amount of undergraduate teaching, administration and grading. He claims he was told about my teaching duties by the senior male philosopher with whom I had corresponded about the sabbatical visit.
Any philosopher from the U.S. or the UK who has spent any time in Scandinavia will know that they sometimes do things somewhat differently here. Certainly not all the oddities can be assumed to be sexist. But to expect someone on sabbatical who has agreed to a guest lecture or two to actually run an undergraduate course?! I don’t believe this would have happened if I was male, simply because I would have been perceived as a researcher, first and foremost, not a teacher, and, moreover, one of a standing that this department really should be quite happy to host. Needless to say, I am certainly not going to be running any bloody undergraduate courses!
I am a professor emerita of philosophy from a smallish university in the south. When I was preparing my tenure dossiers, my male chair, who had an (admittedly) awful mother and who treated all female faculty in his department as if they MIGHT really be his mother, did not help or encourage me in my tenure process; in fact he actively discouraged me. When I expressed some fears about submitting my dossiers, he looked at me with glee and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t come up for tenure.” Well, I did anyway and got it unanimously from my department, dean, university committee, and provost. During my years in the department he patronized and marginalized every female faculty member who joined us, going so far as to create a new master’s of philosophy that deliberately included only one course taught by the two female faculty. He and a male colleague taught 19 of the 44 courses offered in that master’s degree.
At a department symposium I remarked R. There was an extremely short silence, and then the discussion moved on.
Later on, favored young male philosopher recommended that we return to look at my point. Afterward several attendees congratulated the yound male philosopher for his clever point, which they were all in a position to know was my point, but I had disappeared from the discourse.
As you may know, Kieran Healy has recently conducted an analysis of citation data in 4 top philosophy journals over the last 20 years. The results pertaining to gender are striking: Of the top 500+ cited items, 19 (3.6% of the total) are written by 15 women.
As has been noted, it wouldn’t be surprising if implicit bias–coupled, no doubt, with other problematic valences, along the elite/non-elite, junior/senior, and anglophone/non-anglophone dimensions, in particular–were playing a significant role in this data, especially given how failure to cite can percolate.
Without attempting to assign distributive weighting to these valences, I want to anecdotally register one batch of ways in which citation blindness has played out for me over the years. I’ll then offer a couple of positive suggestions about what women (or others subject to problematic citation blindness) can do to try to ward off or push back against this sort of thing.
1. Every year I read or get papers to referee on “Prominent Male’s approach to X” which do not cite me (much less discuss me), notwithstanding that I was the first to present and defend this approach in print and have since written several papers on the topic. The priority issues here are slightly subtle; a few people were working on this approach at around the time my paper was written. But no one could deny that I was one of the ground-floor proponents of the approach (which contribution is, thankfully, tracked in certain encyclopedia articles and surveys); nor could anyone doing due diligence on the topic miss that I am one of the primary “players” here. The editors of numerous journals certainly know this well enough!
But again, I am simply absent from many papers on this topic. This situation is improving somewhat of late, in part because I’ve been fairly active in contacting people and telling them my little story. But what a pain (for all concerned) to have to do that.
2. This citation blindness has occurred even in cases where the author is well aware that I work on the topic. Once I gave a talk where I discussed and defended the view (mentioning, as I often do in hopes of correcting the record, my initial paper). Two people who were present went on to write papers on “Prominent Male’s view” that did not cite me; one of these was my commentator. I caught one of the papers before publication and contacted the author reminding them that I was also a proponent of the view; the author was genuinely shocked that they had forgotten to cite me, and did manage to get a footnote to me in the final version, along with the usual in-text justification for focusing on Prominent Male as the prominent proponent of the view (a self-fulfilling prophecy, to be sure).
3. It has not helped matters that Prominent Male has never cited my paper in any of his work on the topic, notwithstanding that he was (of this there is no room for doubt) aware of my work.
4. Again, citation blindness percolates. Given that Prominent Male doesn’t cite me, why should anyone else? And so it continues.
5. One last peeve: of the papers I read or am sent to referee on this topic that do not cite me, a goodly proportion raise objections to the view that I have already anticipated and responded to in print.
So, what to do? Here are three suggestions off the top of my head:
1. Make crystal clear in the title of your paper what your new development (or response to objection, or whatever) is supposed to be.
2. Subscribe to the PhilPapers ‘new papers’ stream and religiously check for whether papers on your topic appropriately cite you. Many of these papers are drafts or forthcoming, in which case there will often be time for the author to cite you, or better yet, take your work into account.
3. When you get sent papers to referee on the topic which do not appropriately cite or discuss your work, do not be shy about saying that the author needs to do so.
I delivered a paper at a conference that argued that a famous historical philosopher always qualified concept X with adjective Y. In fact, I used what I had noticed to solve a long-standing problem.
At the meeting, a male philosopher mistakenly maintained he had presented the same idea about X being qualifed by Y. Guess who is generally cited as the source of this now standard point. It is not I.