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.
Archive for the ‘Good news’ Category
This is in response to the call for stories of sexism being taken seriously. I’ve posted about this story here before so I won’t get into the details of the harassment. I will say that it was so extreme, I thought everybody must a) know about it, and so b) not care, given that it had been going on for so long. After a year and a half of kind of unbelievable harassment, which you’re fairly confident your colleagues are more or less indifferent to, you’re pretty despondent. But, about midway through my second year, my MA advisor, we’ll call him A, asked me to stay a minute after one of our meetings. A told me that another professor with whom I was close had relayed to him some concerns about my wellbeing, and did I want to talk to him? I was really surprised when he asked about it, to be honest. But I was close enough with A, and I knew that he definitely wasn’t close with my harasser, so I explained what had happened and how things were now. A was aghast when I gave him the details, and promptly thereafter things started to get fairly serious. I forwarded a swath of emails to A and to the dean, and over the next couple of weeks A accompanied me to a handful of meetings with the dean, in which we discussed my options. I was withdrawn from all of my classes with my harasser and he was basically given a university wide restraining order. In the aftermath I worried about what the Ws would look like on my transcripts (I was applying to PhD programs at the time) and about what my harasser might say to people about me. As for him, I don’t think the issue followed him around professionally in any way, or in any way affected his standing in the dept. I think the seriousness with which the matter was treated was a mater of protecting me from any more harm, and not directed at preventing this person from perpetrating these abuses again. It did come to my attention, in talks with A and the dean throughout this process, that my harasser was not a first time offender. So on the one hand, I think my department really let me down. On the other hand, I think A really stepped up and stood by me. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
While it’s important to raise awareness to the difficulties faced by women and other minorities in philosophy, there is a danger of scaring people away, as this recent blog entry exemplifies.
We should not lose sight of how culture in academia (and in philosophy in particular) has already changed for the better.
To exemplify, a few days ago I got offered (but had to decline, unfortunately, for reasons not to do with the conference or its organization) an invitation to a conference, where the organizers offered to find on site child care for my infant, and to schedule my talk to accommodate the fact that I’m breastfeeding him. They went at great lengths to make sure that the fact that I have a small baby would not prevent me from speaking at the conference. I am really impressed by the organizers, and I am sorry that I had to decline the invitation.
One woman’s response to the last post (since I don’t have a blog, but I do have a job in philosophy):
I’m sexually harassed by my professor in grad school. No. Did this happen? I don’t think so, but since there were only two women in my program, perhaps the sample size is too small to be significant.
I somehow manage to get a job anyhow (probably as a “token” woman). Oh yes (it was the eighties). Not only that, the all-male department I joined were delightedly high-fiving each other at having found a “suitable” candidate (read: from the same grad school as two of them). However, it can be satisfying to be hired as a token and go on to teach well, publish, and get tenure; since expectations are so low, everything you do that is competent is greeted with thinly veiled astonishment, then relief, and finally just seen as normal (okay, it took years, but it did happen).
I do twice as much service as my male colleagues. No, this is not permitted: there are departmental guidelines for each rank, and only full professors are at all likely to take on extra service.
My students hold me to higher standards than my male colleagues. Okay, this is true, but it is also the case outside philosophy. Men are perceived as more authoritative and knowledgeable, at least until they open their mouths. In fact, this is one of my stock examples of the difference between appearance and reality. With a little prompting, students will happily gave examples . . . . and then we’re engaged in a good discussion of confirmation bias, stereotyping, and other epistemological puzzles. Make their prejudices work for you!
Somehow I manage to publish in good journals anyhow. Yes, well, this is a tough question to answer straightforwardly, since I have a gender-ambiguous first name; what influence that may have had is hard to detect.
But I am not invited to conferences (though some organizers might lie and say they invited me). I have been invited, but after the first ten years or so I admitted to myself that I don’t enjoy conferences very much. Now I attend only infrequently and selectively (tenure is a beautiful thing).
My work is not cited, never anthologized, and not included on any syllabi. No, I get my share of citations, although my field is pretty esoteric even for philosophy — in what I now recognize as a thoroughly sexist way, I was wary of ethics and aesthetics as quasi-traditional fields for women and went into an arcane backwater of metaphysics instead.
It’s a wonder there are any of us left. Is it? I like my job, my students and most of my colleagues. I probably make more money and definitely have more job security than most women my age (57). Any male-dominated field is going to pose certain challenges, and I fervently wish that this site had existed when I was a philosophy major and a grad student. But don’t lose heart. The good life and philosophy are not incompatible for women.
In contrast to what the previous poster (who talked about the two body problem) said (though I am certain that this does not conflict with what she says; I simply want to note that in my limited experience, the big picture does not look as bad as it does at her school), I noticed that in the past two years at least four women I’ve known who were on the market ended up negotiating jobs (of some sort–some not TT) for their male partners. I can only think of one case of a man I’ve known negotiating a job for his partner, and in that case, the department made it quite clear that they were genuinely equally interested in hiring her. Of course, this may just be a function of who I know, etc., but I find it heartening both as a sign that men are sometimes now willing to play second fiddle (in terms of philosophical star power) to their female partners, and as a sign that at least some departments are serious enough about hiring particular women that they will figure out how to accommodate their partners.
I’ve faced two large-scale gender-related events in my time as a grad student: the first involved explicit bigotry, and the second involved sexual harassment. While they were extremely different kinds of problems, dealing with both experiences was quite similar: it was incredibly disruptive to my life and made me question whether I wanted to stay in the profession. In both cases, though, an amazing support network materialized to help me through these experiences. I had personal and robust support and mentorship from specific professors, and the overwhelming support of my department as a whole – both the faculty and the grad students.
In addressing both problems my complaints were taken seriously, I was treated with respect, and I was actively empowered in how both cases proceeded. While neither problematic behavior has been fully curtailed, I believe the philosophy department did all it could to intervene and to cordon off the impact of those behaviors. In neither case do I wish something else had been done by any of the people in my department who had power over these things.
Were these cases successful? My department did all the appropriate things, both formal and informal, to intervene. I’ve walked away with a robust understanding of university processes for dealing with these sorts of things, and I have real first-personal knowledge of the amazing support system I have. I’m still angry though – both at the professors themselves, and that I had to spend so much time and emotional energy dealing with this while my peers were developing their work and off giving conference talks. I’m not displeased that I gained this knowledge – I believe I am in a much better position now to be an advocate for myself, colleagues, or students who face similar situations – and I think this is important knowledge given the state of the profession. But it’s not knowledge that I can ever list on a CV or mention in a job interview, and it won’t help me in any official way. So, in many ways I believe these cases were successful, but it’s still a success that came with a cost.
Another post in response to this one.
At my department, there was this senior professor who was known to prey on young female students. His behaviour was often inappropriate. Many years ago (about 15 years) before I joined this department, one graduate student complained about it and was supported by a faculty member. The complaint was heard and the inappropriate behaviour was “punished” by lowering the merit rating of this professor for the year. Once the student graduated, he asked for the penalty to be reversed and it was. When I joined that department and was told that story, I was really appalled that the university cared so little. However, there is a happy ending to this story. Last year, this professor, now retired but still present in the department, had inappropriate behaviour with one of our graduate students. She complained about it. Luckily she did to that same colleague who, years ago, had supported the former graduate student through the process. He again did the same thing and took the case to the office that now takes care of such things. The retired professor is now banned from the building where we have our offices and cannot attend philosophy events. I take this to be a positive story because it shows that things have evolved a great deal, at least at my place.
This isn’t quite the kind of story the last post is looking for–but it is a story about sexual harassment being taken seriously by individual philosophers.
One of my professors has a standing policy that he could not in good conscience recommend some one for a teaching position if they sexually harass their colleagues, or otherwise significantly contribute to creating a hostile environment. If someone would like a recommendation letter from this professor, they should expect to have a serious conversation with him about equity issues and pedagogy.
Another of my professors has a standing policy that if multiple students make it known to him that a particular student makes them uncomfortable (by, e.g., hitting on them, regularly making sexist remarks, etc.), the offending student will not be allowed to participate in activities organized by this professor (reading groups, conferences, etc.) until the offending student is able to reconcile themselves with those they have offended.
These are relatively easy steps that individuals can take to start changing the norms of our discipline–and they are steps that have meant the world to me. Knowing that these senior, well-respected, excellent philosophers take equity issues seriously, has given me a lot of hope for the future of our discipline.
I would highly recommend that others start adopting similar policies, and make it known that they are doing so.
It is the end of the semester here at the large North American public university where I am an assistant professor, and I have some good news to share. We recently had our commencement ceremony and a (male) graduating senior and I were chatting about his experience as a philosophy major when he made the following comment: “In all the classes I took with you, you always included something from the feminist perspective or approach – even in your [freshman] class. I really like that approach. I really find it compelling. Once, after your philosophy of law class when we were discussing feminism, I sat in the quad and debated with my friend for like, five hours. And I said to my roommate as a freshman, when I was reading one of the articles you assigned, ‘Hey man, you’ve gotta read this. Did you realize every single philosopher we’ve studied up to now has been a white, economically privileged, able-bodied man?’ That totally blew my mind.”
Naturally, I was pleased, because I make a conscious effort to include this material, and I often get pushback in my student evaluations to the tune of “She has an agenda” or “She tries to push her views on you.” But you can’t mainstream something without surprising, and sometimes offending, a few people, can you?
After this particular interaction, I remembered that another one of my students, call him “D”, seemed to have had a full-on “conversion” over the past couple of years. He noted that before taking one of my classes two years ago, he “didn’t really think much of feminism,” and “didn’t think women really were oppressed.” By the following year, he stated that – and this is a direct quote “Catharine MacKinnon is my new hero.”
Finally, I just read a brilliant essay answer on the topic of Marilyn Frye’s classic piece “Oppression”. It was full of examples of women’s oppression, and showed an excellent sensitivity to the costs involved in resistance (including the possibility of retaliation, in the form of violence or other detrimental behavior). I was moved by the thoughtfulness of the writer. I was also sure the answer was written by a woman student.
So keep fighting the good fight. These young men are the next generation. And we can help open their eyes one person at a time.
Female junior faculty member here. I was recently harassed at a conference, for the first and hopefully the last time. The offender started out making what I thought was reasonable conversation. Then when no one else was around, he made a weird comment about my body and asked if I “work out”. I told him my physical appearance was irrelevant and changed the subject, but he didn’t take the hint. He started coming in to talks, shortly after the speaker had begun, and sitting next to me, so that it would be awkward for me to get up and move. He would try to distract me during the talk, and would also touch me on the back and shoulders. I wasn’t especially frightened, but I was annoyed–I was at the conference to pay attention to the speakers.
Another woman at the conference, who had been another of this guy’s targets, saw what was going on, and approached me during one of the coffee breaks. She asked me if this guy was touching me, explained that he had bothered her too, and encouraged me not to worry about being polite. “Just stand up and walk away when he sits next to you”, she suggested, so I started doing that. He finally got the hint and got someone to deliver an apologetic note, which I found an inadequate substitute for not bothering me in the first place.
I wish I had not waited so long to tell my friends at the conference (it probably made it more awkward for me that most of them were men). Once they heard what was going on, all of them were supportive: they believed me and agreed to keep an eye on the guy. But I particularly appreciate the woman who actively noticed what was happening and reached out to me. (She also made a bunch of smart points in the Q&A sessions, so she was just all-around winning at this conference.)
A positive story about women supporting women: I received news this week that I was granted tenure. My department chair (a woman) made a point of coming by my class and telling the students (I probably wouldn’t have told them). My class (feminist philosophy) which is all women (we are a women’s college) cheered and whooped. I proceeded to tell them stories for 10 minutes about the crap I’ve had to put up with as a woman in philosophy, from undergrad days through to the present. The next class I walked in find a bouquet of flowers on the desk and a lovely card about surmounting challenges, signed by all of them. I was brought to tears and told them how lucky I am to be surrounded by women like them. And I am.
Here is a positive story, for once. We are two female post-docs, both working in research groups in which we are the only women and in which not all of our colleagues seem to understand what it means to be a woman in academia. When one of us came to be a short term visiting scholar at the other’s institute, we shared an office. It was a real motivation booster. It made us feel less lonely. It helped us to understand some of the problems at our own institutions better by seeing how these things work in other institution. We could both expand our networks and also offer support to female PhD students. We did a peer coaching session in which we discussed one another’s work and publication strategies, which was really useful, despite the fact that we work in very different areas. There also seems to have been a positive impact on the institution at which this took place, because suddenly it was much more normal that there are women around, and because it showed everyone that people who are otherwise very different can share a feminist perspective (so it might, after all, have a point, right?).
So if you have the opportunity, visiting fellowships can be a really valuable experience and help to create female networks, in addition to having many other benefits. For department chairs who might read this: if you have few women in your department, consider inviting female visiting scholars. Of course this is more difficult if women are mothers, but you might consider either bringing your family or splitting the visiting period into several short visits, going back and forth. With a bit of creativity and flexibility on both sides, a lot is possible – and it can really make a difference!
I wanted to write to thank you for this website. I’m a young male philosopher, with a partner who is a woman in philosophy. Going through graduate school together, there would be times when my partner would report some of the sorts of situations that this blog has done such a good job of bringing out: remarks that made her feel undervalued or like she was not being taken seriously as a philosophical interlocutor, and occasions when her remarks and arguments would be passed over, or attributed to others. It is embarrassing to say that my natural reaction to those conversations was to find some alternative explanation that did not invoke the climate for women in philosophy. I’m not sure why I tried to do this, but I think it was a misguided attempt to ‘think the best of people’ (an instinct one can only have, when coming from a position of unrecognized privilege). Reading this blog over the last few years has helped to change my perspective on these things. Seeing her experience in the context of the pervasive patterns reported here has opened my eyes to many instances of unfairness that I used not to notice. I don’t know if the climate for women in philosophy is getting better. I hope that it is. I do know that this website has helped me to recognize the experience of my partner and, I hope, to be more supportive.
I am a woman in the Philosophy department and I LOVE being apart of it. Yes, I do confront my days of feeling outspoken or not up to par with my fellow classmates (who are predominantly male); however, I attribute this to my own insecurities and misunderstandings–NOT to the men in my department. If anything they have done nothing but help and encourage me with my assignments and class participation. I have even had males offer to continue a discussion after class with me so that they could hear my ideas outside of the classroom where I don’t feel as nervous speaking my ideas. I have met with many of them and so have the other women, and they are very open to understanding what we have to say. I know I’m intelligent and I know that the men in my program recognize that; therefore, they are willing to support me and hear my ideas where I feel more comfortable discussing them. My problem in the classroom is my confidence in my ideas, and working up the courage to voice them. I would attribute this problem to myself, not those in my class or the dynamic of the classroom. I feel as though everyone in my department/class is incredibly brilliant and intelligent and I want them to be intrigued by what I say, which makes me feel pressured to deliver my ideas in a thorough and appealing way. Advice to anyone struggling in class with the males: they are very open to well-intentioned brainstorming!!! If you’re repelled by the arguing, it doesn’t mean you have to join in, you can simply ask them to further explain or re-explain. Just because there’s an argument happening doesn’t mean you have to partake in it, you can merely act as an obstacle within it. A piece of advice to those in lower level classes: If you feel as though you aren’t grasping or understanding the material, I can firmly assure you that you’re wrong–anyone can understand Philosophy! I am in my final year of Philosophy, all advanced courses, and I still get that feeling..yet I have a remarkable GPA…how so? I take the time to get a good grip on material by understanding it through outside sources, and I make an effort to form academic-relationships with my classmates and professors…teamwork makes the dream work! Push yourself and you’ll discover that just because your initial feeling is negative, that doesn’t have to set the stage for the latter. I also believe that we need more encouraging posts about women in Philosophy because we need to further support women entering the field if we would like to see a change.
I wanted to share my experience of getting pregnant while in graduate school for philosophy. When I got pregnant, I worried that I might be taken less seriously, or seen differently by my community. Literally every professor in my department, however, reacted positively to news of the pregnancy. Young professors began sharing stories about their children with me. Older professors without children were curious and solicitous about the process. I was gifted with used baby clothes and toys. Although I continued my work steadily through the pregnancy and afterwards, I was often reminded that it would be fine if I slowed down and was several times reassured that no one would think less of me for doing so. I realize that I am lucky to be part of a supportive intellectual community. I share this story because I think it’s important for people to know that such communities do exist, and that some of the women in our discipline are having experiences like this.
As a grad student I was taking the required philosophy of language course. At some point during the course I asked my professor about feminist epistemology. He laughed, out loud and said that women’s brains worked just like men’s. Because it was an honest question, I took his answer at face value.
Fast-forward several years — I was working on my metaphysics/epsitemology area paper. The thesis was flawed, but I was having a hard time seeing it and this same professor was giving shallow comments and telling me to work on it more. A (new) feminist philosopher who had been hired since I left the area pointed out the flaw in her first set of comments. I promptly ditched the paper all together and asked her if she’d work on a feminist epistemology paper with me. She did, I wrote it and I got it passed in a matter of weeks (the M & E paper I ditched had been going around for a couple of YEARS), It was no coincidence that the rest of the M & E committee read it while the phil language guy was out of town…
Moral of the story, if you’re a woman in a position to help another woman by giving her your full professional attention, do so. I would never have completed by dissertation without her help.
Hi, I’m a male undergraduate philosophy major, just getting started. I’m a returning student who spent the years between high school and university focused on political activism, much of it around feminist issues. I’m not always perfect but I strive to be conscious.
Anyway, I thought by picking philosophy as a major, I’d be getting away from ‘bro culture,’ especially once I got to grad school and left behind the frat boy marketing majors taking lower-division philosophy courses for their required humanities credits. It’s disheartening to read this blog and see how naive I was being. I’m glad I found it though, as it’s making me feel determined to stay on point about being a feminist ally as I move on in the field. Thank you for helping all of these people share their stories. I’m subscribing to the blog, so that I have a constant reminder of the standards I want to live up to.
I’m a mid-career female philosopher, fairly well-known in my sub-discipline. I’d like to share a couple of reflections on recent conference experiences.
1. When I meet people for the first time, quite often they confuse me with other mid-career female philosophers in my sub-discipline: they think we’ve met before, or that I wrote that nice paper on X. (Sometimes I like the thought of that amalgamated super-woman who has written so many nice papers!) Tips for interlocutors: when corrected, a good response is to apologise, to say how great that other female philosopher is, and then to ask me about my work. A bad response is to insist that I am confused about whether we’ve met before, or whether I wrote that paper.
2. More and more I find there’s an open sense of solidarity between women (of whatever career stage) at conferences. I really like the social aspect of this and also the sense that we can talk about gender issues in the profession for a while, alongside conversation about philosophy, or gossip, or life in general, without feeling that there is any conflict between these different concerns. I think the profile of this blog, and its siblings, has really helped with that. So thanks!