I am a bearded white male with a PhD in philosophy who stopped working in philosophy departments per se some years ago. I left in part because of what I saw as the discipline’s shoddy treatment of feminist philosophy in general and my female colleagues in particular. Since then I have become a research scientist respected in another field.
Ironically, the fact that I did graduate work in feminist epistemology as well as in analytic epistemology has proved an asset in doing science. I oftentimes acknowledge my philosophical background in my professional talks, crediting it for my theoretical range and ability to write clearly.
Recently I had a female undergraduate student come up to me after a talk I gave. She asked me for advice as to whether to go to graduate school in philosophy or in my adopted field, and told me that she had been accepted to top programs in each. However, and when I enquired as to which schools she was considering, the philosophy departments she mentioned were programs known to me as programs intolerant of pluralism.
I looked her in the eye and told her that while I believed the situation in philosophy graduate programs had gotten better over the years, I said that based on my experience she would be likely to encounter a systemic tradition of sexism within the discipline and might well even experience sexual harassment in those programs.
I could see how crushing my snap reaction was for her to hear, and it made me instantly second guess whether I had in fact told her right thing. I felt this even more acutely when, on reflection, I realized I probably would not have offered the same snap advice to a male student.
She and I did manage to have a little more hurried conversation about the relative advantages and disadvantages of a philosophic education versus a scientific one, but in the end I am afraid I may have discouraged a bright young woman from entering–and perhaps helping to change–my old profession.
I hope she has the guts to enter it anyway; frankly, all sorts of people discouraged me from entering graduate work in philosophy on practical grounds as well–though never on grounds that had to do with my being male.
Archive for the ‘harassment’ Category
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?
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.)
I am a graduate student at a top university. It has taken me over a year to decide to write this. These events have not only hurt me on a deep personal level,compromised my chances in the field, and most importantly have made me question my philosophical abilities. I will recount not a single incident, but an series of incidents.
Two years ago, as a visiting perspective student I met the leading expert in my area and the most famous philosopher in the department at a welcoming party. As I approached with another male prospective student, he launched into a rant about how female philosophy students just tend to be weaker students and that he had a mind to start a tutoring team for female students in this department. When I suggested that the team should be available for anyone seeking help, either male or female, he emphatically replied that it is the female population that needs help not dropping out. When I met him in his office the next day, he continued on his point. Weeks later I was about to take another offer when the department secretary emailed me letting me know that an additional sum has been added to my package. I took this as a sign that that professor felt apologetic and really did want me to join the department and accepted their offer.
A couple of months into the semester, at a conference after party he leaned towards me and half asked, half suggested that my main adviser and letter writer at my undergraduate department (a famous philosopher) gets “chummy” with his female students. I firmly replied that has never been the case (and after 5 years at that department and many friendships with grad students, I know that that professor is a decent and good human being). He went on to insist that he is in the know and then put his arm around me. I just slid away and later told myself that the whole night was probably just a fluke and that he had too much to drink and probably doesn’t even remember it.
An uneventful year later, I was doing an independent study with him when he expressed enthusiasm about my idea and even said that it was publishable. Later, he placed himself very close to me and then touched my hand as I was handing him an article. I pretended that it didn’t happen and finished the meeting as usual. Later that day, I brought my fiance to the department party and introduced him around. He glared at me but didn’t make contact. After that evening, everything started to change. He started ignoring my hand during seminar, screaming at me in public, calling me incomprehensible to other grad students at bars and so forth. In the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day he emailed me saying that I have no future in philosophy and that “others agree” with him and so forth. I asked the chair whether there was an ongoing consensus on my philosophical potential amongst the faculty and he denied it to be the case. He then told me in reply to my complaint that he “cannot make a professor like a student” and that was that.(Incidentally, the chair was good friends with that professor and was also the one who put his hand on my lower stomach at a party and told me “don’t get knocked up” when I entered in on a conversation about preschools between him and another male grad student). Grad students started treating me differently. I remained in that seminar to stand my ground and show that I cannot be bullied. He was co-teaching this seminar with another elderly, well respected philosopher. One day this elderly gentleman asked this professor to give him a case of ‘X wants some Y’. That professor looked at me and said “He wants some young mail-order bride [from country Z]” and laughed (everyone knew, including him, that I was [from country Z]). Everyone started to laugh with him, including the elderly professor. I raised my hand and said “isn’t this example sort of inappropriate?” and the elderly professor replied through his laughing tears “oh excuse me” and continued laughing.
I recently attended a conference in Asia. Over the three day period, there were something like sixty talks. It was not a small conference. I was one of three or four women in attendance.On the way home, I noted that I felt good and that it had been an excellent conference. I found this odd, given the maleness and foreignness of the conference (this point about foreignness is supposed to pick up on the thought that one is more likely to feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar environments/groups etc.) I quickly realised that it had been the first conference I had been to where no one tried to have sex with me, or involve me in something, in some way, inappropriate.
Every single conference I have ever been to has invariably involved some guy (often older and more established) trying to get me to go home with him; some guy telling me about how lonely and sad his life is in some far off department a million miles from home – and I must feel the same way too (so we should go home together); some guy telling me that he noticed my figure, or my outfit whilst I was giving a talk; some guy asking me if I am sleeping with my advisor (because isn’t that what girls do?); some guy telling me I *should* be sleeping with my advisor; some guy explaining to me that the new female appointment in the department only got the job (over him) because she was a woman; some guy crying into his cocktail over the fact that his wife finally found out about the graduate student he’d been sleeping with (and now that the marriage was clearly over maybe I wouldn’t mind some too); some guy explaining to me that the only reason he goes to conferences is to pick up. The list goes on.
At the conference in Asia, no one seemed to be interested in the fact that I was wearing a skirt. And no one felt compelled to tell me about their romantic tragedies and personal problems. And no one tried to get me to go home with them. In fact, no one really tried to talk to me at all – and if they did it was about my work or the political situation in some Asian country, or something of the like. And this was a relief.
I left the conference feeling smart, confident and like a human being. I got good feedback on my talk, attended some good talks and met some nice people (that’s what conferences are for, isn’t it?) Instead of the usual ‘post conference blues’ where I feel disgusted, inadequate, dumb and convinced that if I were actually even vaguely capable someone would talk me to about something other than the fact that their wife wants to leave them.
All the following events happened to me, a woman in philosophy, with different people (some women), at different stages of my career as an undergraduate and graduate student.
I once found myself hugged by one of the professors I worked with, in his office. He wanted to be empathized with for the troubles he was having in his personal life: he said he needed “some love”. I was paralyzed by the surprise and embarrassment. Fortunately another student knocked on the (closed) door and he let me go.
Another professor frequently looked at my body when talking to me during office hours. I never knew how to deal with it, and it made me extremely uncomfortable, mostly because I suspected he was not paying attention to what I was saying.
I was at a conference with my partner, also a philosophy student. My advisor made sure to introduce my partner, who is not one of his advisees, to all the members of the admissions committee of a very good department to which my partner was applying. At the same conference there was a famous philosopher, with whom my advisor was on friendly terms. I was writing my undergraduate thesis on the work of this famous philosopher. I thought my advisor would introduce me, given how he behaved with my partner who wasn’t even his advisee, but I waited in vain. I therefore introduced myself to the famous philosopher and talked to him about my work (the famous philosopher—also, guess what, a man—did not really engage in the conversation, but answered politely to my questions with, more or less, yes or no). When I told to my advisor that I had introduced myself, he merely said “good job!” My partner was a man.
A different advisor often remarked on my outfits (in the presence of other students) and declared he was in love with me in an email. He was married and he sort of made clear it was a form of Platonic love. He did always engage me philosophically, but I refrained from seeing him as much as I would have wanted because I feared he would take it as a sign of romantic interest.
At a conference once I wore a summer dress that left my shoulders and part of my back bare. I later found out that some women graduate students and a woman faculty member berated me because of my “skimpy clothes”, through which I “debased the entire category of women”. They wondered how women could be taken seriously if they dressed like that. Admittedly, these quotes are second-hand. The faculty member works on feminist philosophy.
A male colleague once told me laughingly that a bunch of male graduate students were exchanging emails about my dissertation topic, which was so “feminine”. He did not seem to think for a moment that there was anything wrong with that behavior, or with expecting me to share his amusement.
Another male colleague, who had been hitting on me constantly and who had talked about my “boobs” in front of other male students, once asked me—again in front of other colleagues—why I presented myself like a “whore”. In the past, I had always acquiesced and tried to go along with the jokes (because they are only jokes, right, and you don’t want to come out as one of those party poopers without sense of humor). This time I coldly replied: “I don’t present myself as a whore at all, why do you see me that way?”. To my surprise, he shut up!
When I was at another department as a visiting student, one of the students there, with whom I had a fling, boasted to prospective students that among the benefits of the program there was being able to sleep with visiting students. I was right there.
I was once at a dinner with faculty members and graduate students, and during what I thought was a philosophical conversation, I made the mistake of mentioning, as a philosophical example, a detail of my personal life that routinely gives the impression to men that a woman is “easy”. After that, a faculty member started to mildly flirt with me, to my surprise and dismay. He stopped after I stopped saying hi to him in the halls, or acknowledging him in any way. For all that time, I felt guilty, as if I was the one who did something wrong.
Later on, in a seminar discussion, I made sure to make a similar point without using my personal life, but by using a sociological generalization. Still, what the men present in the seminar took home was that I was “easy”, and another faculty, during an evening out, made a joke about me that gave the impression that I had relaxed sexual morals. Other male students felt entitled to make similar jokes. I wrote an email to the professor, explaining why his joke was inappropriate. He apologized profusely. So that one went well! (It goes without saying that whether or not I am actually “easy” is irrelevant here.)
Once I was visiting my partner who was in a different PhD program. Prospective students were also visiting that department at the time and I joined them for a night out. I kept asking people about their research interests. Nobody ever asked me about mine. I was just his girlfriend, after all.
There have been many more events similar to this last one, which, more than sexual harassment in its various forms, arguably constitute the most damaging way of undermining women’s academic self-esteem: instances of subtle, widespread, and often unconscious forms of sexism. I personally experienced what so many women reported experiencing on this blog: a woman makes a point, sees it fall flat, and then hears the same point being repeated by a man and acknowledged; a woman is paralyzed by stereotype threat; a woman is rarely, if ever, asked to read or discuss a male colleague’s work; and so forth.
A final meta-reflection: it took me a long time—in fact, more than a year—to finish writing this submission. It was not because I had a hard time putting together anecdotes. (In fact, I left some out.) It was because I spent a long time worrying about being identified, and subsequently worked on making the submission as anonymous as possible.
My preoccupation with anonymity was not only due to the fear of backlashes in the professional sphere, but mainly due to the fear of disrupting some friendships that I still hold with some people mentioned in the post. After all, some of the offenders are still my friends, and this is absolutely unsurprising. Human beings are weak-willed, opaque to themselves, inconsistent, and prone to error. All human beings, men and women (and people who refuse to identify with one gender) alike! Many men who say something offensive and who slip into sexist behavior don’t mean it, don’t realize it, or can’t help it. They may regret it afterwards, but are unable to apologize. They may apologize, but then do it again.
My aim in submitting this post is, like everybody else on this blog, to share my experience as a woman in philosophy, and to highlight sins but not to point my finger against the sinners. Some sinners deserve to be pointed at, of course. Unfortunately, the worst offenders, in virtue of the gravity of their crimes, often go unreported and hence unpunished. But in my case, my main aim is to contribute to make my male and female colleagues aware of things that happen to women in philosophy, hoping that this will bring about awareness and change.
Blogs like this one should not be seen by men as a self-righteous “J’accuse” to specific (mostly male) individuals, but as an appeal to all people of good faith who want to improve the profession. As a post on the Feminist Philosophers blog recently reminded us, the status of women in the profession (and of all minorities, if I may add) is everyone’s business.
if someone harasses you, but you don’t want to report it to the authorities for whatever reason, at least tell some of the feminist men in the dept. Some of us are good at untraceable mild public shaming, and wish the field weren’t such a sausage fest.
My account brings not much new to the shocking posts I read on this blog, but mainly confirms that they are part of a wider structural problem. I did half of my first degree in philosophy. Prior to commencing my studies there, a female friend and previous graduate recommended the department to me, but warned me that I need to watch out for Dr X and Dr Y as they’d come onto female students. I never experienced any form of sexual advances myself, but during my time there I learned about several sexual encounters, affairs and occasional relationships between male lecturers/ tutors and female students. Generally (perhaps not in every case) I think this is an abuse of power from the side of the lecturers who are in charge of students’ grades and future prospects.
My former philosophy department had a similar set-up as many of the departments mentioned on this blog – exclusively male leadership, and out of the whole staff team only a couple of staff members were female. I was fortunate enough to at some point be taught by an excellent female lecturer, who had left the department due to department-internal conflicts (unknown to me, but they were between her and apparently several male colleagues) and ran her courses from a different department. Courses run by that lecturer are my best memories of my time in philosophy – I suspected that she never fully received the recognition she deserves.
In my final year or so, I asked on a department-internal online forum why there was no course offered on a prominent female or non-white philosopher – indeed, these were generally found only sparsely on our reading lists. On the same forum, several male student ‘colleagues’ posted some ‘jokes’ along the lines of ‘women to the kitchen!’. Then a prominent lecturer responded to my post, saying that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether a philosopher was male or female, white or black – all that mattered what the philosophical theories produced by them. He overlooked that his assertion was informed by a particular epistemological bias and completely unacceptable as a generalised statement. Furthermore, even in more maths-based philosophy as in the area he worked in, there is a case to be made for making sure that there is a women-friendly climate in general and women get the same recognition as men, so they feel supported to produce the best work they can. I was disappointed. As some others on here said, the most depressing thing is that these are supposedly people who are educated in equality & diversity, and highly educated in general.
As a graduate student, I changed subject and never looked back. I’m now often in strongly female-dominated working constellations – even though recently my (female, self-proclaimed feminist) supervisor told me half-jokingly, ‘Don’t get pregnant while in graduate school!’. This comes at a time when one of my colleagues is struggling with her department being unsafe for her pregnancy, and there are huge delays in making it safe despite repeated pleas from her (male) supervisor. Not that I’m planning to get pregnant anytime soon, but – ouch!
I’m a first year grad student on a philosophy programme where only 4 out of the 28 first year graduates are female. I studied Physics as an undergraduate, which had a similar gender-ratio so I’m very used to male-dominated environments. I have never previously felt judged, discriminated against or intimidated based on gender.
However, in the five months I have been a grad student, I’ve become peculiarly sensitive to the reaction of my male peers, who have frequently indicated that, first and foremost, I’m a girl.
To list some of my experiences:
1. At the end of a particularly challenging class on the history of modern logic, in which I was the only woman, a male student I had never met before approached me and began to explain some of the concepts that had been touched on. I had made absolutely no indication that I needed help, and certainly looked no more puzzled than anyone else in that class.
2. At our regular socials, the conversation is generally focused on philosophy or whatever people are specifically working on. We are primarily research students, and since we rarely attend class, do not know each other well. At these events, one of my male peers only ever talks to me about his romantic or sexual experiences. He talks to everyone else about Wittgenstein.
3. A male peer, who I also count as a good friend, never engages me in any academic conversation. Whilst he asks the men for their academic opinions on a talk we all attended together, he quizes me only on my love-life and my attitude towards sex. When I initiate a philosophical discussion, he patronises me and quotes Aristotle (for example) at me, even if we are discussing a subject that I specialise in, and he does not. The same ‘friend’ regularly flatters me with ‘you’re one of the smartest girls I’ve met, and you’re hot’, and has tried to kiss me, though he has admitted that he does not harbour any romantic feelings towards me. (To give some context to the attempted kiss: he was offering me essay advice at the time. Unfortunately, it is not possible to pass of the incident as a mistake at a party.)
4. Another male peer is in two classes with me, and yet he has never acknowledged me, either in a personal or academic capacity. I struggle to get my voice heard amongst the group of very confident and articulate men. Last week, I managed to make a few original points and actually engage with the discussion. This coursemate finally noticed me, and proceeded to initiate some small talk after the class. I then received an email from him inviting me out on a date. Clearly, if I am worthy of attention at all, it is in a romantic, rather than academic setting.
I am left with the overriding impression that to them, I represent a rare opportunity for a romantic dalliance with someone who at least approaches their intellectual capacity. I’m just intelligent enough to be good company, but not quite intelligent enough to be worthy of a rigorous philosophical discussion. To them, I am not their peer, an individual with individual interests, both academically and personally, but rather a symbol: a young woman in academic philosophy.
I have two small children and am pregnant with my third, and will be “on the market” for the first time this year. This means traveling to APA with my husband and two children (one is still breastfeeding), working out child care for several days of interviewing, and trying to find clothing that calls as little attention as possible to my pregnant belly.
All this is frustrating enough. But APA interviewing also means spending several nights up late, standing in uncomfortable shoes in a hotel ballroom, sipping cranberry juice while talking to tipsy prospective employers at that monstrosity we call the “smoker.” Has the injustice of this been sufficiently remarked-upon? All the literature on interviewing suggests that it is best done in a structured setting where each candidate gets an equal chance to speak and the effects of bias are kept to a minimum, so what do we think is going to happen when we conduct a second round of “informal” interviews, now late at night, over drinks, and in a dimly lit room? Those of us with small children or heavy sleep needs just need to deal with it, I guess. While I know that there are plenty of men who face these challenges as well, it is hard to imagine a better piece of evidence of the maleness of our profession.
But hey, look at the bright side: the only other time I’ve attended the smoker, I was hit on. This time around, my pregnant figure is likely to keep me from being subjected to that.
My department houses a distinguished sexual harasser who is relentless in his retaliation if confronted about his behavior. I have have witnessed and experienced his harassment first-hand and have heard numerous female gradate students tell of his hitting on them, even sticking his tongue down one’s throat at a party. His inappropriate behavior extends to staff and undergraduate students as well.
There exists a clear university policy stating that such behavior will not be tolerated and there also exist the trappings of procedure for reporting. However, because of the protection that tenure and stature in the field afford him, there is no true recourse and anyone who lodges a complaint becomes a target for a relentless and insidious defamation campaign.
When I approached my current chair to explain that this man’s endless complaints about me proceeded from past sexual harassment, he explained that the harasser’s professional reputation was an asset to the department and therefore a certain amount of collateral damage was acceptable.
In one recent post a philosopher claimed that she is in a department with a wonderful climate for women, which is nevertheless listed as “Needs Improvement” in this category in the Pluralists’ Guide. My own department is, bewilderingly, listed as “Strongly Recommended” in this category in spite of the presence of known harrassers and openly sexist profs who hold senior positions and/or positions of power over graduate students. Their words and actions are certainly surreptitiously mocked, but these individuals are never challenged in any meaningful way. I don’t want to say anything identifying, but I could provide you with countless stories of situations that have broken my heart and stories also of how complaints of graduate and undergraduate students – when brought even to “feminist” faculty members – are dismissed as things that we are powerless to change.
During my first two years as a graduate student I was the only female PhD student in a department with a single female on the tenure track (who also happened to be on maternity/sabbatical for two semesters during my first two years). In my second year a male student arrived who demonstrated a lot of negative and demeaning attitudes toward women, often objectifying them by relating information about the identity of their porn star twin. Perhaps the incident that made me most uncomfortable during this time occurred when he walked into a room full of our fellow graduate students (all male), and me, and loudly asked, “So, who’s ready for the gang bang?”
Not wanting to make any waves, I took to rolling my eyes and avoiding engagements (both social and professional) where he would be present. However, toward the end of that year I discovered that our incoming class of graduate students would include a few women. While I had put up with his behaviour to that point, I felt it would be irresponsible to knowingly allow other women to enter this environment without at least trying to protect them.
I worked up a little courage (the real kind, not the whiskey-induced kind ;)), and approached the chair of our department with a request that none of the new women be placed into an office that would be shared with this particular graduate student. I explained the situation in a rather vague manner, not wanting to get anyone in trouble, but still wanting to get my point across. When he pressed me for details I shared the “gang bang” incident with him, hoping that combined with my general description of his attitude would be enough.
In response the chair asked if there was anyone else in the department who could provide more details. Fortunately, a few of my fellow graduate students had assured me that they would back me up if I needed it.
I suspect the chair’s motivation came from some sort of desire to provide protection against baseless accusations. However, I do wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have these friends in the department. Would my set of stories have been enough to warrant any intervention? Further, what would his attitude be if I came to him with another concern, about another individual in the department? I clearly do not have much in the way of power here.
In the end, after a male colleague of mine went to him and insisted, the chair not only protected our new women’s office space, but he pulled this graduate student aside for a little chat. He framed the discussion in terms of “professional behaviour in a professional setting”, and while he did not name any names, it is difficult to believe it wasn’t abundantly clear that I (the only female graduate student around) was the complainant.
Regardless, that graduate student’s behaviour underwent a transformation, and he has since managed to constrain his baser instinct most of the time.