Although I have been a long time reader of your blog, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am, however, in a related field, and find myself interacting fairly regularly with philosophers both at academic philosophy conferences and over the internet. I would like to share with you the substance of an outrageous exchange I have borne witness to via a listserv I am subscribed to.
For those readers that don’t use them, a listserv is an email list where messages are sent to a large number of subscribers. Often, people have conversations with each other over the listserv via “reply-all” email messages (which means that everyone on the listserv ends up as a silent party to these).
Usually, my listserv has been generally apolitical and professional. However, recently a series of exchanges occurred that were very ugly indeed. The context of this exchange was that the candidates for prestigious graduate postdoctoral and graduate fellowships had been announced. Three of the fourteen positions had gone to female applicants. A female professor suggested that—given the large number of applications—female applicants were badly underrepresented in the small sample of successful applicants. Her concerns were rudely dismissed. But the manner of this dismissal is what shocked me. It revealed the side of professional philosophy that accepts casual misogyny and is dismissive of taking action against it.
In order to provide evidence of this, I’ll reproduce the important parts of this conversation here verbatim. I have removed any reference to any individual, the specific fellowship, or the specific subfield of philosophy. Remarks that I did not find offensive are not reproduced here.
“Has there been a year when the majority [of the successful applicants] were women? In the case of a confidential selection process, has there been a year in which the committee doing the selecting contained a majority of women? Apparently, whenever you start and whenever you stop counting, the count looks very similar from year to year, which is in itself interesting information. Why, when women are more than half the population and quite a bit more than half the students, would anyone claim to see any bias here? What sort of point is that to make?”
Male Professor #1:
“Dear [Female Professor #1], would you please consider to accept it as a matter of fact that in the field of [philosophy subfield] there are less active women than men?! If you want a quota reflecting this fact, three out of ten speakers should be women at the most. If you don’t like the fact of there being less women than men in the field, try to encourage girls and women to occupy themselves with it. No reason to annoy everyone with your foolish bleating all the time.”
Male Professor #2:
“Perhaps, [Male Professor #1], it’s condescending remarks (and worse) like yours that suggest the climate is not very welcoming?”
Male Professor #1:
“My remark was not very polite because it’s not polite at all to constantly accuse others of working against women in [subfield] while organizing conferences etc., which is very tiring.”
Male Professor #3:
“Facts concerning distribution of gender across a population should have no bearing on facts concerning distribution of abilities in [philosophy subfield] (and thus determination of meritorious holders of academic positions in [philosophy subfield]).”
The outcry that followed basically amounted to “stop talking about this – we can discuss academic politics at our yearly meeting.” Although other posters took the idea that women face systemic discrimination, the idea of questioning the selection process for the fellowships was not discussed.
As I said before, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am not concerned about the fellowships—I obviously have no stake in who gets them. But I know that these comments reveal a “blunt sexism” that I find unacceptably narrow-minded and dismissive. It angers me on behalf of the female philosophers I know—any of whom might find that similar sexist attitudes might cost them a chance at a fellowship someday—and I felt that I could, at least, share this outrageous episode with this blog. Academia, and particularly philosophy, should be capable of dealing with this problem than to tell a respected female academic (publically!) to “stop bleating”.
As I look back at what just happened, I’m confused. I don’t know what the “answer” is, if there is one, and I do not mean to shame anyone personally (although in this case I am tempted to think that this might be well deserved). I was just disgusted and after mulling it over, I thought I should submit it to you.
To some degree, I feel ashamed and foolish for not speaking out more than I did; I should have given a strong, all-caps retort defending the right of female philosophers to question arcane (and clearly sexist) selection policies. It all happened quickly, and I didn’t really grasp what was happening until the “bleating” comment came out (just like everyone else, I tune out boring email–like discussing selection policies–and just like everyone else I probably shouldn’t). That is a reason but not an excuse.
I hope that I can spread awareness about the unfair selection procedures for fellowships with this submission to your blog. Young academics need to be able to see what is happening behind the curtain, and in this case it reveals that sexism is surprisingly overt.
Archive for the ‘ignoring women’ Category
In an earlier post (“Avoid the Elites”) another person expressed their experience doing philosophy at a college that was not elite. While her experience is truly a breath of fresh air from the hundreds of experiences listed on this site, unfortunately it’s not guaranteed by attending a non-elite college. My own experience as a graduate student in a non-elite college was drastically different from hers and more in line with the other accounts on this site. (I wonder if this treatment differs based on education level- it’s easier for teaching schools to focus on developing female undergraduate students than it is for them to teach and encourage female graduate students. My own experience as an undergraduate student in philosophy at a different public university was certainly less hostile towards women.)
When I was a graduate student I found myself in two very disturbing situations. The first one occurred early in my graduate career. Our department hosted a conference and after the conference several graduate students decided to go out for dinner and drinks (this was a common occurrence). I joined them that evening because I wanted to get to know the other students in the department and there were other female graduate students who went out as well. After dinner and a drink I went outside to call a cab to bring me back to my apartment on the other side of town. A male graduate student in the department followed me and waited until I finished my call. Then he proceeded to grab me and forced a kiss confessing he wanted me. I pushed him away and told him off then waited inside the restaurant with the remaining graduate students for my cab to come. The male student pursued me and continued to badger me, reaching out and groping me whenever he passed by (and he made sure to pass by several times). The remaining graduate students were men and they didn’t say anything to him despite the fact they all observed the harasser wasn’t listening to my protests. Over the next several weeks the male student who harassed began sending sexual propositions via email and made several sexual remarks about me in the classroom before the professor arrived. I spoke to another female graduate student about the situation (as she had a problem with a male student before) in an attempt to get some advice on how to proceed. Our conversation was overheard by a friend of the male who harassed me and he reported parts of what was said to the dean of graduate affairs. He insisted that I was making the harasser’s time in the department difficult by creating rumors about him. A few days later I was approached by the faculty-student liaison and reprimanded for spreading rumors and making the department a hostile environment. This scolding occurred right near a group of philosophy graduate students. I tried to explain to the liaison the actual events which occurred that night but he said that wasn’t what he was told. He finally agreed to look into the matter and speak with the male harasser. I found out he never spoke with the male harasser.
My second experience occurred when I was working on my dissertation. I was assigned a junior faculty member as my dissertation advisor and mentor (because my topic was one he had recently wrote several articles on). In the early stages of writing my dissertation this male faculty member would meet with me once every month. About four months in, he stopped answering my emails and cancelled our previously scheduled meetings (usually on the day we were supposed to meet a few hours before the meeting). I wasn’t too worried at first because this male faculty member recently had some major changes in his personal life. It was only when I discovered that he become the advisor for three new male graduate students who were also starting their dissertation that I was concerned. Four months had already passed and I was nowhere near ready to write my prospectus. I continued to email my advisor and would occasionally get replies but they were vague and unhelpful. I looked at his responses (or lack thereof) charitably – obviously a result of his changing personal life. A month later, one of the male students he took on after me completed his dissertation prospectus and was well on his way towards writing his dissertation. In the month after that, another male student he was advising also completed their prospectus. I spoke with the second male student about how he found working with our advisor. He said nothing but praise and he even stated that our advisor would reply to his emails late in the evening and always wrote back to email within 24 hours. I continued to find strained communications with my advisor. I really didn’t understand how he could have time to work with two new students and get them to the point of completing their prospectus but he couldn’t even answer an email from me. I was at the top of my class and I had finished all of my degree requirements minus the dissertation. The other students still were completing the language requirement. I told my advisor in the beginning I wanted to finish my dissertation as quickly as possible considering my ABD status. Frustrated, I ended up changing my dissertation topic entirely so that I would have a renowned female philosopher at my university as my advisor. During my last year as a graduate student I discovered that the male junior faculty advisor I was initially assigned to had treated other female graduate students the same way he treated me. He ignored female graduate students when they participated in his class and he would not respond quickly (if he responded at all) to emails sent by female graduate students. He didn’t act this way with male students. I was very grateful and honored to have the senior female faculty member as my dissertation advisor despite the fact I had to drastically change my area of interest – so maybe it really was a blessing disguised as a curse.
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?
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.
I was at a bar with three colleagues, each of whom are a) male, b) my friends, and c) self-identified feminists. So there were four philosophers in a bar, at a 3:1 male-to-female ratio. The table was discussing a book that only half in attendance had actually read. Now, I was one of the two folks who had read the book. It should surprise you, then, to learn that for the life of me, I could not get a word in edgewise! 3/4 people were talking, and only 1/3 of those speaking had read the book under discussion, but every freakin’ time I tried to speak, I was summarily shut down, talked over, and/or ignored. I managed to successfully complete exactly one sentence, which was very directly dismissed by my friend. He blinked at me, then flatly ignored my comment, proceeding to respond to a prior comment from another male colleague. At that point I gave up. I was disheartened and sad to be treated this way by my friends. I picked up my phone, only to find that it was out of batteries, and tossed it back down on the table, frustratedly. One colleague took notice of my frustration and asked what was the matter, to which I responded rather directly, “Well there is nothing else for me to do at this table, and now my phone is out of batteries.” His response? “That sucks. So anyway, how was your weekend with [my partner]?” Shocked and appalled by this totally unnatural segue, I retorted, “We don’t have to stop talking about philosophy!” [implying of course: just because you're going to include me, now.] Totally unawares, he sincerely replied, “No! I really wanted to know how your weekend was!” He didn’t even realize what he had done. I aggressively voiced that I was bored (because nobody would let me talk about the book they were already talking about, which I had actually read!) and his response was to ask about my boyfriend.
All three of these guys are my friends, they are self-identified feminists, and they take themselves to be good allies. I’ll bet if I told this story back to them in another context, all three of those guys would be appalled. But from the inside, they had no idea what they were doing. That, to me, was totally shocking. And, I might add, really painful! Because you know, you get a little hope fire going in your belly when you meet (straight, white) male allies, and you think, “Progress! Hope! A way forward! Evidence of change!” And then you have these experiences that reinforce how devastatingly insidious the norms of gender and power are. And it just feels like you’re Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down on your again.
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.
One of the reasons that’s often floated to explain why there are so few women in philosophy is “Women don’t like the combative style.”
One of the things this claim misses is that male philosophers often don’t include female philosophers in conversation from the start. My experience in graduate school was usually one of simply being ignored: a group of male students is in the lounge talking shop. I walk up and join the group. The conversation stops. Or I chime in on a point and everyone just stares at the floor. I never got to be included in the combat, even when I wanted to take part in it.
Maybe the combat isn’t what drives women away. Maybe it’s that we don’t like feeling invisible.