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 ‘implicit bias’ Category
I’m becoming increasingly aware (as I move into the second half of my 50s) of what appears to be sexism or ageism, or perhaps both combined, among philosophy students, both male and female.
Here is some of the story.
Our main research-preparation Masters programme involves the student selecting an area of study to work on in detail with a tutor, two modules with two different tutors per semester. Currently all the Faculty in my department, apart from myself, are male. These male colleagues are generally overloaded with requests from the students to supervise their studies for the Masters programme, while students rarely if ever ask to work with me; and there comes a point when a preferred male colleague is so hard pressed that he tells the graduate student officer not to send any more to him. In a recent case where this happened, the graduate officer asked me whether I would take the student on, since the student wanted to work in an area in which I have up to date expertise and some research reputation to the level required. I agreed to take the student, but when the Grad Officer proposed this arrangement to the student, the student declined to do that topic and opted for a different topic that would justify him being assigned to a young and relatively inexperienced male colleague. This was a male student, one who had come from elsewhere and had never met me. Rather to the discomfort of the graduate officer, this student had apparently changed topic to avoid being assigned to me (distinguished senior professor) and to facilitate being assigned to a junior, relatively unknown though very capable, male colleague. It is hard to know what the reason for this move was, other than that working with a middle aged woman was distasteful, or that he hoped to be more lucky with getting a male supervisor for the topic if he postponed it to do in the second semester.
I think these events are becoming noticeable because I am now in a position of being very senior and (at least in theory, though not in practice) highly regarded in my field, beyond my own university and in the academic world globally, so it looks odd when a student refuses opportunities to study with me.
You begin to look for a reason. And then you begin to see a pattern.
For it is not that I have a reputation for bad teaching: on the contrary, after teaching my own Masters taught module for one of our interdisciplinary programmes, all the students on that module wanted to have me to supervise their dissertation. Yet at the same time there is a female PhD student working in my field, whose review at the end of the probationary year I served on. She had been experiencing problems with her first (male) supervisor, and rightly saw after the review that she needed to change supervisors to solve the problem, and that the advice she had received from the review panel was helpful, yet she insisted on transferring to work not with me (who has published on her chosen themes) but with the other (male) member of her review panel. Unsurprisingly this has not helped much, and she has recently been coming to me to get advice and support because her current supervisor is overworked and finds it hard to give constructive advice to his PhD students, particularly if he thinks that they are not making good progress.
Now I am marking the undergraduate dissertation of a student who took some of my UG modules before choosing his dissertation topic. The dissertation topic is in my main field of expertise, the one on which my own publications are globally recognised. After enrolling for the dissertation module, the student approached a young male colleague who works in a different area of philosophy to approve his topic and agree to supervise it. Once or twice during the preparation of the dissertation, the student consulted me for advice on matters of scholarly practice in the field (how to reference the works, what edition to use, whether some view was regarded as loony); now the dissertation is on my desk and the old question surfaces in my mind again. Why? And why are all my own publications on this field missing from his bibliography? Why are only two of the authors in his bibliography female, and those two are not philosophers but references to other aspects of context (the translator of some poetry in translation, and a historian of religion)? This is happening despite the fact that the students are taught by a woman for almost all their work on this part of philosophy during their undergraduate training, and yet immediately they want to do their research on it with a man, and to read the work of men. And yet, they do not think my teaching is bad. The student feedback is good. They enjoy and value their tutorials with me. It inspires them to want to go on and do more. That’s why they are choosing a dissertation in this field. So what is going on?
Is it that a woman teaching you in your beginner years is like a primary school teacher, who prepares you to go on to work with the more demanding stuff that men do, when you are grown up? Or is it that a middle-aged woman doesn’t provide the erotic charge that makes one-to-one work thrilling? Or is it that you know that a reference from a woman will carry no weight for your graduate school application or your research fellowship application? Or what exactly?
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 book review by a man, of several books in a row, two by male authors, one by me, i.e. a female author. Two books (mine and one by a male author) are revised Phd-thesis. For the other book, this is not mentioned at all. For my book, it is mentioned twice, in a belittling tone à la “we cannot expect so much from it because it is only a revised Phd thesis” (comparing it to another book by a male author that has a completely different focus). Sigh…
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.
Fairly recently, a colleague at a different university and I wrote a paper together and were invited to present our research at a well-funded, selective philosophy workshop on the topic. I am a theoretician, and my colleague is more of an experimentalist, and we were presenting joint work on some experiments that we had designed together but which my colleague had carried out. My colleague is very senior, extremely well known, and at one of the top 2 programs in the field. I am more junior (having then recently gotten tenure), at a top 10 program. (I was honored to be asked to co-author something, in fact. It’s great for my cv.) We both are in a branch of cognitive science, not philosophy.
At the meeting, we jointly presented our joint work with powerpoint slides my colleague had prepared: I spoke for about 20 minutes, and my co-author for about 20 minutes, and then we took questions. Here’s where we fell through the looking-glass: every one of the questions from the 10 attendees (9 men, 1 woman) was directed at me, the junior non-experimentalist. Almost every one of the questions (mostly about the experimental design, results, alternatives, etc.) would have been better asked of my co-author, and for most of them, I did indeed simply turn to my co-author and turn the floor over with no comment.
Afterwards, my co-author and I remarked on this shocking and bizarre behavior. By now I presume the reader has guessed that I am a man and my co-author a woman. QED.
Here’s the picture they paint of what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy: I’m sexually harassed by my professor in grad school. I somehow manage to get a job anyhow (probably as a “token” woman). I do twice as much service as my male colleagues. My students hold me to higher standards than my male colleagues. Somehow I manage to publish in good journals anyhow. But I am not invited to conferences (though some organizers might lie and say they invited me). My work is not cited, never anthologized, and not included on any syllabi.
It’s a wonder there are any of us left.
We are discussing two scenarios in seminar that seem to provide a similar result, and I ask how we can claim that the results are equivalent when there was no justification in one case for a belief about certain contents. Specifically, I said “This seems odd to me. How can we say that A “knows” what P means in the exact same way that B “knows” what P means, if A has no prior knowledge and no justification but B is a native speaker of the language that P is written in?”
A classmate responded with “you didn’t mean to say “know,” but that’s okay” and made a patting gesture with his hand at the side of his desk, slightly below desk height.
The professor entered the discussion: “Actually, I think that she inadvertently made a good point even if she didn’t mean to.”
I was still sitting right there. No one answered my question, and no one explained to me how I was using the word “know” in a way that was different from the way that my classmates were using the word “know” in the same discussion, or why it was appropriate for their claim but not my question.
I recently experienced an unpleasant dismissal by both a speaker and session chair at a major conference where I was a commentator.
The session to which I refer was divided into a number of pairs of speakers and commentators. My session was last, and I therefore had the opportunity to see how the previous speakers and commentators (all males) were treated by the male session chair.
As is the norm, the speaker usually responds to comments before opening the floor to questions from the audience. However, as soon as my comments were finished, without hesitation the chair began to accept questions from the audience, giving the speaker no chance to respond to my comments. This had not happened to the preceding male commentators.
At the end of each sub-session, the chair had asked the male commentators if they had further responses to make during questions and after the last question, and also made remarks pertaining to the content of the comments, which he mentioned he had read prior to the session. I was entirely ignored, and he had clearly not read my comments.
As I got up to leave at the end of the session, the chair acknowledged that he had forgotten to ask for a response to my comments, although he seemed to take this matter lightly and did not apologize. The male speaker said that this was fine. He himself had also never acknowledged receipt of my comments by email prior to the session. When my comments were alluded to sympathetically in questions from the audience, he dismissed them as being irrelevant to his main argument. In the course of verbalizing this dismissal, he managed to entirely forget my name.
Although this incident is comparatively minor, it was evident to audience members that I had been treated distinctly differently to the male commentators. Given that this was in front of a 90% male audience, it unhelpfully reinforces the notion amongst male philosophers that female philosophers need not be attended to as to their male counterparts.
This might have been easier to bear (though by no means lacking in blameworthiness) if the paper on which I was commenting had been worthy of my time. But it had been classified as a “weak acceptance” as it fitted well with the program.
I have mostly, and certainly recently, experienced considerable respect from my male colleagues – so this dismissal has served as a timely reminder (as though one were needed) that there is absolutely no room for complacency.
I wanted to share this story to show how the most subtle actions can communicate to women that they don’t really belong in Philosophy.
My partner (male) and I (female) are both Masters students in Philosophy with full scholarships at the same university. We often attend social gatherings together, and part of this is being introduced to new people and undergoing the social ritual of exchanging information about what we do for a living. With alarming regularity, these people turn to my partner and ask “So what is your thesis about?” … and then fail to ask me the same question.
In an even subtler form of gendered expectations, however, I find those who know better (including Philosophers) will ask both of us about our research interests, but they almost always ask my partner *first*. This is problematic in itself, but it further makes things difficult for me because our research interests are very similar (they are what brought us together) and I often end up in the position of having to say “Well, my views and interests are actually quite similar to X’s,” giving the impression that I do not have robust opinions of my own.
As a result of this, I often find myself marginalised in a conversation about my own research interests, in which most of the questions and comments are directed to my partner rather than to myself. (Sometimes because our fellow interlocutor hasn’t got around to asking me about my thesis yet, and sometimes because they have concluded that my partner knows more about the topic than I do.) In order to be an equal participant in the conversation, I am forced to jump in and answer questions which aren’t actually addressed to me. Needless to say, this is very frustrating and makes me feel as if I am not being taken seriously as a Philosopher with the same level of expertise as my partner.
I moved from a good UK graduate programme into a job at a small liberal arts college in the Mid-Western US. My students are quite a diverse bunch and about half of my students are Hispanic, African American and White students, and a roughly 50:50 male/female split.
When time for setting ‘mid-terms’ came, I asked what normally happened about anonymous marking. The department assistant didn’t know what I meant. ‘Is there a system to stop their name showing up on an essay?’ I asked. ‘But why would you want their name not to show up on an essay?!’ came the reply.
Suddenly I felt very far from home…
All-male shortlist, you are not alone.
It has also occurred to me that the only graduate students in my department helping organize the campus visits for our exclusively male candidates are women.
This isn’t a one-off thing. There’s massive gender inequality in departmental service work among grad students. The general sentiment seems to be that this is bad in principle. After all, we’re all feminists here. But changing it would be disastrous to the department. Most of the male graduate students are just too socially incompetent and disorganized to take on their share.
I studied [at University X] as a graduate student and returned a few years ago. My position was as a philosopher in another faculty, so I had only associate membership of the philosophy faculty. I started going to the moral philosophy seminars, held every week. To my surprise, despite being moral philosophy, there was only a minority of women in the audience, and often, few or no other women from the audience would speak. I tried to ask questions as often as I could, often being the only woman in the room to open her mouth. For months after first attending, I honestly thought there was a rule that, these seminars being intended for faculty members, as an associate member, I was only allowed in as a favour and therefore was not allowed to speak unless nobody else in the room had any more questions. It was only after some time that I noticed that anyone at all, not even just university members, was welcome to the seminars, that I realised this was just the way the chair did things – ignoring my attempts to ask a question. I tried all sorts of tricks such as wearing bright pink, sticking my hand up straight away, sitting at the front, in a pathetic attempt to get noticed. It improved a bit.
Last time I went, yet again, I was the only female audience member to speak (out of an audience of 40 – 50). I had started to take note of these things, so I noticed that the chair allowed each and every person who spoke to engage in dialogue with the speaker. But when I spoke, I had the by now half-expected reply ‘you don’t understand’. This has happened to me, and to other women I know, so often. I DID understand perfectly well, actually. But the chair then cut me off – I alone of all questioners was not allowed to explain my point further or engage in dialogue with the speaker. We were not running out of time – there was plenty of time to at least allow me to show that I was not some twit who was incapable of grasping the speaker’s paper. But no. In front of a room full of my colleagues and students, it was left that I had not really asked a question, or found a problem in the paper, or made a contribution to debate, I had simply NOT UNDERSTOOD WHAT WAS GOING ON.
I have come to the conclusion that there really is no more point in speaking at these particular seminars. The net result is that a room full of people just hear the one woman who spoke up being told that she did not understand the paper, and then being shut up. Silence would have been less damaging to my reputation, and to the reputation of women in general.
I am a senior woman philosopher visiting an ivy league college this week. While spending time in some of the local cafes, I have overheard (unintentionally) a number of conversations among students about material they must be encountering in their philosophy courses.
What interests me, as someone who is aware of the stories on this blog, is that the conversations — the three that I heard — all consisted of a young man giving an extended monologue on the subject to what were clearly his peers, usually an audience of 2 or 3 mostly *silent* others, always including a woman student. Now sometimes the woman of the group would comment, but only very feebly and very briefly. In fact the women I saw seemed quite awed and intimidated by the person giving the monologue.
What I found even more interesting was the fact that the remarks of the young men on, say, Plato’s Republic, though perfectly fine, were in no way so compelling to warrant such a rapt response from the women. (Having taught this stuff too many times, I guess I am a bit jaded.)
I guess the “female descent” (a term I read on this blog) is well in place by the time these women got to university.
I wanted to pull these women aside and tell them there was so much in that little social interaction that they needed to pay attention to. Instead I hope they’ll read this post!
A word to the fortunate who make it to tenure and then wish to apply for promotion to Full Professor. Please note that it may get worse as you try to go up the ladder. I was the first woman ever tenured at my research university, a place where numerous law suits had been brought by prior women, and settled. I came in with tenure as an Associate Professor, making it clear I would not consider being recruited without it. I made myself a promise that after 10 years I would apply for promotion to Full Professor. The department had not in fact promoted anyone for over 20 years at the time. But bit by bit we began to get our younger colleagues tenured. Numerous times, however, the other male Associate Professors applied to be considered for promotion to Full Professor and were told “Not yet”. Finally a male colleague, well-qualified but happening to be an old friend of the chair, was told he could go ahead and be considered. Arguably he had the least international reputation of all the Associates. But at least he was supported. I chose the following year to go forward. I was told by the Full Professors: “You are not ready. Write more.” It was clear to me that the lady was being asked to go to the end of the line, and that there were concerns about a younger woman being promoted ahead of the others, much older and wholly male. I knew that my C.V. looked in many ways much stronger than theirs and than the male who had just been put forward with unanimous approval.
I asked my colleagues what exactly I needed to produce, as I had published more pages than any other Associate, had more of an international reputation, more fellowships, more students, and more service. I was told “a few more articles or a book”. Nonsense. So I went to the Dean. Here’s where knowing the rules and speaking out is important. He said, “You don’t have a right to go forward.” I said, “I don’t need a right. I wish to proceed and will proceed. The Faculty Handbook doesn’t give the Full Professors in my department any rights either. So I propose this. I’ll be happy to go forward with a wholly negative vote from my department, let them vote this way. I would benefit from the appraisal of outside evaluators. Let’s see what they say about my research. And by the way, here’s the rule: You can say about me whatever you want. And I in turn will talk and talk and talk to everyone I know about how my case is being handled. I can compare my own c.v. with the one that went forward the year before, and it’s easy to see I look good by comparison.” Then I wrote my Full Professor colleagues in Philosophy a letter. I suggested that all of the Associates be put forward. And I made a chart, documenting the pages published, the citations, the talks, the evidence of international reputation – of all the Associates and the Full Professors as well (the Associates were in some ways outperforming the Fulls). Of course I was furious that I had to sit there doing the work of documenting my accomplishments and theirs; work that was, after all, what my senior colleagues should have done. But, knowing about the social science on bias, I figured they couldn’t even read a C.V. The chart made my case clear, so I went forward. – Although one or two of my senior colleagues voted against me, the majority in the end did, after seeing the documentation. And the outside letters were unanimous in praising my work. So I got promoted.
I have one colleague who will no longer speak to me and the climate is much more chilly than before. But that’s okay with me. What’s Caesar’s is Caesar’s, and what’s mine is mine. It’s not a club. It’s a promotion. And I don’t think they will ever try this again, they’ve learned their lesson.
Moral of the story: know your facts, and know the rules, watch the comparatives, make a chart, and speak out, if you need to, especially to Deans and others outside the department who have to work with general rules. Don’t think that you are part of a family, and don’t worry about embarrassing anyone, especially your colleagues. And don’t be deceived into thinking you are well thought of if you are treated as if you are everyone’s favorite niece. Until you are promoted to Full Professor, the rubber hasn’t yet hit the road.
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.