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 ‘Maleness of philosophy’ Category
I was accepted into a Masters program that did not accept many women. Several of the faculty thought that women had no place in the discipline. I happened to be in a class of almost all women, who were selected by a dissenting group of faculty in an attempt to balance the student population.
During my first year, I was told explicitly by one of my professors that I should not be in a philosophy graduate program since, “Philosophy requires reasoning, and women are irrational.”
The incoming class that followed my group consisted of about 15 students, all but one of whom were male.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this school did not accept my application into its doctoral program, even though two schools of higher ranking did (thank goodness!).
I 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.
In order to solve the two-body problem, my partner and I once worked in a Scandinavian philosophy department, in a fairly small town. The day-today ‘low’ level sexism was quite appalling. In the year 2004, when I was appointed to a tenured role, I was only the second woman in the whole country to ever have held a tenured philosophy position, although no one but myself and my partner seemed to think this was a problem. Indeed, senior men in the profession used to write articles in the press about women’s biological incapacity for philosophical reasoning (too hard). Fortunately, we were lucky enough to solve the two-body problem once more with an escape to another country.
For various complicated reasons (some family-related) my partner and I chose to come back to this country for our latest sabbatical, although this time to the capital, which has a much better philosophy department (although still no women!). Although I was told I was very welcome, there was some concern expressed about the space limitations. To sweeten the deal I offered to give a guest lecture or two, and an agreement was reached, or so I thought.
When we turned up, my office space turned out to be shared with three others, located in the student activity area (ie, not with the other academics). But that is a relatively trivial matter, and not the reason for writing this story. I received an email from a young man who has recently completed his PhD who told me that he was looking forward to running a particular undergraduate course with me. ‘Running a course’? I assumed that because English was not his first language, he just had an odd way of putting things. After giving him referencing details for the two lectures I planned to give, the emailing started to get tense. When I wanted to make some slight adjustment to the scheduling of my two lectures, he responded by saying that as the course coordinator, I should be willing to be maximally flexible with my dates so as to ensure the prestigious guest lecturers that he had lined up for the course could have their preferences met.
Now, I’m no international super-star, but I am an accomplished philosopher with some kind of reputation and a respectable list of high quality publications in high quality journals. That’s really *quite* a lot more than can be said about most of the ‘prestigious guest lecturers’ (all local Scandinavians). And anyway, I thought I *was* one of the guest lecturers (even if not prestigious)!? After confronting him, it turns out that this guy had indeed been told that I was to coordinate the whole course with him, which would involve me doing a substantial amount of undergraduate teaching, administration and grading. He claims he was told about my teaching duties by the senior male philosopher with whom I had corresponded about the sabbatical visit.
Any philosopher from the U.S. or the UK who has spent any time in Scandinavia will know that they sometimes do things somewhat differently here. Certainly not all the oddities can be assumed to be sexist. But to expect someone on sabbatical who has agreed to a guest lecture or two to actually run an undergraduate course?! I don’t believe this would have happened if I was male, simply because I would have been perceived as a researcher, first and foremost, not a teacher, and, moreover, one of a standing that this department really should be quite happy to host. Needless to say, I am certainly not going to be running any bloody undergraduate courses!
I was on the job market this year. I was told (more than once) by our placement director that if I got a job that would show that “the department should admit more female grad students.” Nothing was said of my abilities or accomplishments.
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.
When I was in graduate school, there were a lot of fellow male graduate students who interacted with male faculty members at the university gym by playing handball, squash, or other sports. Back then these men all also smoked, sporting pipes or cigars—yes, classes were very “atmospheric” in that time. There was an unofficial entrée into group membership through this “jock” route that was just not open to female grad students, although we did have one member of our group who competed well, and was well-regarded, in squash. These men also regularly exchanged stories about which TA or professor was bonking which attractive undergraduate.
The pattern continued when I was a junior faculty member at a place where the men prided themselves on various athletic accomplishments—at this time it happened to be swimming and diving. Again, one female faculty member managed to “fit in” to the group by being a triathelte. I have never been into sports or athletics, and always sort of felt that males in philosophy were more or less trying to prove an already lost cause by showing how masculine they could be at sports. Now, I find myself in a department where male faculty members and graduate students bond over softball, soccer, and other sports activities, once more leaving the women out. I hate to be a wet blanket and criticize these nice forms of exercise and friendship, but when by chance or reason of taste, habit, and also particular abilities/disabilities, such activities and get-togethers serve to leave out the women grad students and faculty members, what is to be done? It just won’t do of course to organize women’s needlework groups, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t do sports for reasons of my personal physical limitations, and I actually find them distasteful. I don’t begrudge the men their fun, but it simply never seems to occur to them that their soccer and beer times together DO create a male club that excludes women. Even though I am in a position of authority, I feel once more I simply can’t cope with what I personally regard as somewhat silly and exclusionary activities. Even if a couple of women junior faculty or grad students do turn out to want to join in, why should sports activities be such a crucial means of bonding for the profession of philosophy?
Just saw the list of candidates my department is bringing in for an on-campus interview. All male. We’re an affirmative action employer. I am currently wondering why I’m bothering to get a degree
Yesterday I attended my first conference-planning meeting at my home institution.
When shall Z, a reknowned scholar, speak? Between 6 and 8 pm. A discussion will follow and a dinner will follow the discussion.
“Why so late?”, I asked, given that there is no way I can not be at home at 6 pm on a Tuesday night.
“So that everyone may attend”, was the general answer.
“Everyone” just means “everyone like us”, i.e., a (preferably single) man, with no family duties.
Out of the researchers in my institute, 25% alone are women. Among them, only two (me included) have children. Thus, I imagine that no one thinks he needs to worry about us.
But after years of lectures at 6 pm, or on Saturday morning, with long discussions and dinners following them, I wonder:
Is it that women with families are not enough to have their voices heard?
Or is not it the case that there are not enough women with families in the academia because there is no way for them to find a balance between the two worlds?
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.
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 am a female grad student in a top-15 philosophy department that offers a chilly environment for women and minorities. The faculty male-to-female ratio is worse than 80-20, there are zero people of color on the faculty, the number of female grad students who leave the program before finishing vastly outpaces the number of males who do the same. I could go on.
During this year’s week-long prospective student visit, I have decided that I will be forthcoming with female prospective students about the environment here. I have hesitated to do so in the past because I wanted encourage diversity in the incoming class. But as a woman who, as a prospective student, had the luxury of choosing between several top programs, I cannot in good faith recommend this department to others. Quite frankly, my experience here has been devastating. I wish this on no one else.
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.
As an undergraduate, I took a seminar where, in one class, the topic of moral relativism arose in discussion. There were only two women in the class. One of us (it might have been myself) used the example of female genital mutilation in some cultures, arguing that a practice as horrifying as that had to be universally wrong. The men in the room, including myself, started arguing aggressively about this point. Finally, one of the women spoke up: “Could we maybe pick a different example?” I hadn’t thought about it, but it later it occurred to me how uncomfortable I would have been in a room full of women vociferously arguing about cutting up male genitalia.
I’m the only woman in my department. We recently hired two men, one tenure track, one temporary. At a department meeting before they arrived, we discussed who would “take responsibility” for each of them — be a mentor, show the person the ropes, talk to them about their work, etc. Somebody said, “you know, like we did for persons A, B, and C when they got here.” A, B, and C are the three men who were hired at the same time as me (about 5 years ago). I tentatively asked, “Who was my mentor?” because I don’t remember anyone helping me out in that way. Everyone looked surprised as though it had never occurred to them that I should have a mentor. I do remember a discussion at the end of my first year, when my department chair said that if I wanted some mentoring I was free to contact a female professor in English. She was their department chair and “very busy”, but maybe she’d be willing to talk with me. Needless to say, I did not follow up on that half-hearted suggestion. Maybe I should have, but there would have been no overlap in our research interests. I did manage to get tenure last year, but now I’m watching a 1-year hire be wined and dined by his philosophy mentor, and it’s making me pretty angry about the disparity in treatment.
Message: Now a full professor (in an enlightened department of three women and one man), who teaches feminist philosophy, I’ve been sitting on this one since it happened: In 2000 I was interviewing for jobs for the first time. I visited the University of X for an on campus interview – met with students, taught a class and gave my talk to the dept. I was sitting at the head of the table looking out at all the men – there was one female graduate student there,that’s it. I finished my talk and the questions began. The professor who I would have been replacing raised his hand and said “So…we haven’t had a woman teach fulltime in the department for 40 years, why should we hire one now?” Absolute silence, no one said a word. Rather than saying something clever like, “you clearly shouldn’t as you are not ready” and leaving the interview, I stammered something about perhaps this would help their enrollment,as I would have liked to have had a female role model when I was an undergrad. To this he replied “Well, if we want to recruit more female students why shouldn’t we just hire some hot, young guy?” I was totally flummoxed by this point and just trying not to a)yell or b) cry as I knew either of these actions would reinforce his ideas about women – and I was quite convinced this was the action he was trying to provoke. Again, NO ONE at the table said a word. Needless to say, I did not get the job, and to add insult to injury, they made that distinguished professor drive me back to my hotel where he told me “you did okay, kiddo”. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I don’t know if the guy they hired was young and hot.