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.